The One Setting You Absolutely Must Get Right in Post Processing
Nothing drives me crazy like a photo with an improper white balance. It is so crucial that you correct white balance in your photography, and I firmly believe that this is the single most important thing you must correct in your photo in Lightroom, Photoshop, or whatever other post processing program you may use. In my work, I am so focused on providing the true colors of each and every element of my scene, and I try to remove any and all color casts that can be found in my images. You can find more photos where this is done poorly than it is correctly. I see this quite often on photos of the Northern Lights, where not only are the Northern Lights green, but also the whole sky is tinted green. This is also common in shots taken in the shade, where the AWB (auto white balance) on the camera tries to overcompensate and the whole image ends up being blue. Even sunsets are often rendered too warm for my personal taste. In this week's blog post, I want to talk about some ways that you can nail your white balance while post processing and some ways that you can tell when your white balance is off.
Other than the checkbox to turn on profile corrections, my first step of editing a photo is manually adjusting the white balance. My Sony A7rii generally does a great job in the field when set to auto white balance, but I almost always find myself slightly tweaking the white balance of my photos while editing. I will also note that even though I fix the white balance as my first step to processing a RAW file, I often times will go back later and slightly bump the white balance one way or another before finishing the file.
Before I dive in here, I think it would be useful to define white balance, in my own words (dictionary definitions are often hard to understand). To me, white balance is the way that tones are changed in an image in order to balance colors in the frame. One way this is done is by adjusting sliders until something you saw in the scene that was pure white appears pure white in processing. However, I will also mention that rarely will you ever shoot something that is pure white. Waterfalls have a slight blue cast, and even snow will either have a slight blue or orange cast, depending on if it is in the shade or the sun.
How "realistic" you make your white balance is really up to you. I generally go for as realistic of a look as possible, but many other photographers intentionally tint their photos a particular color. You see this often in night photography, where the photographer will tint the photo blue. Regardless of how you like your photos to look, it's obvious when a photographer clearly has control of his or her white balance, and when they don't have control. This is one of the biggest things that separates professional looking photos from amateur looking photos, and I'm excited to share some quick tips to help you improve your white balance.
Adjusting White Balance on Sunset/Sunrise Images
The hardest shots to adjust the white balance are generally ones with a great sunrise or sunset. Balancing the image so it still looks realistic, but also isn't too blue is always a challenge.
On this particular morning in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the sunrise was a beauty. As usual, I left my camera on auto white balance. Because of the amount of orange clouds in the sky, the camera overcorrected and the whole image ended up with a cool blue temperature cast. This was the worst it's ever happened on my a7rii, so I figured this would make a great example.
Notice how the foreground rocks, which are receiving light, are tinted blue? That isn't right, because the sunlight was just beginning to hit, meaning the rocks should be glowing orange or pink. Also, I was obviously at the scene, and I know that the sky looked much warmer than the left half of the image. Nearly the whole sky was orange.
I first fixed the temperature, which in this shot, needed to be warmed up quite a bit. I usually have a reference point that I'm watching closely, as well as the whole image. In this image, I watched the foreground rocks until they reached the correct temperature. Then, I noticed that they still had a magenta tint, so I slowly tinted the image back towards green until the rocks looked how I wanted them to. After this, I zoomed all the way out and examined the image as a whole. I made one last slight change to temperature, but it was very miniscule. On sunrise and sunset photos, I always balance the whites completely based on just looking at a reference point on the image and then at the image as a whole.
Adjusting White Balance on Waterfall Images
The next example will be a waterfall shot. I'll be using a RAW file with no edits (other than profile correction) to show you how I correct white balance in Lightroom.
If you process enough photos and always focus on fixing the white balance, you'll eventually develop an eye for it, and it will take you less than 2 minutes every time once you've practiced enough and reached maximum efficiency. From my experience, I can already tell that this photo is too blue and has a slight magenta tint.
Once you've selected the White Balance Selector, it's crucial that the spot you choose to sample from is a good choice. The tool basically makes whatever you click on balanced out to be true white. This is why I love using this tool on waterfall images. The temperature and tint of the water should be almost perfectly white, so this will get you in the ballpark of the final white balance values you need. Make sure to select the brightest white, as the darker whites that are shaded are, and should be slightly blue tinted, so this makes the darker water a poor sample choice.
At this point, you're so close. I would say that this is acceptable, but I like to take it a bit further and add the slightest blue touch back to my water. This is done manually, and something that I do by just watching the image as I slowly adjust the temperature, and occasionally the tint again.
Looking at the photo above, it's very hard to see the hint of blue I added back. It doesn't make a night and day difference in this shot, but it does make a difference nonetheless, especially in the final image. I strive to get as close to perfection as possible so this is a step I never skip. The right side of the image would be ready to move on to the rest of my workflow at this point.
Hopefully this post will help you in balancing the tint and temperatures of your photos. This is a concept that you must master if you want to create professional looking images. There is nothing wrong with tinting your image a certain way, but mastering control of the white balance can easily separate you from the crowd and improve the overall look of your images immensely. Thanks for checking out this week's post!