The Problem with White Balance

One of the things I rarely discussed here is white balance. I personally think that these days, all cameras are equipped with reliable auto white balance engine that negates the need for manual intervention. Most of the time the camera can decide the required white balance settings accurately, or close to what we consider accurate. 

So what is white balance?  Well, according to the experts (and scientists) white balance has something to do with neutralization of colors to a certain percentage of grey, or whatever that means. Why is that so important? Colour is the first thing that our brain processes when we are viewing a photograph, and if we somehow get the colour balance unacceptable to the brain, we might think that there is something wrong with the photograph. (side note: this is also the same reason why by removing colour in the process of shooting black and white photographs, the brain processes the subjects more directly, without the distraction of colours). 

Oh dear, that was a terrible explanation of white balance and if I were to teach photography I think I might just get fired. 

White balance has been a topic that was playing at the back of my mind for some time now. I do not believe white balance can be achieved by simply using some mysterious grey cards. Strangely, I do not even think there is such thing as a perfect white balance. Now bear with me as I explain with some examples. 

1) What our eyes see may not be what we want to have in white balance. Sometimes. 

My final photograph, with corrected white balance in Olympus Viewer 3. This was not what I saw but what I thought looked better in my final output. Compare this with the original image shown below, which was representative of the real colour captured as seen with naked eyes. 

This was the original, untouched image, SOOC. The purple colour skin was as seen with my eyes, and the camera did nothing wrong registering this. I decided this did not look good and I modified to white balance, so that the skin colour looks more believable, and can be accepted by wider viewing audience. 

What is the job of the camera? To capture as faithfully as it can, as closely as what is seen with our eyes. In this scenario I am presenting you with, the musician on stage was illuminated with a strong purple light, so bright and intense that all you can see is a purple hue covering his skin, void of any natural skin colour. The camera, being a good servant, tried its best to reproduce what it saw there, the purple skin man. Then I came home, loaded the photographs and my friends who were not at the concert saw the photograph. Being an overly critical and analytical photographer friend (like most online photography forum members do), he commented that I screwed up my white balance, because the skin color was waaaaaaaaayy off. Then he started to comment how I should be more careful in setting my camera before the shoot. 

Now the question here: was that the camera's fault for capturing the purple skin? My answer is no, because the man's skin was purple when he was on stage, as seen with my own eyes. The camera only captured whatever there was, nothing more, nothing less. Would grey card help in this situation? No, because the lighting was on the stage, and I will need to stand next to the singer to be able to do the grey card trick. How about manually override the settings to compensate for the purple colour? I can do that, but by the time I am done the colour light on stage may have changed to green. Was I there to shoot the concert or was I there to adjust colours all night?

I think what I am saying here is quite clear: white balance to me is not really that important. However, what matters most to me is how the end results look like. The original purple colour man was the correct, real, accurate colour, most representative of what was live on that concert. However, that was NOT the colour that the audience want to see. It was not the colour that I like, hence I chose to correct it. 

And yes, shooting RAW helps in tricky situations like this. You get to adjust the white balance without compromising on losing details/destruction of image quality in post processing. 

2) Overcompensation of white balance may lead to unnatural looking photographs

I know that the previous example showed an extreme case with destructive light overpowering the subject. Let's take a look at a simpler case. A situation with tungsten/incandescent lighting. By recognizing that the light source is tungsten (cameras are smart these days) if you use Auto White Balance all traces of warmth from the tungsten light will be sucked out cold. The correct white balance by standard will dictate that there is no stray colour cast presented by the warm light. On the other hand, if we were to present the photograph as seen, the warm colour may cast orange cast on skin, which would repeat the problem number 1: unacceptable skin colour.  

The difficult thing to do here, is to find just the right amount of the balance between the perfectly corrected white balance (void of warm color cast, hence looking cold), and naturally shot as seen (very warm, orange tinted photograph overall). 

The adjusted, final colour balance which I decided to keep. Maintained just sufficient amount of warmth to show the original ambience of the place. 

Overcompensated by Auto White Balance, deleting all traces of colour tint created by the tungsten light, producing a cold, blue-ish looking photograph, nothing close to what the eyes saw. This is often described as the "correct" white balance (based on whatever grey/white point correction thingy), which I strongly disagree with. Overcompensation can be done by either the camera's auto WB setting, or the user in the final post-processing stage. 

This image was taken with Olympus' default white balance setting that has a hidden sub setting to "keep warm colour". By having this setting, the image was very close to what my eyes saw in the first place. I think we have now established since point number 1: what we saw may not be what we wanted. While this is good representation of what the place actually looked like in reality, we know now that photography is never about reality. 

Do not get me wrong, out of the three photographs above, nothing is wrong, and there is no one photograph which is the "best" or "has perfect white balance". The point of me going through all this explanation is to share my opinion that colour is an elusive and subjective matter to talk about. You may not necessarily agree with me, but that is fine. To me, what is the most important, is YOUR own input on what your photographs should look like. 

3) Auto White Balance, your friend or enemy? Override manually as necessary

I must be frank to say that I rely on Auto White Balance for 90% of my shots. The percentage could be higher, and I rarely found the need to manually override the white balance settings. Nonetheless, as an extra pre-caution I do shoot in RAW, and this is good enough reason to keep shooting in RAW because cameras are not infallible and in situations the camera decided to give you the white balance which you do not agree with (note I did not say wrong or inaccurate), you can always readjust it in post-processing. 

If you need to deliver the images on the spot (live updates, with all the instant noodles.. erm I mean social media activities, eg Instagram, Twitter, Facebook updates) it is then crucial to ensure you get your white balance right before you press the shutter button. There is no excuse this cannot be done, most modern cameras have Live View (in the LCD screen at the back of you camera) and some even has Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) which really can help you. You get to immediately see the end result of your photograph, the final color balance even before you shoot. Any adjustment to white balance that you make will be previewed live. So there really is no excuse to screw up really. 

White Balance adjusted while I was shooting. I used the preset (cloudy) and it gave me the warmth that I wanted. 

The original "Auto" white balance which needed intervention. Nobody wants a cold cup of coffee (unless you make them iced or ice-blended)

At the end of the day, you have to be the one to decide how your photographs should look. The argument of presenting the photographs as truthfully as they were against the extreme end of over-cooked post-processing has become never-ending and pointless. I believe post-processing is an integral part of digital photography workflow and it cannot be dismissed, but I also believe in getting the image to be as closely as what you want in the final output before you press the shutter button. Finding the balance in these two steps is not easy and everyone has different benchmark and reference. 

What do I do with White Balance? I judge the colour balance with my own eyes. 

This shot more natural looking, which is ironic because this was modified from the original captured colors. 

This is the original colour as seen, and closely captured with the camera. 

What is your take in white balance? Do you just shoot RAW and modify it later in post-processing? How reliable do you think your camera's auto white balance engine is? Do you use auto-white balance for most of your shooting like myself? Do you even use a grey card?

Please do share your thoughts and any other tips on this topic!


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  2. Hi, there!!! I am using both Olympus (an E520 one) and Panasonic (G5) cameras mainly for nature photography. This including landscapes, macro of insects and flowers and close-ups but also bird portraits. I am using the in-camera settings for different types of lightning as I told you in a previous post. I don't tend to modify too often the presets as I like a lot the resulting colors. In my opinion, the colors are better rendered by Olympus under the Cloudy preset while the Panasonic excels in the Day Light one. I don't have too much experience in human portraits as I don't shoot very often ones. I think that is very difficult to play with colors in the nature photography because the results can be very different from the reality which is not very suitable, at least in my vision. Thank you!!!

  3. NIce touch on the topic. To me, the 'perfect' white balance tends to take away the mood of the scene, so I always skew it a little in the post processing to retain the mood that i want to portray during post processing.

  4. Scott Kelby said something very interesting about white balance in his excellent "Crush the composition" class. There are a few situations, like product photos where white balance MUST be absolutely correct, but in all other situations, white balance is a creative choice. I think he is absolutely right. To me, white balance is often not at all about accuracy but about how I want a picture to look. If I like a picture better when setting white balance to "Tungsten", that's what I'll use, if I prefer "Shadow" I'll use that. I'll also admit to using a few cheap tricks to produce photography clich├ęs, like setting white balance to "shadow" or "cloudy", to produce an overcooked, glowing sunset.

    Also, white balance is one of my main reasons why I always shoot RAW. a SOOC JPEG with horrible white balance is a ruined picture. I remember a JPEG I took with my TG-1 (it has no RAW support) and that came out with the sky all green. I could get that sky look purple or green, but I couldn't make it blue. As soon as the TG-4 (which has RAW support) was announced, I ordered one.

    I know you use Olympus Capture but Adobe Lightroom has a great one click white balance that I find very useful for playing with white balance. Maybe Olympus Capture has some similar feature. Just click on something in the picture that you know is grey and Lightroom will adjust white balance so that thing will be grey. But lightroom doesn't stop me from doing silly things. If I click something that is very clearly NOT white, black or grey, Lightroom will anyway try to make whatever I clicked grey. The results can be very "interesting", but also useful. It can actually restore some rather natural looking colours from pictures taken under sodium lights.

    But most importantly: White balance is a creative choice!

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  6. Hi, is there any way to manually set the white balance the way you do with Canon DSLR camera? Like taking a photo of white surface (or using WB card or WB cap), then set it as the baseline for custom WB. In most case (outdoor), the camera auto WB works well, but sometimes it did fail to capture the 'natural' color, especially in a shot with difficult lighting. Btw, I use OMD EM-10 Mk.II, which is a wonderful little camera.