White Balance for Night Photographers

Few subjects generate as much confusion and debate in digital photography as does White Balance. When I first switched from film to digital, I was sweating bullets thinking about it. People were telling me that it was the most important thing I needed to learn and if I didn’t get it right, I was screwed. Not knowing anything about it, I started out with the camera set to auto WB. Then, after I learned a little bit about it, I left it there! Except for test exposures, EVERY digital image I’ve shot has been on auto WB.

A major source of confusion with WB concerns the RAW file format. WHITE BALANCE DOES NOT AFFECT THE RAW FILE. Some things you can count on, like Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady, using too much hair spray. White Balance having an effect on the RAW file is another. It just won’t.

What your camera WILL do, however, is write the WB information to the metadata in the RAW file. Some processing programs can use this information to present a starting point for you in the RAW conversion process, but you always have the option of setting the WB of a RAW file to whatever you like AFTER you shoot it.

JPEG, of course, is a different beast. The camera uses the WB setting to process the JPEG file, so if you don’t shoot RAW you need to learn a little bit about WB. Also, the LCD preview image and histogram are based upon a JPEG rendering of the RAW file, so even if you shoot RAW the WB setting will affect what you see on the back of the camera. This is not an issue for me because I never judge the color or exposure of a photo based on the preview image. I use the preview  for composition, focus, and to see how long exposures affect the image. I use the histogram for exposure, and I’ve learned how to read it to compensate for any inaccuracies based upon its being generated from a JPEG rendering.

This begs the question, then, as to whether you should shoot JPEG or RAW. I can’t answer that for you because it depends on what YOU do with your photography. There are many reasons to shoot JPEG, among them because of the much smaller file sizes, which make storage and transfer much easier and quicker, and the fact that the image is already processed by the camera, so you don’t have to take the time for post processing. The advantage of the RAW format is that a RAW image file contains ALL the information possible related to the capture. You can think of it as a “first-generation” negative or slide from the film days. A JPEG is more like a slide that was produced from a print. Sure, you could take that “second-generation” slide and make another print from it, but because you are starting out with much less image data, the quality of the print could suffer.

When I shoot family events, parties, friend gatherings, etc., I shoot in JPEG mode. I’ll be shooting a wedding for a friend in a few months and I’ll shoot in JPEG + RAW. The bride will have instant access to the JPEG files for sharing and she’ll choose from those the ones to make prints from. I’ll process the RAW files from the ones she chooses. For all of my night photography and general shooting, I shoot only in RAW mode.   

Since I do shoot certain subjects in JPEG mode, it seems to make sense that I should know a little bit about how to set the WB. Truth is, I have no clue. As I said, I’ve never moved the dial off Auto. Most of the time when I shoot JPEG, I need to shoot quickly to grab the moment and don’t have time to fiddle with settings. If I’m in a situation where the final image quality is a primary concern, I’ll shoot in RAW + JPEG. Besides, I find that the Auto setting does a good job in most situations.  

Back to RAW and WB. Again, when you shoot RAW, you can adjust the WB to whatever you like when you open the image in the RAW converter. I’ve heard people say that you should still set the WB even when you shoot RAW. One reason given is that it makes the workflow easier, because the RAW image will open up with the preset WB setting already applied. Another one I’ve heard is because changing the WB in the RAW converter causes a loss of image data.

As to the first argument, I have my RAW converter set to open ALL files with the WB set to 5000K, so this doesn’t affect me. I don’t believe in choosing the WB based purely upon the color temperature of the lighting in the scene. I set it based upon what looks good. 5500K might be the recommended setting to offset tungsten lighting, but if I think 5000K or 6000K looks better, that’s where I’m going to set it. By starting every image at the same WB setting in the RAW converter and not paying attention to any preconceived notions about how the color should look, I am better able to adjust each image according to what looks best for that particular image. This is really important, since so many of the night photography images I shoot have a wide range of lighting with varying color temperatures, all in the same scene. Sometimes it can be best to process the WB separately, by create two or more versions and then combining them later in Photoshop.

Let me repeat, I set the WB based on what looks good. Unless you’re photographing for scientific research or doing commercial product photography, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” color temperature for your images. There is only what you like or don’t like.           

As to the argument that adjusting the WB in a RAW file causes a loss of image data, I don’t believe that is the case. I certainly haven’t seen this in my photos. I’m not an expert on this, though, and I will defer to those who know more about the process. At any rate, I am certain that the WB adjustments I make to RAW files do not affect the image adversely.

Where does all this leave us night photographers? For most night photography, you should shoot RAW. Period. Let’s face it, with most night images we have to do a fair amount of post processing and it just doesn’t make sense to begin with a handicap. And some of the processing we do, such as noise removal with dark frames, MUST be done using TIFF or PSD files that were converted from RAW without making the types of adjustments that the JPEG format incorporates. The only time I can think of that you’d want to shoot JPEG for serious night photography is when shooting time lapses. Since you’re capturing so many shots to create the time lapse, the post processing can be very time and computer-resource consuming, even with batch processing. Plus, with time lapses, you don’t need large files since they can be viewed only on a computer or TV screen.

Remember, WB does not affect RAW files. If you shoot RAW, you can set the WB to Auto and have one less thing to fiddle with in the field.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call my broker. I’m going to buy stock in the company that makes the hair spray that Flo uses.

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