Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Does This Button Do? - White Balance

Many people want photographs that are, in essence, memory aids.  "Hey, there's a shot of Little Jack's first birthday!  Remember that?"  For things like that a camera that does most of the thinking for you is perfectly fine.

But when you start thinking about doing photography as art, you need to start taking control of your camera.  I haven't met a dSLR yet that doesn't let you control the features I'm going to highlight.  I haven't met a pocket camera that really does let you control all those same features.  But I do see that that is changing.  For example, about two weeks ago I got a new cell phone and the built in camera lets me adjust the ISO and the white balance.  I can't, however, set the shutter speed or aperture. 

Many of the topics I'll be covering are interconnected.  For example, the faster the shutter, the wider your aperture will need to be (especially when you're shooting hand-held - without a tripod).  But this one is independent of everything else in your camera and one of the last ones I got any kind of real understanding of.  (Okay, not *completely* independent - on most cameras you can only select what you want when in Av, Tv or Manual.  When you use a preset, it also presets this one.)

White Balance.

I remember as a kid, my dad had these cards that were various shades of white - some were grayer, some were more tan.  When I asked what they were for he'd say they were for setting the white balance.  I, being a wise-acre, wondered how the white got off-balance - white was white after all, right?  Otherwise it was gray or tan or something not white.  So never really paid attention to that when I was shooting on film.  I'm also pretty sure I never owned a camera good enough account for the light temperature anyway.

So what is white balance? Basically, it's this: the light in different environments has different temperatures, which has nothing to do with the air temperature.  Your camera needs to know what white should look like in different situations.

Most cameras have a range of presets that will cover most shooting locations.  Outside you get Sunny, Cloudy or Shade.  Inside you get Incandescent Lights (old-style 'regular' lightbulbs), Florescent Lights or Camera Flash.

Most have a custom setting, but I've never needed to use it.

There's also an AWB - Automatic White Balance.  That means that camera checks out the lighting and takes it's best guess.  Sometimes this works fabulously, other times less so.

Here's the short version:  When your white balance is off your shot skews towards one color or another.  White is no longer white. Your picture may have bluish cast in shadows or a yellow cast or a red cast under certain lights.

Like this:
Believe it or not, these flowers are white.  Plain white.  Like that paper you use in your printer white.  Like the background of this blog, white.  But I was shooting with the wrong white balance.  Unfortunately, for as much meta-data as my camera captures and my post-production program will show me, all it says is "Manual White Balance Selection."  So I'm not 100% sure what I was set on, but I think it was set for "Sunlight" when, in fact, I was under incandescent lights.  Bad, dim incandescent lights.

The good news is, this is pretty apparent when you look at your picture in your LCD screen.  I could see right away that these were awfully yellow and adjust the white balance.

Once I did, I got the same shot with accurately white flowers.

Our eyes adjust the 'white balance' naturally, but our cameras can't.  I found that with the abysmal lighting conditions of this particular show, some of my shots actually looked better when I told the white balance I was outside shooting in cloudy weather.  When you have odd lighting, the best thing to do is to experiment.  If you really are outside in bright sunlight, the camera should be able accurately adjust under the "Bright Sunlight" setting.

The AWB setting is very helpful if you're going in and out of various lighting conditions, but if you know you'll be shooting in a given setting, taking control of your white balance can save you a ton of time correcting it in post-production when you realize nothing in your shot is actually white.

Comments?  Questions?  Corrections?  I'd love to hear what people think of posts like this instead of just, "Hey look, I took a picture of a thing!"

No comments:

Post a Comment