White balance with Canon DSLRs — not as easy as video

A couple of my colleagues at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication noted how difficult it is to do manual white balance with the Canon DSLRs some of our students are using.


All I can say: Not as easy as video cameras. The Canon presets have worked pretty well for all the projects I’ve shot, but I’m using a Canon 5D Mark II where I dial in the color temperature I want. Beginning students may know what color temperature to use or just rely on presets — especially when they have to go through the steps I outline below. Or some may just want to use the simplicity of video cameras. Whatever camera you choose to shoot with, manual white balance is an important step not to neglect.


And if it’s more difficult with a DSLR, then you have to decide if it’s worth the extra effort. For me and many of my students who have purchased their own DSLRs, we realize one thing: The image quality, baby, the image quality. But knowing how to color balance is part of mastering the image quality.


Why do we even bother with adjusting color temperature in the first place? Why not just set the camera to automatic. If you’re controlling your image professionally, then you need to use the manual settings so it doesn’t do things you don’t want it to be doing.


Our eyes balance white automatically. A camera’s sensor isn’t as smart as us and it doesn’t have the multitasking capabilities of our minds. So you need to tell the camera what kind of light it’s seeing so it can find true white. White indoors is different than white outdoors. See the chart below:


Color temperature in degree Kelvins. This chart provides a list of different lamps and their corresponding color temps. (Image courtesy of Mapawatt.)


So if you’ve set your DSLR to an indoor light setting (~3700K), such as standard tungsten (a regular light bulb) and you go outdoors (~5500K), the white the camera saw indoors is now different and now has a bluish tint to it. If you’ve set your camera to daylight and you go indoors, the camera’s image now contains a warm yellow cast. See the images below.


The top image contains the bluish tint of an indoor white balance setting used incorrectly outdoors. The bottom image is too yellow — the typical problem with an outdoor setting used incorrectly indoors. The center image is properly color balanced. Photos by Kurt Lancaster (courtesy of Focal Press).


And if you are shooting a scene with multiple light sources (such as a window and a room with fluorescent lighting), you need to tell the camera which one it should see. Is the window your key light? Then dial in the proper color temperature or set the custom white balance.

Read the complete article at Focal Press’s Mastering Film blog:


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