flowers, photography · Techniques

White Balance – is auto good enough?

This week, I’ve been paying more attention to white balance.

Outdoors, I usually bow to auto white balance (wb) but indoors, I usually pay a little more attention to the colour of the lighting and adjust accordingly. However, I’ve been looking deeper into the white balance thing and with the help of a new acquisition, the Expodisc 2, I have concluded that yes, it matters very much. That said, my preferred subject matter is flowers and so it is vitally important to me that I reproduce the colour of the flower as it is, and as it attracted me, rather than accept my camera’s decision on what colour it was. I can see the same would be true of those who are dedicated people photographers to make sure skin tones etc are accurate.

It is said that the eye will compensate for an awful lot and that many shades of white can look pure white – if we have nothing to compare it to. If something is a little off-white, your eye will happily tweak it and make it white for you. And it works pretty well. However, the camera is not quite as accommodating as the eye and so, for this experiment, I chose a ‘white’ flower with a tinge of ‘lilac’. This first shot is using auto white balance. Note that these are raw files straight from the camera so you can see what the camera ‘saw’: (In each case, try to ensure you only have the current shot showing so you are not yet comparing it to the others. The three shots are in a row at the bottom of the post so you can compare them side by side.)

white balance group-6694

Okay – the petals look whiteish with a pinky lilac tinge and the grass looks green. That’s okay.

For the second shot, I used a ‘shade’ white balance since both myself and the flower were in the shade of a large shed:

white balance group-6695

Now – hang on a minute – that’s not white – and the grass is distinctly on the yellow side of green! So in choosing the ‘correct’ white balance for the surrounding light, my camera was way off.

Grand entrance by – ta da – the Expodisc:

The first point I should make about this Expodisc is that it is not cheap!! This cost me the better part of £25 – and that was second hand (in ‘open box’ condition) – a new one is around the £40 mark. But it is very easy to use to set a custom white balance according to the light. The first thing to do is to set your camera to record a custom white balance. Now this will be different on different camera brands, and probably on different models too but on mine (Nikon D750) you press the wb button, spin the dial until you find d-1, let go of the wb button and then press it again until the d-1 flashes and it’s ready to ‘record’. Now you hold the Expodisc over the lens and fire. No need to focus or anything like that – it’s not taking a picture, it’s just recording the light. Also noteworthy is that you need to point it at the light coming in rather than at your subject so you are recording the way the quality and value of the light as it falls on to your subject. If it recorded correctly, your camera will tell you ‘good’. And that’s it. Sounds fiddly but once you’ve done it a couple of times, you can set in up in 3 or 4 seconds. I suggest you consult your manual, or better still, look at one of the many youtube videos on setting white balance, and on the Expodisc and tailor it to your camera. I should add that you can also set the white balance in post-production by taking a shot of an 18% grey card before you take your pics and then once in Lightroom, you can use the eye dropper to set the wb on that shot, and then copy that setting to any shots you took in that same light. My issue with that is that once I am no longer near the plant, I cannot judge whether or not it has altered the wb correctly and achieved the accurate colour of that bloom so I need to be able to do this in the field’ as it were.

Now – after all of that – does it make a difference? Well, here’s the shot:

white balance group-6696

Hmmm – isn’t that the same as the first shot – or is my eye deceiving me and compensating? Let’s put the three shots side by side showing auto, shade and custom balance together:

There is definitely a difference and I can verify that the third shot does indeed reproduce the colour accurately. There’s not much in it but the white has gone from a cold (auto wb), bluish white to a very yellowy white (shade wb) and then to the correct soft white that the flower actually is (custom set with the Expodisc).

To be more sure, I’ll leave out the ‘yellow one and just put the two ‘whiter’ ones side by side:

So, £25 well spent as far as I am concerned. I can feel sure that the camera is capturing the colour of the bloom as it really is rather than the way my camera thinks it should be. By the way, you should notice that if you look at the second shot alone it definitely looks on the yellow side, but you don’t notice it as much until it’s placed in a row with the other two shots at which point it becomes glaringly obvious. Remember – the eye compensates unless it has something to compare with!

So, will I be using this Expodisc all of the time from now on? Well, if I am photographing anything for which the correct colour reproduction is vital then hell yes!! So that would, in my case, be flowers, product photography and people shots and I would imagine that it’s a must for wedding photographers. It may be that it doesn’t matter so much in landscape photography – but I’ll bet a landscape photographer can answer that one quicker than I can.

So – give it a try but I strongly suggest you look it up further than my waffled account and see if you think it’s something that matters to you. Remember that the setting is good until the light changes. You don’t have to reset it every time you take a shot, but you do need to reset it if the light changes, or if you move into a different kind of light. As with all of the various gadgets, techniques and tricks, it will work for some and not for others so have fun with it and see if it’s something you find useful, or not.

Until next time when I write of how I discovered that having a digital camera doesn’t render the light meter redundant. Seriously, this ‘hobby’ costs me a fortune!!!

As a final note, I am not in any way affiliated to the Expodisc brand and gain no advantage by writing positively about them – but if they happen to be reading this and want to bestow gifts upon me, who am I to argue!

#expodisc  😉