By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP
When the topic of white balancing files comes up, there are usually two big questions. The first is “Why should I be concerned about white balance since my camera can automatically do that for me?” Once the value of white balancing is understood, the next question is “Which method is best?” Answering the question of why is simple.
As a portrait photographer, I especially want the flesh tones of my subject to look healthy and alive, therefore correct white balance or color balance in an image is essential to its success. A green color cast from grass or trees on my subject’s skin will not convey that he or she is healthy, nor will it convey that I, the professional, know how to properly present my finished work. A professional is expected to be in control of the entire process, and understanding white balance and incorporating professional tools makes it possible to accomplish the task with a minimum of effort.
When you set your camera to Auto White Balance, the camera tries to guess what the best white balance setting should be.
Using a calibrated white balance device eliminates any guesswork on the part of the camera. Deciding which method to choose takes a bit more consideration. If you capture raw files you can non-destructively make white balance adjustments in-camera or in post processing. If you capture in JPEG mode, it’s best to do an in-camera custom white balance for each lighting situation. I choose to do my white balancing in Adobe Lightroom during post-production. White balance devices take many forms, from the multi-functional X-Rite ColorChecker Passport, to the odd looking but practical SpyderCube from Datacolor, to the prism texture and diffusion discs of the ExpoImaging ExpoDisc. An accurate white balance device needs to be spectrally neutral. By that I mean that it has no inherent color bias. The material the device is composed of must not influence the light in any way.
The ColorRight ($89) or ColorRight Pro ($129) by ColorRight is an excellent device for either in-camera or post-production white balancing. For simplicity it’s tough to beat. During a recent portrait session, I had the opportunity to try a ColorRight Pro (below). The advantage of the Pro version is that the unique shape, according to their website, “gathers light from multiple angles ensuring you are getting the whole color picture.” The unique shape even allows light from a hot shoe mounted flash to strike the device and influence the final white balance.
The ColorRight Pro (above, shown with Canon camera and lens) is a device designed for in-camera or post-production white balancing. Image ©Don Chick
To set white balance with the ColorRight Pro, change the lens to manual focus, enabling the camera to take an image without having to focus. Place the ColorRight Pro directly in front of the lens with the red dot pointing up and take an image. That image is then used to set the custom white balance setting of the camera (consult your owner’s manual for specific directions). Once you’ve set the custom white balance, all the images taken under those lighting conditions will have the same white balance. When you move to a new location or the lighting changes, repeat the process to ensure proper white balance for the new series of images. After custom balancing the camera, don't forget to switch your lens back to autofocus mode.
If you do your white balance in post-production, you don’t have to set a custom white balance in the camera after capturing the image each time. Download the files to your computer (and back up!) then open them in Lightroom or another raw conversion program. Use the eyedropper tool to sample the file captured with the ColorRight Pro. Select all the files in the sequence of images that were in the lighting conditions for that sample shot, and synch the white balance for that sequence. Sync the white balance of each set of images to its ColorRight Pro shot until all the images from the session have a neutral white balance.
White balancing in post-production also allows you to modify the color temperature to a warmer or cooler setting, to suit your taste and style, prior to sending the files to the lab.
While I did find the ColorRight Pro easy to work with, the bulkiness of the device, especially compared to a flat disc, took some getting used to.
The ColorRight PostRight device ($89) is designed for post-production image processing. You simply photograph the device in the lighting you’ll be shooting in. Then in post-production, using the white balance selector in a raw processor application (e.g., Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw), you select the PostRight’s neutral white center to color balance the image. Sync your image series as with the ColorRight Pro.
The numbered color patches (1-6) on the PostRight allow for selecting the white balance based on skin tones. The ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite has a panel for this purpose in its design. The lighter skin tones utilize the lower number while darker tones work progressively towards the higher numbers, up to six. Numbers 7, 8, 11 and 12 are for alternate mid skin tone types while 9 and 10 are for applying an overall cooler white balance to the image. The image of Doug (below) was color balanced by selecting the neutral white area in the center of the device. That’s how simple it is to use this device.
Once the file is color balanced, do your regular enhancement and retouching prior to sending the file to your lab for printing. By controlling the white balance of your files, you get a potentially large financial benefit because you can take advantage of the “print direct” option most labs offer today. Depending on your studio’s volume, you could be saving hundreds, or even thousands of dollars with “direct print” pricing.
By incorporating the ColorRight products, or another dependable white balance device, into your workflow and learning the simple technique for white balancing your own images described in this article, you will be giving your clients a better end product as well as potentially saving your business a lot of money. You can check out the ColorRight products at www.colorright.com.