White balance is one of those nuanced matters in photography that doesn’t neatly categorise as either science or art. I have waxed on about the artistic uses for white balance in previous ramblings on the topic but there is no doubt that every scene has a very definite “actual white balance”.
The difficulty is that cameras are not especially good at measuring white balance values and, instead, estimate an appropriate Kelvin value 1 using data collected from the image sensor. In fact, attaining an exact white balance measurement requires using a dedicated colour meter and, importantly, these meters need to be placed next to the subject in a scene for them to make a precise reading. In a studio, getting a meter alongside a subject is a relatively straightforward affair but things get a little trickier when the subject is a distant mountain.
Invariably, whether it be for artistic reasons or otherwise, one of the first matters that all outdoor photographers are likely to address during post-production is white balance and by that stage, white balance is no longer a science, it’s a guess! To be fair, there are a host of techniques that one can leverage to steer the guess back towards science but, for the most part, these methods require multiple steps, making them rather clumsy and far too time-consuming to be applied to all the images. In a world where returning from a photography trip can mean thousands of pictures, what we need is a quick and dirty way to get the white balance in the right ballpark with, at most, only moderate effort.
One solution to the problem is to crank both the Vibrance and Saturation sliders to +100 once in Lightroom. Doing so will make the photograph look ghastly and completely surreal but the advantage is that subtle errors in white balance will be glaringly obvious. If the image is even slightly too warm, the result will be a photo that appears bright yellow, and if it’s too cool, it will appear deep blue. With the errors exaggerated, it is considerably easier to see the impact of one’s adjustments and thus to achieve a neutral white balance.
Once you have arrived at a neutral point, it is merely a matter of dialling the vibrance and saturation back down again until the photo looks “normal” once more. Using this method, what you should be left with remains a white balance guess but one that is distinctly more educated.
- The Kelvin value is the unit of measurement for white balance.