When AWB Doesn’t Work

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By Steve Russell

For anyone who’s unfamiliar with white balance (WB), it’s the process of removing unrealistic color casts so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo and the colors are as accurate as possible. Most cameras today have various built-in WB settings including AWB or automatic white balance. The presets on my camera are daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten light, fluorescent light, flash and custom. It also has a setting where I can manually set the color temperature of the light source. The presets are represented on most cameras, including many point & shoot cameras, by icons such as a sun, clouds, light bulb, etc.

Why is this important? You have probably taken photos indoors in low light and the resulting image was overly warm or the colors had a predominately red and yellow cast to them. Or, photos taken outdoors when the sky was heavily overcast and the resulting image had an overly green or blue cast to it. Understand that this “unbalanced” white balance isn’t necessarily wrong unless you want an accurate rendition of the colors in the scene you’re photographing.

In most instances, the AWB setting on your camera will adjust for the color temperature of the light source. That’s because most photographs are taken outdoors in sunlight or with flash indoors and the AWB setting is designed to work within the color temperature range of those two light sources.

Regardless of the light source, there are ways you can correct the white balance if you’re not getting the desired results with AWB.

First, you can use the presets on your camera instead of leaving it on AWB. Presets may not be a perfect solution but it should get you closer to correct WB than you’re experiencing with AWB.

Second, you can correct any white balance anomalies using post processing software. Without going in to great detail about my workflow habits, I always open my images in Lightroom and one of the first adjustments I check is color temperature. Because this adjustment is a slider, it’s quick and easy to make adjustments and sometimes a change of as little as 100 degrees Kelvin can make a huge difference in the photo.

Third, you can manually set or calibrate the white balance setting on your camera. If you’re taking photos in a place that has a mixture of the type of light sources, correcting the white balance in post processing can be difficult and sometimes it still won’t be the way you want it to be. Also, if you’re taking a large number of photos in a setting where the light is kind of quirky or comes from a mix of lighting sources, adjusting the white balance can be very time consuming if you wait until you get to post processing to correct the white balance.

Here are some examples of quirky lighting that was beyond the ability of the AWB setting to correct. All three of the photos are SOOC except for some cropping.

A few months ago I photographed a ballroom dance competition that was being held in the very large main ballroom of a local hotel. The lighting in hotel ballrooms clearly isn’t designed for photography. For this first image I was using a speedlight. With the speedlight, the white balance is correct on the subjects but the colors of the background out of range of the flash are way off. Moreover, I really didn’t like the shadows of the dancers on the walls behind them not to mention the hot spots on the subjects’ faces. As you would expect the greater the distance between the dancers and the wall, the larger the shadows. Correcting the background color and removing the shadows and hot spots was going to take a lot more post processing work than I wanted to undertake.

For this image, I left the white balance setting on AWB, removed the flash, cranked up the ISO to 1600 and used ambient light only. Yuck. The colors are all wrong and given that I took almost 1,000 photos that day, I had no desire to sit for hours in front of the computer just to correct the white balance.

A friend of mine who was also photographing the competition rode to the rescue. He had in his camera case a PhotoVision 14″ Pocket One-Shot Digital Calibration Target that I used to calibrate the white balance setting in my camera to the lighting in the ballroom.

Aside from allowing you to quickly and accurately calibrate your camera’s white balance setting, the target is relatively inexpensive, $39.95 at Amazon.com, and is very portable. It’s only 14″ long when expanded and folds into a roughly 6″ circle that fits into a carrying case. I actually ordered/purchased one the next day. It’s not a piece of equipment I use frequently, but in difficult lighting situations it saves a lot of time. I also use it in the studio to calibrate the WB setting to the studio lights.

There are other products available that you can use, but for the price, small size and light weight, I recommend that you have one of these or some other similar product if you don’t already.

If $39.95 is too steep for you, Cowboy Studio offers a 24″ triangular target that sells for $16.00

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    Very nice photos collection and wonderful post, i like your post very much. Thanks a lot for sharing !!