Sometimes which White Balance setting to choose is counter-intuitive. When presets fail and logic stumbles, sampling and common sense can be your best guides.
Camera’s Auto-White Balance – Close to Daylight
I was shooting White-headed Capuchin Monkeys in Costa Rica in April when the problem of white balance reared its non-white head. The monkeys were holed-up in mostly shade with filtered sunlight coming through in narrow shafts. The camera I was using was set to Auto for White Balance. It chose 5350° K for a color temperature-not too far off from the daylight standard of 5500° K. The colors are fairly true but the white of the white-headed capuchin are not quite what I was expecting and certainly not what I remembered. No problem. I was shooting RAW. White Balance is my plaything.
White-balanced for Shade
The monkey was in the shade. The logical course is to take a shade preset and apply it? Right? Shade is usually measured at around 7500° K-decidedly warmer than daylight. Applying a shade preset in Lightroom, I ended up with the shot above. Not good. My monkey’s white fur has turned more orange. Instead of moving closer to my goal, I was farther away.
Sampled White Balance from the Monkey’s Chin Fur
In the final edited version you can see what happens when you don’t trust your camera and don’t trust the ambient conditions your eyes are seeing. I was fortunate to have a fairly neutral target in the whitest fur around the monkey’s face. Sampling from this area, I found a White Balance of 4500° K. The scene suddenly looked much more natural and I was happy with the final image.
What conditions were at work here?
Ambient light under the April Costa Rican sky was very bright. In full shade with ISO 400 I was able to shoot 1/200th at F5.6 so there was plenty of light bouncing around. That was the key: “Bouncing Around”. I was dealing with a dense canopy of fairly reflective green leaves. The ground was a nice light orange color. Unlike most full shade situations, the light bouncing around was coming off of (and through) green and orange surfaces. Just like putting colored reflectors in front of a model, the ambient conditions were tempering the light illuminating my monkey with some difficult-to-balance colors.
To top it off, I had a Canon 580EXII flash firing at 1/64th power to pop a little fill light into the face and a create a catch light in the eyes. While the contribution to the overall lighting of the scene by the flash was negligible, it must be mentioned.
Ideally, you would shoot a color chart in these conditions to later reference the light correctly. I even carry a tiny Munsell Color Chart in my camera vest for just such purposes. But, when there are monkeys dancing around you, it is easy to forget those little details. It would have made a cool blog shot – a monkey holding a color chart! But, I digress. Fortunately for me this was a White-headed Capuchin and a white-balancing target was built into the scene. (Note: the Capuchin may or may not actually have color neutral fur. White-headed is only a name.)
The next time White Balance is giving you the monkey business. Stop, think, and experiment or at least ask the monkey to move.
Rikk Flohr © 2010