When I first started shooting, I had no idea what white balance was. To me it was one of the switches on my camera that, at the time, was always set to auto, and this seemed to be no problem. Why would you not use your auto WB setting? Camera's have a really tough time getting this right, and auto WB can deliver extremely varied results. I would not recommend using this setting at all since pre-sets are so simple and accurate to use. I discovered this when I shot indoors for the first times and was getting very yellow toned images. This was also during the same time period where I thought JPEG was the only file a camera fired. Now I shoot in RAW almost exclusively.
JPEG's apply your white balance setting and make additional compressions, sharpening, and editing to the image in the camera. This is why it's important to nail your white balance in this setting. With RAW images however, even if you shoot the completely wrong white balance, you can easily change this setting without extreme color correction in your RAW file converter. It's still important to try and nail it right away, and if you shoot with a Spyder cube or a gray card, you can make sure it's perfectly matched. Making it look perfect in some lighting conditions can be tough without RAW calibration.
Why do there need to be different white balances and what is white balance? Take a white piece of paper from your house and look at it outside on a bright sunny day. Chances are that paper looks very white, now bring it inside where you have incandescent lights, looks more yellow now. Different lights have different colors depending on the type. Your mind is trained to understand what white is, so even though that paper is actually more yellow, you still know that it is white. This is something your camera does not compensate for.
White Balance is based off of the Kelvin temperature system. Warmer lights have more Kelvins, and colder lights have less. Matching your camera to the same temperature as the light tells it that it needs to either make the light more blue, or yellow to create a true white. Your camera should have a setting for Kelvins as well, experiment with this and watch how it changes the light, and see what settings you will need for different conditions to get an idea as to whether the light is colder or warmer than daylight. This will help you better grasp what white balance means, and how it works. It is also beneficial if you are having a tough time with pre-set white balances.
There are several ways to make sure your balance is correct, and I prefer the easiest and quickest ones (in-camera pre-sets). It won't make you look bad if you choose pre-sets over carrying a gray card. However, I do now use the Spyder Cube which is an incredibly easy way of nailing WB, and ensuring that the image has true blacks and perfect whites. You can check these out here: DataColor With the Spyder Cube, take your image, and place the cube somewhere in the photo, then take your main picture with the cube removed. When you are doing your editing, use your WB picker in camera RAW, lightroom, or aperture, and point it at the white side of the cube. This will generate perfect WB. For times when the cube is unfeasible, or when you don't want to carry it, there are other options.
The in-camera pre-sets are my go to, quick and easy option. These are the images in your WB setting menu of a scene, kind of like you find in the different mode options of a compact camera. If it's sunny, set it to sunny WB, cloudy? set cloudy WB. And if you are indoors in your own house, chances are your going to want incandescent WB which has an image of a standard lightbulb. There are also Tungsten, and fluorescent which reflect their respective lighting types. If you are in the shade, choose the shade setting which should look like a shadow cast by a house. Look into your camera's manual and it will explain what each one means, different cameras have different settings. Experimenting with these settings can lead to some creative results. I tend to shoot on Cloudy white balance even when it's sunny out because I am partial to a warm look. These settings are usually adjustable as well with a plus or minus to warm or cool them slightly.
Another option is to use the preset manual setting. This one is more complex, and is what you can use with a gray card. Set your WB to PRE mode, and then hold the button down until PRE starts to blink. Press your shutter button as you hold the gray card under the same lighting that your subject will be in. Then press the PRE button and scroll until it shows a pre-set. Shoot with this setting and your WB in the respective lighting should be perfect. The setting you recorded will be saved into the camera, and in my D300 will be saved as d-0, any more that I save will change the number after the "d-". You can go back and use these settings everytime you are in the same lighting.
As you can see, there are many options and solutions for nailing white balance. Master this and you are guaranteed better colored images than using the Auto WB feature.
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