White Balance Settings for Landscapes
Main Image: Kimmeridge Bay at dusk, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, England. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 16-35mm lens @ 16mm, 6 minutes @ f5.6, 10x Big Stopper ND filter, ISO 200, 0.9 ND grad filter. The last vestiges of the rays from the sun which has sunk below the western horizon are reflecting off the bottom of clouds giving a pink afterglow, while the cool blue ambient light of near darkness settles in for the evening. With scenes like this do I really want to mess with Mother Nature's Colour Balance?
Whites should look whiter than white, shouldn't they? Washing powders ads tell us it should be so, and I suspect most brides agree. Any wedding photographer worth his or her salt will produce faithfully colour balanced pictures with the brides frock a clean, neutral, sparkling white. And portrait photographers are always striving for accurate flesh tones; under the known qualities of studio lighting that's easy, but on location dealing with the vagaries of natural light it can be a tougher task. I'll bet my stable of L series lenses that most photographers working in these kinds of situations have their cameras firmly set to AWB (auto white balance), and who can blame them? It works; shoot RAW with AWB and fine tune the colour balance if necessary at the RAW conversion stage of post-production. The camera's AWB does such a good job that nine times out of ten no tweaking is required.
I think it unlikely I'll be press ganged into shooting another wedding, I did it in my early years as a pro but I seemed to fate the unlucky couples that I exposed cutting the cake. Very few stayed together more than a few years. I seemed to blight proceedings; one bride actually collapsed at the altar. Maybe it's why I've not got the call from Kate and Wills. It is conceivable however that I'll be a guest at a family wedding sometime, in which case I'll be far happier in my role as Regrettable Uncle rather than Official Photographer, and without a doubt I'll have my camera set to AWB that day. But in my day job as a landscape and travel photographer I have to tell you something; I never use AWB. Why? Surely when shooting the White Cliffs of Dover I want the cliffs to look white? Well actually, not necessarily. For landscapes this business of white balance is a bit more subjective. Let's go back to basics.
Canon 1Ds mkIII, 24-70mm lens @ 66mm, 8 secs @ f16, 0.9 ND filter, ISO 50. Collioure at dawn, Cote Vermeille, Pyrénées-Orientales, Languedoc Rousillon, France. The very first rays from the sun which has just popped over the horizon bathe the rampart in soft orange light. AWB would neutralise that glow, I choose to retain it with Daylight White Balance.
What is White Balance and why do we need it? White Balancing whether it be in camera or post-production is the sampling of the colour qualities of a scene and application of corrections to neutralise any prevalent colour casts so that the scene appears neutral to our eye. With a scene shot in your living room under domestic tungsten lamps (not those horrid eco green ones) the cameras's AWB software will sense the orange cast of the 3200K lighting and apply corrections to balance the colours so it appears the scene is illuminated by neutral white light. Our own eyes and brain do this automatically, as does your camera set to AWB. Back in the mists of time in the film era we used to do this laboriously using colour correction filters or by juggling bodies loaded with daylight or tungsten balanced film. Shooting scenes with mixed light sources was a real headache; one of the huge boons of the digital revolution was the ability to deal with these tricky situations with so much more flexibility both in camera and post-production. But at least shooting film forced us to analyse and understand the nature of light and colour balancing, we couldn't just rely on AWB to get us out of jail. Now dealing with different light sources is so much easier, but if we are to get the very best from our DSLRS we do need to understand the nature of light; it is after all the fundamental energy that makes our pictures shine.
The rolling English countryside of the Somerset/Dorset border with the village of Corton Denham, Somerset, England. Canon 1Ds mkII, 70-200mm lens @ 120mm, ¼ sec @ f11, ISO 100, polarising filter. The warm light at the end of the day paints the landscape. With Auto White Balance the yellow/orange hue would be neutralised, but that light reminds me of long lingering summer evenings and the smell of barbecues. I'll opt to keep it with Daylight WB resolutely set.
Sticking with the scene in your lounge AWB will do a good job of neutralising the orange cast, but as we know the light sources are tungsten lamps a better option would be to set a specific WB setting in camera rather than rely on the automatic setting. We can set tungsten (represented by a light bulb icon) in the camera's WB menu, or we can manually dial in a setting of 3200K, which we know to be the colour temperature of your light source. In practise the difference between all three of these options is imperceptible; try it and see. This shows us that to achieve a perfect neutral white balance to our images with crisp clean whites the WB setting in the camera needs to match the colour temperature of the light illuminating the scene we're photographing. The pre-set options on my Canon are AWB, Daylight (5200K), Shade (7000K), Cloudy (6000K), Tungsten (3200K) and Flourescent(4000K). Alternately we can dial in a specific colour temperature, anything from 2500 to 10000K. If the light has a lower CT then the camera's WB setting the scene will appear orange, a higher one will appear blue. Just to ram that point home with the Daylight WB set in camera the scene in your lounge with tungsten light sources will look unduly orange on the glowing monitor. If I change to Tungsten WB the picture of the room will then look neutral, but if I step outside into bright daylight with that same tungsten WB setting on the camera the image will look blue. If I finally return the camera to Daylight WB to match the hazy sun lighting your patio the colour balance of the image on my camera monitor will be neutral again. Clear? The best way to get your head around all this is to try it, look at scenes in different lighting with Live View and change the WB settings to see the effect. With scenes like your lounge we know the exact CT of the lamps, but out in the Great Wide Open things are not so quite clear cut. The nature and colour quality of natural light changes significantly through the 24 hour cycle, and also as the seasons and atmospheric conditions change. Understanding and being able to predict those changes is a crucial skill for a landscape photographer. It's a skill that never stops evolving, one that is a product of each and every dawn and dusk patrol, whether fruitful or not.