Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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White Balance: Important Tips and Tricks Someone Forgot to Teach You

Apr 11 2012 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

One of the biggest myths widely believed by newbie cinematographers and photographers is that it’s a good idea to white balance your camera off a white card placed near the subject. “Newbie” can mean a variety of things here.

I’ve met a great variety of people, some with graduate degrees in cinematography, perpetuating this rumor (and yes, sometimes I’m even guilty of such). Although it’s good and simple beginner advice, there’s a lot more to the story.

The ‘white card’ tip is only partly true and, quite frankly, is an extremely simplified version of the truth that is probably partly perpetuated by people who don’t feel like spending the time to explain the full story to you.

Assuming you read on, I’m about to put an end to that as best I can.

#1 – The card shouldn’t be white, it should be grey

The term ‘white balance’ is a bit of a misnomer. Actually, it is better to do what is known as a ‘grey balance’ for best results.

The technique is simple. Replace that white card (you do have one and you do use it…right?) in your camera kit with a grey one. Use it the same way as you would the white one. The explanation for why this works better is highly technical and rather complicated to explain (non-techie readers might want to skip down to Myth #2).

For simplicity’s sake, remember what you were taught white balancing is – telling your camera what color ‘white’ is so that it reproduces all the colors as your eye would see them. Again, this is only half-true. It causes some people to get really worried about finding something perfectly white. In a pinch, you can hold up a page of script in front of your camera and white balance on that. It’s amazing how many people freak out that it has black text on it because that’s not white.

That doesn’t really matter. White, grey, and black are all colorless parts of the image. All are valid ‘colors’ to use to tell your sensor what ‘no color’ looks like.

In the digital world, every pixel of every image is made up of two pieces of information, color and luminance. A true white pixel is a dot on the screen with zero saturation (no color is more present than any other) and maximum luminance (the brightness is as high as it can be). In RGB colorspace, this is represented as 255, 255, 255. Each color (R: red, G: green, B: blue) is present in the greatest amount possible (255), producing a bright white pixel with zero color saturation.

In contrast, a black pixel is the exact opposite: still zero saturation, but minimum luminance (RGB value: 0, 0, 0). Neither of these is ideal for white balancing.

In actuality, you want a grey pixel (any RGB value between 0, 0, 0 and 255, 255, 255 in which all three numbers remain equal, such as 25, 25, 25 or 234, 234, 234). This is because each color channel will clip at 0 or 255 if it tries to move past this number. When that’s the case, it throws off your white balance and thus the color in the final image.

#2 – Sometimes you want to use an off-white color

Ever film someone in front of a white wall? Of course you have.

That is you’ve filmed someone in front of what you think is a white wall. It’s probably not quite white, but actually off-white.

Old schools buildings and offices are famous for this. They have that white-painted brick that actually has a hint of brown in it. But you perceive it to be pretty much white.

You can use this to your advantage. When shooting a talking head in front of such a wall, you might want to consider white balancing on the wall. Technically, your color will be slightly off, but if the audience perceives the wall to be white anyway, it will probably be more visually pleasing to just sell it as white and let the rest of the color suffer slightly as a result.

If the effect is noticeable, the wall isn’t close enough to white for this to apply; if it’s not, well then you’ve sold it now haven’t you? This works better because it’s harder for the average viewer to see if the person’s skin tones are correct than if the wall is white or not.

Now if you’re doing any sort of color correction in post you can obviously take your pick of wall or gray card and tweak the other part of the image later. This is the ideal solution, but when that is not an option (in fast-paced environments like broadcast news, or live sports, for instance) you’re going to have to fall prey to one side of the trade-off or the other.

#3 – Sometimes you want to use a different color entirely

I once read about a photographer who carries a color wheel right next to his gray card – and he uses both for the same thing, “white balancing.”

When you balance to a color that isn’t white, black, or gray, it produces an image with a certain color cast to it. Obviously this is exactly what you’re typically trying to “fix” or “avoid” by white balancing.

Minority Report (2002), posted processes with bleach bypass. You can achieve a similar look through grading or creative use of white balance tools.

However, sometimes it’s exactly what you want to do for creative effect. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) is best known by some as “that blue film.” That is the entire film is tinted blue, deliberately. They treated the film in post with an effect known as a ‘bleach bypass’ to achieve this effect, but you can get a similar effect by ‘white balancing’ to an orange card.

color wheelWhy orange? That’s where the color wheel comes in. You look for the color you want in the final image and white balance to the color opposite it on the color wheel. If you want a green cast, you white balance on purple.

It’s easy to memorize and do this for the complementary colors of the primary and secondary colors, but for super specific shades or tints, well that’s where having the color wheel on set with you becomes so useful.

#4 – Just dial it in

Using a card is often not the best way to set your white balance. It’s amazing how many people think that just because you never held a card up in front of the lens means that you didn’t white balance properly.

Using a card is really a technique that was aimed at the video camcorder market. Today’s prosumer oriented cameras (video DSLRs especially) usually still have the manual white balance feature where you point at a card and press a button, but this often isn’t how professional crews do it.

There are differences here between the live broadcast crowds and the spot production or cinema crowds.

Live broadcasts will usually color shade their cameras live. This means that there is a separate person or group of people at a console tweaking the color on the production truck or in the control room. Only on-site news crews really need to control color from the camera itself. Everyone else uses a separate camera control unit (CCU) or color shader.

The advantage to this is that the color shader (the person on the truck) can make all the cameras match perfectly. If each individual operator set the color in-camera using the card method, none of the cameras would actually match (because of sight inaccuracies, changes in lighting, different camera locations, different card tints…it becomes a nasty list!). It’s so much easier to handle all the color from a central location with a bank of high quality monitors.

Cinema-style spot production uses another method. They dial in the white balance in camera, although typically by setting the camera to the desired Kelvin value, instead of using a card. Again, this allows the cameras to mostly match.

The issue here is the individual sensors in each camera on a multicamera shoot may vary slightly in color reproduction. Setting the white balance in camera, using Kelvin values or not, doesn’t account for this. Some cameras have built-in adjustments you can calibrate to correct for this, others don’t, but at any rate, that’s why some minor color correction in post always becomes a desirable thing. Same concept as the color shading idea in live work, but not being live, your colorist can put much more time and effort into getting the perfect grade.

As far as setting your camera dial for the correct camera setting, there are simple rules to follow. Since the rules for how Kelvin values are affected by what filters you use and the gels you place in front of your lights can get quite complicated, you’ll have to wait for a future post to read them. Likewise, look for my color correction tips and methods in a series of upcoming posts.

Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.

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