DSLR Next Step: Tools for White Balance

Every Photographer that progresses from auto-everything image capture toward taking creative control of the photo process bumps into White Balance (WB) control. Some decision has to be made regarding WB correction – do we trust our camera’s built-in controls or do we have greater faith in our computer software? Often cameras remain firmly set for Auto White Balance or AWB simply because the process seems so complicated.

Dealing with White Balance isn’t a new twist caused by photography going digital. Photographers have always had to work in a world where each kind of light has its own color. Sometimes the color cast of the available light is subtle, other times terribly intense. In all situations the color of the light directly affects the color and quality of our images.

This article isn’t intended to dig deeply into White Balance and color theory, there are many books dedicated to the subject. What we will do is take a look at several White Balance tools and by describing each in use offer a view into the White Balance process.

When it comes to correcting White Balance (referred to as WB going forward) for our images, the process breaks down into two camps: correct WB in-camera before shooting or correct it after capture with computer software. Both choices have tools that help create an accurate WB setting for the image.

For many photographers choosing to correct WB in-camera is not only effective but more affordable. The first step is to understand how to use the camera’s Custom White Balance setting. Every DSLR that I’ve handled has a Custom WB setting option; it’s just a matter of reading the camera manual and learning how access the option and use it.

It really is a fairly easy process once you’ve used Custom WB once or twice; the photographer creates a WB reference image and then chooses to apply it to all subsequent images captured. It is in creating the WB reference image that our tools come into play.

The WB reference image can simply be a picture of a white piece of paper captured under the current lighting conditions. The step up from a white piece of paper is a pop-up WB target that is durable and portable. With either the white paper or the pop-up target the photographer places it in the scene, fills the viewfinder frame with the white surface, captures the image and selects it as the WB reference.

Photographers have used this simple process for years and it is quite effective when only one light source is available. However when there are two or more different light sources in the scene a flat white target isn’t the best solution. For these situations a special lens filter is used which mixes and blends all of the available light into a single reference image.

The ExpoDisc White Balance Filter has a white filter material sandwiched between prismatic surfaces. This design mixes together all of the available light and allows the camera to capture a single reference image. By holding the ExpoDisc in front of the lens and taking one picture the photographer has created a highly accurate reference image.

Other options of this idea can be found with the Brno White Balance Lens Cap, the Promaster White Balance Lens Cap and in the ProDiskII Filter and Color Card. Using in-camera WB correction is useful when shooting either in RAW or JPG.

When we look at post-capture WB correction we find a different solution for the same problem. Post-capture correction assumes that the photographer has image editing software that has more than just basic controls.

For post-capture WB correction to be most effective a reference target is placed in the scene before image capture. Once a reference image has been taken the target can be removed from the scene until there is a change in light. After capture, using the color, exposure and hue selectors found in the image editing software, the reference image is adjusted for good WB. Once the WB setting is created the setting is copied to all of the other images taken under the same light.

Targets used in the scene for post-capture WB correction can be as simple as the pop-up WB target mentioned earlier; however it can be much more useful if the target has more to offer than just a white or gray face.

The Spyder Cube WB reference target is a dimensional device placed into a scene as a reference. In post-capture editing software is used to measure the Spyder Cube in the reference image in order to balance the lighting color and to change or confirm accurate exposure.

Another option is to use a color card as the reference target. The ProDisk II mentioned above offers an eight-color reference card that can be included in the reference scene. In post-capture editing the colors are sampled with the software tools and WB and exposure setting adjusted.

When using the Spyder Cube or the ProDiskII once the reference image is corrected the settings are copied onto all of the other images taken under the same light. The post-capture method of WB correction can work with RAW or JPG files. However the ease and effectiveness of this method is directly related to the capabilities of the editing software used.

To many photographers correcting White Balance seems too technical. Yet an image with corrected WB and exposure will look more natural and vibrant. It is possible to set the camera for Auto White Balance correction but this only provides an average outcome, as often off color as correct.

Taking control of WB is definitely an intermediate skill and it does take a little fussing with either accessories or software. However as skill improves and the process becomes second nature the payoff is in better pictures that stand out from the crowd.

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