A Lesson in White Balancing


I shot the annual Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA) conference at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort in Orlando last week and it was a white balancing nightmare! Truth be told, I shoot in RAW so I can always change the white balance in post, but I like to get an accurate representation of the image at the time of capture. It’s just a comfort thing, not to mention trying to get as much right in camera to begin with. Take a look at this image: (NOTE: for the images in this post, try not to focus on the content, but rather the color. These examples are pretty much out of camera with little or no editing)

VRMA Conference. Orlando 2011.

You can see how “orange” or “warm” it looks. That’s pretty much right out of camera. The warmth is due to the tungsten (incandescent for you Nikonians) lights overhead. So I switched from “auto” white balance to “tungsten” and while the result was better, I knew I’d run into trouble if I wanted or needed to use flash.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

In the image above I used fill flash with a 1/2 cut of Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel. Putting an orange gel on your flash essentially turns it into a tungsten light. So if you set your white balance to tungsten (incandescent) then the two light sources will balance. If you look carefully, however, you’ll notice that the waiter’s face still looks a little “cool” or “blue” in comparison to the room. So I added another 1/2 cut of CTO which equals one full cut and that did the trick.

The next day, I turned to using custom white balances for each room and that really made a difference.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Compare the color of the walls in the image above to the very first image in this post. Actually, if you see that white board on the right side of the frame; that’s what I used to get a custom white balance.

I learned about custom white balancing as a news videographer right out of college. Back then, those big cameras didn’t have handy white balance settings and you couldn’t tweak it in post. You either set the kelvin temperature or you took a custom white balance every time you moved from indoors to outside and back.

In case you don’t know, when you take a custom white balance, you’re basically telling the camera what “white” is so it can set all the corresponding colors accordingly. Camera models vary, but to take a custom white balance, take a picture of something white that is getting hit by the light source in the room. If, for example, you have a mix of tungsten and daylight, take something white and put it where it’s getting hit by both sources. You might need to switch to manual focus because your camera may not find focus in something with no contrast. Next, go to your menu function for custom white balance and select the image you want to use. Then, change your white balance to “custom”. Don’t forget to switch back to auto focus.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

The classrooms (pictured above) were the worst! They really did have this weird orange color that seemed warmer to me than regular rooms lit by incandescent lamps. Not to mention, I was expecting fluorescent lights at hotel conference rooms. Switching from “auto” to “tungsten” didn’t help at all. So I just shot the white door at every room to get a custom white balance.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Getting the right white balance is crucial if you shoot JPEG because you don’t have as much latitude in post processing to tweak it. It’s less important if you shoot RAW, unless you’re like me and want to see an accurate picture when you shoot it.

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