Friday, February 3, 2012

White balance and RAW format

I don't mean to get too informational here, but once again, I just can't help myself.  Move along if you're not interested, you won't hurt my feelings.  It's just that, I was finally going through my Christmas pics tonight and I felt inspired.  Sometimes really crummy pictures can be inspirational too :)

So, have you heard of white balance?  Nearly all digital cameras have white balance settings programmed into them.  It's a way to compensate for different temperatures of light.  For example, standard tungsten bulbs tend to make things look yellow (warm light).  Photos taken in the shade tend to be very cool -- with a bluish cast.  You can also get color cast from backdrops or dominant colors near the subject.  It can ruin an otherwise perfect shot.  

Here is a great example of why white balance matters -- these are straight out of camera (SOOC), no editing whatsoever:

manual white balance

On Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, I pulled out the camera and tripod to get some pics of this year's ornaments (this is the one my middle child chose).  I dialed in all of the settings manually, but left the white balance on auto.  Clearly it was a bad idea.  Fortunately I was just shooting still life so I had as many re-dos as I wanted.  I set a manual white balance and, voila!  Big difference!

If your camera can do a custom white balance, it's definitely worth learning.  I'm a Canon girl, so I know the option is there for everything from the Rebel series on up.  I use a white balance card (which is actually gray).  I just snap a picture of it, then go to the camera's menu and choose "Manual white balance" and then choose the card picture.  It takes all of five seconds.

Should you, for one reason or another, not adjust your white balance (or even if you do!), I can't recommend more strongly that you shoot in RAW.  The files are big, but they're so beautiful.  You can do all manner of tweaking without damaging the image in any way -- which brings me back to my Christmas photos.

I used the manual white balance on Christmas Eve, but I was a little lazy the next morning.  I didn't want to be fiddling with camera settings amid the chaos of unwrapping presents, so I put the camera in full auto.  I knew it was a bad idea, but I did it anyway.  This is why I was only just now going through the pictures:

auto white balance

Dozens of photos of happy orange children opening gifts.  I just didn't want to deal with the editing.  But, at least I knew they were salvageable.  If I'd shot these in JPG they would have been such a pain to fix.  But in RAW you can adjust the white balance after the fact AND you can do it to all of the pictures at the same time.  RAW is AWESOME!

What I have in the end isn't a perfect white balance, but it's close enough to keep me from tears.

The End.

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