Thoughts & Theory, Tutorials &Technique, Vision Is Better, Workflow & Technical Issues
Colour Temperature and Kicking Kittens.
I traveled once with a photographer obsessed with white balance. He routinely accessed the deeper menus on his Nikon and played with changing the parameters on his white balance, as though he was on a quest to discover the perfect magic setting. He quizzed me about color casts and how I set my white balance, and I think it truly deflated him to discover that not only was I not in possession of Kabbalistic knowledge on white balances, but that I actually didn’t seem to care. When I told him I just set my camera to auto white balance he looked like I’d just kicked his kitten.
Like so much in the photography world we’re very good at getting sidelined by issues counterfeiting as important. Now, there’s some work that’s colour-critical, and for that it’s important to nail your white balance. Get a grey card, do a custom white balance, and do it right. But for the rest of us, it’s a matter of interpretation. And I find it amusing because the same people that want to know “if that image is photoshopped” are the same ones that are prone to making good and sure the image is perfectly colour-balanced. But it’s important to remember that for most of us it’s more critical that the colour balance of the image be an ally in what we’re trying to communicate than to be perfectly accurate. It is, to put it another way, completely subjective. It’s a matter of interpretation.
This post isn’t about white balance. It’s about remembering what matters and focusing on that. I read a pop-theology book several years ago called “Adventures in Missing The Point” and while I’ve mostly forgotten the contents, the title of the book taught me so much. It is still a constant reminder not to get sidelined from the task at hand. That task will be different for all of us, we all photograph for different reasons. What matters is that you keep the main thing the main thing. In the case of white-balance, if your work is colour-critical, then by all means freak out about your white balance either in capture or in post. You have to. But if your work is a matter of interpretation or expression, then the “right” white balance is the one that allows your photograph to best express your vision, and as such I suggest you spend less time getting it “right” and more time playing with it. The same goes for everything. Craft matters, so does technique, but for most of us they serve our vision and are an act of expression. As such, all bets are off.
The image above is essentially the same one, set to different colour temperatures. Which one’s right? Doesn’t matter. What matters is which one most closely aligns the image to how I think and feel about the Paris Metro. Want to know the top-secret way I deal with colour-balance? I set the camera to Auto White Balance. I shoot in RAW. I bring the image into Lightroom and push sliders around until it looks the way I want it to. Not very technical, you say? Life’s too short.
By the way, I love kittens, so please don’t call PETA or send nasty emails. Instead, put that rage to good use and go play with your white balance. Try setting it to something wildly irresponsible and see what happens.