White Balance - Are you RGB Savvy?
by Moose Peterson, exclusive to nikondigital.org
Photography is all about light! One of the major characteristics of light we
depend on in photography to communicate is color, be it one band or its entire
spectrum. In conventional film capture, while most photographers are aware of
this basic fact, most take for granted the color temp of the light falling on
their subject and how their film might react to and render it. But more to the
point, honest, exact, faithful color rendition has never been a real major point
of contention for most conventional photographers.
When digital still photography came along for the masses, the attitudes about
color temp from conventional photography carried over to digital even though the
major characteristic of light we still depend on to communicate is still color.
But being unaware of color temp and white balance, both that of the light
falling on the subject and the setting in which you've set the camera, can no
longer be taken for granted! While exact color rendition might not still be the
number one priority, getting real close probably is.
There is definitely two camps when it comes to how to achieve the correct
white balance in digital photography. The first camp is getting it right right
when you take the photo and the second is fixing the color balance after the
fact in the computer. As you might as well have guessed, I'm in the first camp,
I demand of myself that I get it right right from the start (I'm still from the
old school definition of what is a photographer). I don't have the luxury of
time to mess with images in post-production. But is it possible to get it right
right from the start with current digital camera technology?
If you're shooting with the Canon 1D, you bet! You can dial in exactly the
white balance you want for the color temp of the light falling on the subject.
You can do this in increments of 100k which is really nice! If you're shooting
with the D1 family of cameras (including the D100) you don't have this option of
dialing in an exact white balance number. Instead we're stuck with the
preassigned numbers the silly little icons offer us (leftover conventions of
video cameras). But you might be surprised by what you can do and how close you
can come to perfection with some simplistic understanding (which is the only way
I can operate) and application of what is available to us.
Here's a brief primer on color temp (to learn more, head to
http://www.schorsch.com/kbase/glossary/color_temperature.html for the
abridged version or
http://cybaea.com/photo/color-correction.html for a whole lot more).
Daylight, light falling on the Washington Mall on clear, fine beautiful day on
the 4th of July was rated at 5500k. This has been our bench mark for daylight
Kelvin temp ever since (your conventional film has this color temp rating). It's
from this number in which our conventional film was based that everything we do
with digital has been based (not the best of systems).
Here's the same basic information but in a chart which has film type, color
correction filters and color temp. This chart is for conventional film, but you
can use it for digital to get a feel for color temp / white balance if you don't
know numbers already. The way to use the chart is to use a ruler to "draw" a
line from film type (WB setting) to color temp and where it crosses the middle
graph indicated the filtration required to match the WB & CB.
"A man's got to know his limitations" and while I believe this, I don't think
Dirty Harry was referring to white balance in the D1 Family when he said it. To
start understanding what we have to work with, here's the Kelvin Temperature
range we have available to us in the D1/X/H:
A (Auto White
Balance): automatically adjusts the white balance between 4,200 and 7,000k.
The color temperature of this setting is basically fixed at 3,000k.
setting is fixed at approximately 4,200k.
Color temperature is fixed at approximately 5,200k (even though basic sunlight
Flash: Its color
temperature is set at approximately 5,400k (even though flash is 5,500k).
setting is obviously for overcast light. Its color temperature is set at
approximately 6,000 K.
Shade: The color
temperature is set at approximately 7,000k in the D1 and 8,000k in the X/H.
(Why are all of these numbers approx.? That's the
nature of the beast since white balance is not determined by an actual color
temperature meter but rather from information from R G B sensors that is then
run through a whole lot of numbers and equations predetermined by Nikon
You can fine tune these numbers and either increase or decrease them
depending on your needs. With the D1 you can make fine adjustments to these
preset numbers (depress the WB button and rotate the sub-command dial to access)
in these increments.
*starting White Balance
And for the D1X/H (depress the WB button and rotate the
sub-command dial to access or through the menu system) you have these options
which are slightly different from the D1.
*starting White balance
(this information supercedes my info in
The D1 Generation)
So OK, you have all these numbers, what do you do with them? (And please note
the numbers are different for the D1 vs X/H especially for Shade & Fluorescent.)
The goal in our everyday digital photography is to match to the best of our
ability the color temp of the light falling on the subject with the white
balance settings of our camera (or if being creative, not matching them to
taste). But here lies the challenge because most photographers don't know the
color temp of the light falling on their subject let alone able to match that
with the rigid white balance settings we have available in the D1 family. I'll
tell you what I do, I simply shoot 99% of the time at Cloudy -3 and move on. But
I have the sinking feeling that for many of you, that's not good enough so I'll
continue (but you will more than likely come back to this setting yourself)!
The first response many have to my shooting at Cloudy-3 when the sun is
shinning is, "Cloudy when I can see the sun?" Many look for logic in the words,
Cloudy - Sun, instead of looking at the color temp/white balance numbers. Cloudy
is 6000k and depending on the camera you're shooting with, Cloudy-3 is either
6580k or 6600k. While basic sunlight might be rated 5500k, finding this number
in the real world doesn't happen very often (smog, time of day, some degree of
clouds and the real biggie, reflected color of objects around the subject alter
the actual CT). The color temperature most often found on your basic day is
closer to 7000k. Our closest setting then to this 7000k mark is Cloudy-3. (I've
experimented on the X/H with Shade +2 but I've found I don't like the outcome a
good 50% of the time.)
It is very important to understand that we are communicators and that we are
human. Humans are into color, it pushes a lot of our buttons! This combination
demands we use color either accurately or artistically (which can be one in the
same or not) in our images. We first must recognize and acknowledge what is our
subject and the subject's natural color. We then must recognize the color temp
of the light falling on our subject, and then use the numbers available to us in
our camera to capture the most accurate white balance. (Keep in mind that you
might have to be doing this in a split second if photographing action and you
haven't already established your own preferred setting, you could miss the
shot). This is the most simplistic approach and application of white balance and
is the bases of my workflow.
Many have asked about the effectiveness of carrying around a color
temperature meter to take some of the guess work out of this equation. I used a
color temp meter for years long ago in my commercial days and got very good at
using it, knowing how to prevent my clothes for example from biasing the
reading, etc. I grabbed one again when I first received my D1 in my initial
attempt to get a handle on the D1's WB. But because we have such a limited range
of WB settings to work with in the D1 Family, knowing I was shooting at 9800k
did no practical good. In getting it right right from the start, some of this is
"flying by the sit of your pants" photography. Keep in mind I always work on the
KISS theorem, I strive to eliminate as many "problems" so my concentration
remains on the subject!
But what about Auto, shouldn't that setting with it's variable range work
better, make our life and photographs better? I'm here to tell you, Auto WB is
the last option you should use! When I hear digital shooters tell me they have
their cameras set to Auto WB, I know they haven't done their homework and are
causing themselves ultimately more work (I'm amazed how many NEF shooters shoot
on Auto WB and then wonder what's wrong with the color of their previews. All of
that info and the wrong WB)! I've yet to shoot with any digital SLR, Kodak,
Canon or Nikon that had a Auto White Balance that delivered what I desired let
alone close to what the subject required. Why? In a nutshell, keep in mind that
our CCD's captures B&W with color being added on the image's path to the
CompactFlash card. To really over simplify the problem, in that path, something
gets lost in the translation.
Because of the genius of my partner, we now can actually see the white
balance the D1 Family is setting when the camera is set to Auto. The two images
that follow of a Red-shouldered Hawk were captured with the camera set to
Auto-3. You can see visually the vast difference in the color balance between
the two images. This despite the fact that the images were taken within
microseconds of each other. The image on the left, DigitalPro reports the camera
set the white balance to 4589k and the image on the right at 5477k (you will
only find out this info by using DigitalPro). It looks as if the sun came out in
the image on the right when in reality, the white balance just got closer to the
correct color temp. (Don't confuse this with the problem with Tone in the X/H.)
This is a common problem with Auto WB and a visual demonstration why that's the
worst WB setting you can select! I realize that goes in the face of common logic
and what I said when I first started to shoot with the D1 three years ago. But
the proof is in the pudding.
So.I come back to what I said in the beginning, Cloudy -3 comes the closest
to our everyday shooting color temp / white balance needs. You can mess around
with other settings but in the end, to get it right right from the start, this
is our best option right now.
How can you learn color temperatures?
That's a darn good question now isn't it. The answer is of course you can,
but do you really need to? Color temperature of light is pretty predictable
within a certain range of error. That's to say that we know that on a basic
sunny day, the color temp can be within the range of 5500-7000k. So see, you can
learn color temperature, there's your first lesson. The real question is, is it
important to know specifically within that range the exact color temp to be able
to match it with a D1 family setting? Heck no! Even if you had a color meter and
could work it to get an accurate reading, looking at the tables above, you can
see our inability to match a reading to a setting exactly. So your ability to be
able to exactly know color temp might not really get you that much farther down
But we're talking your basic sunny day, that's really cheating as that's the
easiest. What about outside that range? Most white balance problems for
photographers come from color temps when there is no visible sun. Sunrises and
sunsets, cloudy and overcast days and altitude are times when the color temp can
spike in either direction of our baseline 5500 K. The first light of sunrise
might be in the 2000k range where light right outside my door at 8200 feet
elevation I have measured at 18000k! Here's a simple chart of round numbers
coinciding with light sources.
Color Temp Light Source (in the roughest sense)
(in the roughest sense)
Candles, some flashlights
Household bulb, used
Household bulb, new / some studio lights
Sunrise / sunset
(without the influence of heavy smog/smoke)
Fluorescent bulbs, cool white - "daylight" balances
Electronic Flash, portable (new bulb)
Studio Electronic Flash (new bulb)
Sunlight, bright day
"slight" overcast skies at lower elevations
Heavy overcast / slight shade
Rain at lower elevations / clear day at higher
elevations (above 8000 feet)
Overcast to snowy days at higher elevations
(above 8000 feet)
These numbers are based on my own years of running around with a color temp
meter learning color temps for my own photography
These numbers are based on my own years of running around with a color temp
meter learning color temps for my own photography
Now as I see it you have really one of two options. You can take the easy way
out (I highly recommend it) and simply learn the generalities of color
temperature by knowing the info I've gathered in the chart above or you do what
I did to compile the chart, that's spend time and money with a color temperature
meter. Why did I run around for years with a Minolta Color Meter to compile this
trivia in the first place? When I did commercial work, I would often have to gel
the strobes so they would match the color temp of the ambient light so the use
of the strobes would not be apparent. I don't do that work any longer thank
Many ask, "can't I just learn from what the LCD monitor displays?" The last
reference for color temp / WB you should use is the preview monitor on the back
of any digital camera! Their accuracy leaves much to be desired. Can you then
trust your computer monitor to display the correct WB of your digital images?
Man..is that a loaded question and one I'm not going to get into. I know I can
trust my monitors but that's not a blanket endorsement that everyone should
trust theirs without some homework at the very least. Then what about making
prints to learn what is and isn't correct WB? That's just as bad as the monitor
question for evaluating correct WB. May be in the future David can write a piece
on these two topics but for right now, I'm not touching them other than to say,
they're not your best options!
It's a well known fact that I use an 81a filter (Nikon A2) on all of my
lenses all of the time. I did this always with conventional film but many wonder
if I do it with digital? It hasn't changed, I still use and 81a filter all of
the time on all of my lenses. But doesn't digital "see" this color correction
filter and "filter" it out so it has no effect? When you first come into digital
photography, this logic makes perfect sense but that's not how it works, thank
You can do the test for yourself, but if you shoot one image with and one
image without an 81a filter attached, you will see the 81a image being "warmed"
up. That's the purpose of the 81A filter, to "warm" up the scene or remove blue
from the spectrum of light. In rough terms, when shooting in 5500 - 6000k light,
the 81a filter is equal to adding about 800 - 1000k rating to your film. In
other words, the color correction abilities of the 81a permit a 5500k WB to
properly record a color temp around 6500k. This is the technical reason why I
use the 81a filter, always have and always will (until I can dial it into my
digital camera). But there is an even more important reason why I use the 81a
The Psychology of Color (www.moose395.net/howto/color.html) is something that
was pounded into my head long ago back in the days of fashion and advertising
photography. While I'm not in that spectrum of photography anymore, I am still
selling something with my images. I'm trying to get folks involved with their
wild heritage, I'm selling them on its worth and why it should be protected. The
81a filter permits me to grab folks heartstrings on the most basic of levels.
Read the article on The Psychology of Color, it might influence your use of
Where does flash come in?
This is really a darn good question that with the D1, many including myself
didn't want to consider. Since the D1 made flash such a pain to use, using the
flash's constant 5500k (the flash's bulb temp when brand new, it slowly changes
color temp with time) to "clean up" color wasn't really a fun option. With the
improvement of flash with the D1X & D1H the option of flash to clean up colors
is back again. What do I mean when I say "clean up" colors? This comes back to
conventional film theory which can be applied to digital. The best way to
explain it is to explain how I use it for my photography.
When a butterfly thought to be extinct was rediscovered, I was there to
photograph it. The male butterfly is a very specific blue which I needed to
accurately record. The butterfly that was rediscovered lives in Los Angeles
where the smog can radically change the color temp from day to day. This color
temp change made it impossible to accurately record the blue of the butterfly.
To accomplish the job, flash fill was used with its constant 5500k being the
light source "cleaning up" the ambient light color temp. This constant color
temp permitted me to accurately, frame after frame after frame, record the blue
of the butterfly.
This same thing can be applied to digital, but the question arises, do you
set your camera WB to Sunny, Cloudy or Flash for the utmost accuracy? After all
of my testing and David's number crunching, there isn't one setting that is
going to give you anymore accurate color clean up over the other. I still use
Cloudy-3 when doing flash fill outdoors and find those results to be the best
for my needs.
Color Temperature / White Balance
This is by no means the last word on white balance! This is at best a
starting point which in time will change. It will change in time because of your
own requirements and how they might change and how you might solve them. It will
change in time as technology comes along to improve and change things. I
personally don't think there is one perfect answer at this time for white
balance and color temp. I do think though you can easily create the images you
want to create with the correct white balance you require. I know you can do
this with the information I've provided here and a little thought on your part.
Go out with this information and paint the world red!
David adds--In addition to Moose's empirical results, there are two
good scientific reasons to consider using an 81A on a digital camera if you want
warmer images. First, the 81A is applied before the image is captured, not
after. That means that you are using the 12-bits of your camera's exposure in a
more effective way than by having the white balance conversion change the sensor
values any more than they have to after the light has hit the sensor. Second,
the D1X and D1H are least sensitive to Red. So the Red channel needs all the
help it can get. If we ask the camera to 'multiply' the red values by too much
then we're adding noise we don't need to--and can prevent by proper filtering
before the shot.