Setting White Balance

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Color accuracy is critical for the work I do. Although I have a lot of flexibility and control in my editing software, it all has to begin with what's happening with the camera. If I nail the color when I make the image, I make considerably less work for myself. Get it wrong, and I have to spend way too much time trying to make it look right. Color accuracy begins with white balance.

The Auto WB myth

Auto White Balance (WB) is the default setting for all digital cameras. And though the word auto holds a lot of promise, the camera's Auto WB isn't the universal balm people would like to think it is. Though Auto WB does occasionally produce decent results, it isn't the best if you want the highest color accuracy.

Why? Because Auto WB can be fooled. It works by evaluating the colors in a scene and tries to recognize what the light source is. If you're shooting people wearing a variety of colors on a sunny day, it'll likely produce an accurate white balance. But if the scene includes subjects or objects that have a strong blue or red color to them, this may lead the camera to believe that the light source is something other than what it is. It may not completely veer to a fluorescent or tungsten, but it may attempt to achieve some sort of "compromise" of color. Often, the result isn't the best color that your camera could produce.

Though under direct sunlight the Auto WB may offer good general results, in the shade or on cloudy days, I often see images with a slight bluish tint. This tint becomes glaringly obvious when you shoot comparison shots of the scene using the Auto WB and the appropriate preset. Though you may be able to correct the white balance later in Photoshop, it takes only seconds to get it right in camera. How long does it take you to restore accurate color on your computer?

Auto WB isn't all bad, of course. It may be beneficial when you're shooting under mixed lighting (for example, tungsten and fluorescent). Instead of switching back and forth between settings, you may want to just hedge your bets with Auto WB and correct for the slight variations later. This doesn't happen often, but it's something to be prepared for.

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