Setting the proper white balance
Many of us enjoy the beauty of nature in the native wildflower displays every Spring and Summer across this planet. They are truly varied and unique in each area. The many colored flowers are nature’s way of attracting bees and other pollinators to help spread the flowers pollen and propagate the species. The sweet smell of a mountain meadow or shrub steppe in full bloom is nature’s gift to us to enjoy and cherish.
Every year as this special season takes place, multitudes of camera’s try and some succeed in capturing the beauty of the moment. I have found wildflowers both enjoyable and challenging to photograph. In my tutorial Photographing Wildflowers, I try to explain some of the techniques I have used to capture the beauty of wildflowers.
Wildflowers are all about color and the ability to capture the actual color you see when taking the picture is very important. Digital camera’s have the ability to change there color temperature to match the circumstances. This is done with the white balance settings and is very critical to capturing the precise color of the moment. Most camera’s have a choice of white balance settings, including a half dozen presets and usually the ability to set a custom white balance (CWB), which we’ll get into later. For outdoor flower shots, you normally will have four or five preset white balance settings you can play with and often, one of these may be very close. I like the “Direct Sunlight” or “5300k” setting for most outdoor pictures as a good starting point. You can also use presets to be creative. Say you want that sunset to be a little deeper orange in color. Try using the “Overcast or Cloudy” preset. I also use this when photography waterfalls to keep the water from looking blue. If you want it a really deep orange, try “Shade”. You’re in charge here. The following are listed for my D80 Nikon camera:
- Auto White Balance – set automatically by camera (adjustable – 7 steps)
- Direct Sunlight – 5200 kelvin color temperature (adjustable – 7 steps)
- Flash – 5400 kelvin color temperature (adjustable – 7 steps)
- Overcast – 6000 kelvin color temperature (adjustable – 7 steps)
- Shade – 8000 kelvin color temperature (adjustable – 7 steps)
- Kelvin – Input a kelvin color temperature (2500k to 9900k)
Kelvin is a scientific measurement of the color temperature of the light. It can vary quite a bit from sunlight to shade and what if it’s early or late in the day or a light overcast or raining? As you can see, it can get complicated. Many camera’s will let you also set a Kelvin color temperature number. Then you can take a picture and see how close you are. A bluish cast is too low a kelvin and reddish cast too high. I like 5300k for most of my outdoor shots and leave my camera set there most of the time. If a problem occurs, I just adjust up or down, looking at the LCD until it looks right.
Many people just leave their camera on auto white balance (AWB) and call it close enough. Anything else is just to much trouble. Well maybe and I use AWB sometimes also. Most of the time it is pretty close for outdoor shots. But what if close is not good enough or you encounter a tricky lighting situation or want to be creative? Look at the pictures below of a Western Aster all taken about 11:00 am in the shade of a tree. I like the “Overcast” preset the best for this group. Hover your mouse over the picture. Hover your mouse over each picture to see the white balance used.
This next set of pictures is exactly the same, except it was taken about 2:00 pm as the flower moved into full sunlight. I used a LiteDisc translucent diffuser to avoid shadows. For this group, I liked 5300 kelvin as the most natural looking. The importance of the two groups of pictures is it shows how the color temperature of a picture is important, depending on the light conditions. The camera gives you the tools to get the correct white balance. It’s your job to interact with your camera and AWB may not always be the best choice. Hover your mouse over each picture to see the white balance used.
Another option is set your own custom white balance. Setting a custom white balance is easy and usually done by putting something in front of the camera lens and re-setting the white balance using that device. You can experiment with some translucent plastic lids, white coffee filters, gray or white cards or purchase one of the many commercial products available. I have even used my translucent diffuser. Here is what Nikon says in my D80 manual:
“Place a neutral gray or white object under the lighting that will be used in the final photograph. A standard gray card can be used as a reference in studio settings. Do not use exposure compensation.”
The procedure I use for setting a custom white balance is set the WB to PRE and set my camera to aperture mode, no exposure compensation and manual focus, which let’s the camera meter correctly, but not try to hunt for focus, then follow the instructions in the manual. The method above must be used if your shooting in JPEG mode, but will work for all images and this procedure may vary depending on your camera make and model.
Correct white balance is important, so many people prefer to make their final white balance adjustments in post processing using a WhiBal card or gray card. This method of setting the white balance is often used when shooting in RAW mode and is one of the most accurate methods available. It is not done in the camera, but in the software during RAW conversion. You put a neutral gray object or WhiBal card in the scene as a reference and take a picture in your camera’s RAW mode (AWB is ok). This only needs to be done with one picture of the group that have the same type lighting. You would normally take the other pictures in the group without the WhiBal card in it for your keepers. Optionally, you can use any medium gray or neutral object in the scene of any of the pictures in the group. When you place the image in the RAW converter it will allow you to calculate a white balance by selecting a gray point in the image. Then just do a batch process and apply the white balance to the rest of the images that were in that lighting group. It’s easy, quick and very accurate. The WhiBal card is my preferred way of setting white balance.
I prefer to do my color balancing in the camera, because an improper white balance can affect the camera histogram. When shooting in RAW mode outdoors, I use 5300k (AWB ok also) and set the final white balance with a WhiBal card during RAW conversion in post processing. This tutorial should give you some food for thought and hopefully you will try something besides AWB as you strive for more accurate color or creativity. There are a lot of options available, including presets and CWB. A search on white balance will find many different products and ideas on the internet. I will close by saying that you should give CWB or presets a try, especially if you’re shooting JPEG’s and after a small amount of effort, you can be taking pictures that are in perfect color – Bruce Perrault