Be A Photographer, Not a Logistician
For most photographers, white balance is a subjective decision, and for other photographers, white balance isn’t even a
second thought as they leave their camera on AWB, or automatic white balance mode, something I never recommend at a my photography workshops, letting the camera make that decision for you. Yes, I recommend you avoid the automatic white balance setting on your camera and it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in RAW or high-JPEG mode—it’s about getting it right in your camera not in post production; sometimes that means you have to “trick” your camera into doing what you want it to do, not what the engineers have programmed it to do logically.
When your camera is in the automatic white balance mode, the scene you’re trying to capture is analyzed during the exposure and calculations are made by the camera’s engineered software, in a fraction of a second. A great way to test how good your digital camera’s automatic white balance is, place your camera on a tripod, make sure it’s not on a fast motor drive mode, and capture at least a dozen frames of the same scene—you’ll probably find some of the frames are identical when it comes to the final white balance, and some are slightly different.
This happens because the end result is based on camera manufacturer proprietary software. This software interprets, or interpolates the light captured as it sees it in that split-second based on approximation algorithms. Approximation algorithms do their best to come close to the true solution they are programmed to achieve through interpolation, so results can vary from frame to frame for the same scenario when the camera’s shutter is released.
While this interpolation is usually very good, one problem is that the auto setting can actually neutralize colorcasts that you want in your photos, such as the sweet, warm qualities of the Golden Hour light. Some cameras are getting smarter like the Olympus OM-D, EM-1 mirrorless camera, which has an option to “keep the warmth” in the automatic white balance mode. However, many cameras do not have this option and this is why I recommend you capture your images in the manual white balance mode, or one of the camera presets like shade, cloudy day, incandescent, flash, etc. These are exact white balance color temperature numbers, not just approximation algorithms.
There are a few exceptions where I’ll recommend that you let the camera do the work for you in the automatic white balance mode, especially one-time events that are hard to recreate like your child’s birth, or birthday party. Then there are events, especially if you are a professional photographer, like a wedding, where hopefully you’re experienced enough in photography plus color temperatures of light to do it by the numbers and not in the automatic white balance mode.
As a professional photographer, I like to program the exact number of the color temperature I’m after, not let the camera tell me what it thinks is best based on an approximation algorithm. A camera is designed to allow me to capture what I want to create, but the default design, by engineers, is to create and capture what they think is logically best. I’m a professional photographer, not a logistician and it doesn’t matter if I’m shooting RAW or JPG format, I want it right in the camera upon capture. A professional photographer takes charge, and the only charge a camera should carry is in its battery.
On a normal basis, my camera’s white balance is manually set at 6000K, or 6000 Kelvin. Kelvin is how we measure the color temperature of light, and for most photographers, the only real Kelvin numbers we need to remember are 3200K for tungsten or incandescent light sources; 5000K to 6000K which represents most daylight situations during the middle of the day, and 5400K which is the temperature most top of the line studio flash units produce.
When I use the 6000K manual white balance setting on my digital camera with daylight or studio flash conditions, I’m basically tricking my camera into believing the light is slightly cool, similar to light on a cloudy day or light under open shade. This causes the camera to adjust the white balance correction to exactly what I’ve programmed into it, thus it naturally adds more yellow and red, or warmth, to compensate for the coolness of the light.
The camera technically is no longer analyzing the scene like it does in the automatic white balance mode. The camera is using the exact number I’ve programmed into it, so it’s not looking to make a given white, white. In automatic white balance mode, the camera is programmed to ensure a given standard white, 100 IRE, is reproduced as that given white under any lighting conditions. That’s all the camera is doing, making sure 100 IRE white stays 100 IRE white. While this is great in most situations, it’s the wrong white balance mode in Golden Hour light conditions, or in the studio with electronic flash units.
In the case of working in the studio with studio flash units, most studio flash units have a modeling light that is actually incandescent, or approximately 3200K in color temperature. In automatic white balance mode the camera only sees that light, not the color temperature of the flash, thus, when operating in this automatic white balance mode in the studio, the algorithms will adjust the color correction to the modeling lamp, not the flash, resulting in slightly blue, or cool colored results in your photos. As a minimum when working with studio flash, the correct white balance mode is either flash, or the exact Kelvin number of the color temperature of your flash tube output, normally around 5400K.
But I’m the type of photographer that likes my photos, especially of female subjects, a tad warmer, just like using saturated warm film, or in the case of normal film, the equivalent of placing an 81A warming filter on the front of my lens. Since I’m not using film, or filters, I trick my digital camera to introduce the extra warmth in my photographs at the 6000K setting, basically I’m emulating the days I shot saturated-warm slide film for publication—films like the now discontinued Kodak E100SW professional film. Using this manual white balance setting on my digital camera tells the camera that the light is a cool-colored light source.
In an attempt to neutralize the coolness, the camera’s white balance software will add the complimentary color filtration (yellow and reds) to ensure white stays white, but the camera doesn’t physically know the real color of the light, it only knows what I manually program into it. Since I’m actually shooting under neutral lighting like that of flash or midday sunlight, this results in a warmer overall photo. Manual white balance is now my electronic filter, eliminating that extra piece of glass in front of my lens. This works great for female subjects that are darker-skinned and it’s especially effective for fair complexions too.
Let’s imagine, however, that your model’s skin is a bit ruddy. In that situation you might move your manual white balance camera setting more toward 5500K. With ruddy skin, you don’t want any more reds, and setting the white balance closer to the more neutral flash or daylight setting will accomplish this (i.e., the camera will not add warmth). This same principal works when shooting with light sources that are not daylight balanced. Starting with the actual color temperature of the light you are shooting under, choose a slightly higher color temperature value to warm your subject’s skin tones, or select a slightly lower setting to cool them down a bit.
The scale below provides my personal interpretation of warm to cool, with neutral being normal, noon-to-3 p.m. daylight. For example, look at “Light Overcast Day” on the chart. You’ll notice the color temperature is approximately 5800-6000K, or “Cool +1.” This means that the light is one “unit of color” cooler than neutral, clear, colorless, boring light.
In the days of making color prints in the darkroom, we often referred to color correction of photos in units of color, such as +1, +2 or -1, -2 of cyan, magenta or yellow—or the exact opposites: red, green or blue. With this in mind, a Light Overcast Day is +1 cool, which is almost like +1 cyan (a blue-green color). When I set my camera at 6000K white balance, as I often do, it’s the same as telling my camera the light is +1 cyan, so the camera adds the opposite. Again, the camera thinks it’s doing what it’s programmed to do, bring a known white, back to that standard white, but in reality, it’s tricked into warming the entire image.
|Condition||Kelvin Temperature||Warm vs. Cool|
|Sunrise & Sunset||1600K to 4300K||Warm +3 to +.5|
|Average Candlelight||1800K to 1900K||Warm +3|
|Sodium Mercury Vapor Street Lights||2300K||Warm +2.5|
|Average Household Bulb (Incandescent)||2800K to 3200K||Warm +2 to +1.5|
|Professional Tungesten||3200K||Warm +1.5|
|One hour after Sunrise||3500K||Warm +1|
|Mid-Morning Daylight||4300K to 4500K||Warm|
|Daylight at 12 noon||5000K to 6000K, average 5400K||Neutral|
|Pro Print Viewing Lamps||5000K||Neutral light standard|
|Average Electronic Flash||5400K||Neutral|
|Light Overcast Day||5800 to 6000K||Cool +1|
|Heavy Overcast Day||6500K||Cool +1.5|
|Shade||5800 to 10000K, average 8000K||Cool +1 to +3, average +2|
|Daylight Fluorescent Bulb, Consumer||6500K||Cool + 1|
Color Temperature Kelvin Scale Based on Warmth vs. Cool
*Kelvin Scale notes: Kelvin temperature of light will fluctuate based on many conditions. Some conditions include the actual location of the shoot in longitude and latitude, pollution, atmospheric conditions, time of day, time of year (angle of light), etc., when it comes to natural light. In the case of artificial light, age of a bulb, voltage drops, and various brands of lamps alone will cause the color temperature output to vary. The only precise way to measure the actual color temperature of light is with a calibrated color temperature meter. Keeping this in mind this scale includes approximate values so use this scale only as a reference or starting point of “warm to cool” outcomes of light sources.
The key in using this scale is to focus on what actual outcome of an image you desire, hence why I broke the scale down on warm vs. cool. As an example, if you intend to shoot with tungsten light, you’d set your white-balance on 3200K to ensure you’ll expose white as white. While still using that tungsten light source, if you manually set your white balance to 3500K, you will be adding a +1 cool effect to the final image, just the opposite of +1 warmth, which is what the scale illustrates for that actual light temperature.
At the same time if you wanted to get a +1 warm effect when shooting with normal noon daylight, on camera flash, or studio flash, you’d set your white-balance numbers on your camera to 5800K to 6500K. Some Nikon cameras do not give you the option of 6000K, so use their 5880K option. Every camera from manufacturer to manufacturer varies, so experiment with shade, cloudy day, or overcast as other options; this varies from camera manufacturer to camera models, so test your particular camera.
In essence, consider the affect you’re after in your photos. If we want a sexy-warmth often found in early morning light, we’d set our camera to the opposite of the scale, or trick the camera to think the light is cool, say 6000K, when using flash or midday daylight. Basically the camera is tricked or calibrated to think your light source is +1 “cool” and because you’re shooting with “neutral” light, your image will be just the opposite, or +1 “warm.”
As I close a friendly reminder, RAW or JPG doesn’t matter if your goal is to always get it right in the camera and do less in post production, even if that means tricking your camera’s engineered algorithms. By design, the camera is a machine, but you are the operator, make it work for you, don’t let it work you based on some engineer’s logic. You are a creative, not a logistician. With that, please don’t forget the men and women who serve to protect our freedoms, God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.