Thursday, September 22, 2011

White Balance and RAW Mode

Should you worry about white balance settings if you shoot in RAW mode? After all, you can modify a RAW file after the fact.

The quick answer is no, but that may not be the best answer. When you take a picture using RAW mode, the data is taken from the imaging sensor with no white balance, sharpening, or color saturation information applied. Instead, the information about the picture’s settings are stored as “markers” along with the RAW black-and-white sensor data. Color information is only applied permanently to the image when you post-process and save the image to another format like JPEG, TIFF, or EPS.

When you open the image in a RAW conversion program, the camera settings are applied to the sensor data in a temporary way so that you can view the image on your computer screen. If you do not like the color balance or any other setting you used in-camera, you can simply change it in the conversion software and the image looks as if you used the new setting when you took the picture.

Does that mean you shouldn't be concerned about white balance settings since if you shoot RAW most of the time? No! The human brain can quickly adjust to an image’s colors and perceive them as normal, even when they are not. This is one of the dangers of not using correct white balance. Since an unbalanced image on your computer screen is not compared to another correctly balanced image side by side, there is some danger that your brain may accept the slightly incorrect camera settings as normal and your image will be saved with a color cast.

As a rule of thumb, if you use your white balance correctly at all times you will consistently produce better images. You will do less post-processing if the white balance is correct in the first place. As RAW shooters, we already have a lot of post-processing work to do. Why add white balance corrections to the workflow? It is just more work, if you ask me!

Additionally, you might decide to switch to JPEG mode in the middle of a shoot, and if you are not accustomed to using your white balance controls, you’ll be in trouble. When you shoot JPEGs, your camera will apply the white balance information directly to the image and save it on your memory card—permanently. Be safe; always use good white balance technique!

Keep on capturing time...
Darrell Young
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