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A Question of White Balance

Accuracy vs. Looking Good

Phase One 645 with 75-100mm lens and P65+ back at ISO 100

In the days of film we chose either daylight or tungsten balanced film. If we were doing exacting commercial work we might bring a set of Wratten CC filers on location along with a colour temperature meter. But for the most part we simply lived with the colour balance that nature served up and then did minor corrections when going to print.

When shooting digital today we have comparable though different choices. We might simply set the camera to auto white balance and hope for the best. Or, we can set white balance to a preset or even a specific Kelvin temperature on some cameras. And, if we're shooting raw, it really doesn't matter because we have the freedom to set the white balance to whatever seems best when raw processing.

Of course this begs the question of what seems best. Is it accuracy that we're after? If so then we should shoot a reference card or colour chart on location and click-balance accordingly.

But what if we're not as concerned with accuracy as we are with pleasing colour? In that case, throw away the rule book and see where your taste and esthetic lead you.

Phase One 645 with 75-100mm lens and P65+ back at ISO 200

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Warm or Cool?

Above are two frames taken a couple of minutes apart on a shoot in Arizona in 2009. The framing is slightly different, but the main difference is in how I white balanced them in Lightroom. I didn't do this as an academic exercise or for purposes of writing this article. The images were selected days apart, and it was only after I'd made prints that I realized that I'd produced two quite different white balance decisions when processing the files.

Now, as I look at them, I realize that the cool one is the more accurate in that it most closely approximates what the eye saw at the time. But, the warmer one at the top of the page is the one that appeals to both me and several viewers that I've polled on the subject.

Which one is right? Which one is better? As with almost all such choices in photography, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

February, 2010


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Concepts: Color, Color temperature, Eye, Raw image format, Photography, Camera, Color balance, Kelvin

Entities: auto white balance, Michael Reichmann, Arizona

Tags: white balance, auto white balance, colour temperature meter, different white balance, specific kelvin temperature, colour balance, CC filers, minor corrections, colour chart, different choices, 75-100mm lens, Phase One, esthetic lead, raw processing, commercial work, rule book, reference card, cameras, academic exercise, main difference, balanced, exacting, begs, tungsten, Lightroom, preset, Kelvin, beholder, polled, accurate, digital, prints, Arizona