The white balance in filmmaking

If you deal with the topic of color in film, sooner or later you end up with the topic of white balance. But what exactly is it, what do you need it for and how do you set the white balance correctly?

This article covers all the important information about white balance and all the ways to set and apply white balance correctly.

What is the white balance? (Definition)

White balance is the adjustment of the camera to the color temperature of the available light. Because light is not just light: Light can have different wavelengths, for example there is redder (artificial light) or bluish light (daylight). The different colors of light are referred to as the so-called color temperature. The color temperature is given in Kelvin (K).

While the human eye automatically adapts to the different colors of light, this has to be reset for the camera in each lighting situation. In analog film times, the cameraman had to decide whether he wanted to shoot on film sensitized to daylight or artificial light. Today’s digital cameras have various options to adapt to the existing color temperature. 

What happens with white balance?

The white balance tells the camera what color it should see as white (actually 18% neutral grey) in a certain situation. The camera then uses this white to calculate the other colors and adjusts them in relation to the specified white.

The white balance is therefore important so that the subject can be adapted to the prevailing color temperature and reproduced in the correct colors. Then it also corresponds to the natural visual impression of humans.

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Important Kelvin values

Here is an overview of the most important Kelvin values ​​so that you can quickly find your way around the color temperature and the Kelvin values ​​to be set.

color temperaturelight source
1500 KCandle
2600 KIncandescent lamp (40W)
2700-2800Khalogen lamp
4000KFluorescent Lamp (Neutral White)
4120Kmoonlight
5000Kmorning/evening sun
5500Kmorning/afternoon sun
6500-7500KCloudy sky
15.000-27.000Knorthern lights

Automatic setting

One option for white balance is automatic balance (AWB), which is available in most devices. This delivers quite acceptable results when it comes to a uniform color temperature in the image. The camera focuses on the brightest part of the picture. This is defined as white and all other colors are adjusted to it.

However, this also creates problems. For example, if the brightest part of the picture is a light pink, the automatic corrects “wrong”. This causes problems especially with mixed light (eg daylight and artificial light in one picture).

Another example: You want to film or photograph a beautiful, orange-red sunrise/rise. The white balance is set to automatic. Once you have taken a picture, you will find that the camera has tried to correct the orange-red color cast. The result: The sunrise/sunset loses its color intensity and thus its charm. Check out here to learn more.

Semi-automatic adjustment

The semi-automatic white balance can be carried out using so-called presettings, which are usually stored in every photo and film camera from the outset.
However, the color temperatures fluctuate: Daylight takes on different Kelvin values ​​over the course of the day and artificial light never behaves the same way either. For this reason, the choice of preset values ​​is also not optimal.

Here is a brief overview of the usual presets:

  • artificial light (3000K)
  • Fluorescent lamp (2700K-7200K)
  • Direct sunlight (5200K)
  • Flash (5400K)
  • Cloudy Sky (6000K)
  • Treasures (8000K)

Manual white balance

In addition to the automatic variants, the best and most precise approach is manual white balance. This is usually possible even with entry-level cameras. All you need is a blank sheet of paper or an 18% neutral gray card.

How to proceed:

  1. Switch aperture to automatic function (optional)
  2. Hold a white sheet of paper, preferably 18% gray card, in front of the camera
  3. Zoom in on the white sheet or gray card so that it fills the camera image
  4. Do the white balance (usually press the AWB button or toggle switch briefly)
  5. Switch off the automatic function of the aperture again (optional)

Important: With every new light situation, a new white must be used!

Subsequent adjustment

Previously only possible with difficulty, no longer a problem in the digital age: subsequent white balance.

If you have set the wrong white or the automatic was slightly wrong, you can correct the white balance with any semi-professional editing program. Depending, of course, on how much the white is off the mark and in which format it was recorded.

In general, however, color adjustments in color correction are no longer a problem, especially if you filmed or photographed in RAW format.

Nevertheless, you shouldn’t do without the white balance completely because of this: correction is not always easy, especially with moving images. This is particularly true for mixed light, i.e. when light sources with different color temperatures come together. That’s why you should set everything from the start the way you want it to be later as a basis.

Set targeted false white

Another option is to set a deliberately false white. This is particularly interesting for photographs if you want to convey a certain mood or atmosphere that would not be created by real white.

For example, you can add a reddish or bluish tint to an otherwise rather dreary picture and give it a new look. This is especially true in photography.

Conclusion

White balance is used to match the camera’s color to the prevailing color temperature on set, using the white as a reference for the other colors.

This makes it an essential design tool when taking and designing images, whether in film or photography.

For this reason, you should know all the possibilities to work safely and actively with the color temperature and to be able to design pictures.

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