This weekend, I was on my way to a little village fair in Bluemont, Va., thinking about white balance settings in the camera (because my world is just that exciting!). The weather was great, with a partly cloudy sky, and I was debating if the setting was closer to cloudy or bright sun. Believe it or not, it matters. Many of you are leaving your camera's white balance setting on Auto, and like all Auto settings, you may want to give this setting a little more thought, especially if you are going to do your own post processing. What in the heck is a white balance? Essentially, different light sources produce light at differing temperatures, and this can give colors an unnatural cast in your photo. For example, a candle light will make objects appear more orange (warmer); deep shade can make things appear more blue (cooler). Our eyes and brains adjust to the casts, but a camera just records what it sees, including unadjusted color casts. (There is an in-depth tutorial here for those you want to dig deeper.)
Camera algorithms attempt to adjust for the most common light sources and render the images close to their proper color values. An incorrect setting causes an unnatural color shift. If you are making jpeg images, the color shift will be locked into the image. This flower photo illustrates those shifts at different settings.
After a custom white balance, you can see that the Auto was pretty close.
If you are taking your photographs in RAW, you can adjust the white balance in post processing. So why should you take the time to set a fixed white balance if Auto is pretty close? "Pretty close" is not consistent. This really matters if your photo session involves many photos. When you shoot lots of images around a location, there will be some variations in your camera's solution to white balance each time you press the shutter release. These variations matter when you're trying to edit and synchronize hundreds of photos from a model shoot or wedding. In fact, if you shoot in RAW and use an image processor like Lightroom or Aperture, you're better off locking in an incorrect white balance setting than using Auto. Lock in any setting other than Auto. At least your white balance setting will remain consistent. Once you've imported the RAW images into the program, you can take your time to fix the white balance on one image and synchronize all the others with that correction. Voila! Consistent, accurate white balance across your entire shoot.
There are additional tools - outside the camera - that can assist you in setting or synchronizing consistent and accurate white balance. We'll review a couple of them in the near future. I hope you'll continue to take greater control of your camera and its settings. Your photography will continue to improve as learn how to fine tune your camera to achieve the image you are trying to capture. Have fun.