Playing with White Balance

Since I’ve been re-visiting film photography, I’ve been thinking a lot. Some of the differences between digital and film photography are the obvious – film is one of them. The kinds of cameras available is another one of them. The way film is processed is another. Not so obvious, at least to some, is white balance. In the days of film, white balance didn’t exist – well, the same light existed then, it was just handled differently. With film, white balance is handled by the type of film used. Basically, there were 2 kinds of film, daylight and tungsten (or indoor). Different types of film, or brands of film, may have tweaked the emulsions slightly – so there were variations in how different types of light were rendered. Everyone had there favorite films, and one reason was how they rendered light. With digital cameras, white balance is handled through a setting (like most everything else).

This is where my thoughts start getting interesting. I was thinking (and depending upon who you ask, that’s not always a good thing) that I’d like to try to recreate the way things worked with film in my digital world. To make things a bit more static and not so variable. To try to recreate some of the results I used to get with film. Daylight color temps are usually defined as being around 5500 K. While indoor light ranges from 2200-3000 K. Candle light would be around 1700-1850 K. One of the problems I find when using auto white balance with my digital camera is that it jumps around, even when my light source is the same. I’ve manually set my white balance before (for things like night football games under lights) – but I’m starting to use manual settings more and more, when I’m walking around in daylight, or in the city at night.

This also allows me to start playing with things like filters that shift the color slightly. If you used a slightly warm filter (skylight or other warming filter) auto white balance might adjust to compensate for the filter, so you won’t see the true effect in your image.

Now, you could apply these kinds of effects during post processing, but it’s fun to have another way to alter your photographs. Setting your white balance to something other than auto allows you to experiment with some of these “older” photo techniques. And, it’s nice to set some settings to static values and not have them changing continuously while you’re shooting.

Below are 2 photos for comparison. Both are shot with a white balance of 5350 K. The second is shot using a Tiffen Warm Polarizer to help warm up the image, and slightly darken the blue sky. See what you think of the look of each.