Shooting RAW and White Balance
The problem with photographers (mostly us boys anyway) is that we can be a big bunch of geeks. We obsess of tiny details in our images and our process. To be honest that should come as a relief to many of you if you’re hiring a professional photographer but what about when you are creating your own images?
I don’t really want to get into a debate about if you should photograph in RAW or not. I’m a professional, I should. If you’re taking happy snaps for Facebook then it’s certainly not important.
What is a RAW file?
People often refer to RAW files as the digital negatives which is in someway true but to be honest lacks a little imagination as an analogy.
Who remembers film anyway?
I do. I spent the best part of six years in darkrooms learning my craft only for it to be completely replaced as an industry standard almost as instantly as I graduated from my photography degree. I do mean instantly. My first real full time photography job was on a ship which moved to fully digital about a month before I joined. When I was at university the only digital camera I used was a tiny compact 1 megapixel thingy.
The point is I know negatives, and RAW files ain’t negatives, they are much more than that so the comparison isn’t really fair.
The information in a RAW file allows us a tremendous amount of leeway and scope for creativity and fixing failure. Really it’s the amateurs that should be using RAW more than the seasoned professionals because it makes it easier to fix mistakes like slight over or under exposure.
Really a RAW file is just a whole bunch of information that needs to be told what to do to create a photo. Too much information if we’re being honest and if you are beginning to learn the basic elements of good photography I would first concentrate on creating a good JPG in camera first.
But what do we do with RAW files?
In simple terms, we open them in expensive software, fix the adjustments and then turn them into JPGs.
It is a science but not one as complicated a science that is involved in the manufacturing of rockets (is that what rocket science is? I’m not sure).
Guess what? Your camera does exactly the same thing for you and just cuts out the middle man (the expensive software).
The problem is that my camera, as expensive as it is, doesn’t do the best job of creating a JPG. How can it? It’s a machine and last time I checked Skynet weren’t building cameras. (Please excuse the Terminator reference but I was trying to make the point that a camera doesn’t have AI).
But we do live in a world of the future with walkie talkie watches and phones you can unlock with your face.
At the consumer end of the market (and I’m including phones in this) the level of JPG processing is actually rather good.
However, your camera might do a pretty good job of creating a good useable image but that can only happen if you take a good image to begin with.
So for now don’t worry about RAW files because you’re going to take perfect photos anyway (if you keep following this).
What is white balance?
It’s the reason your photos at home look yellow, it’s the science of light and it has awesome creative possibilities. It can also be a pain in the proverbial behind.
Before I start complaining I should explain a bit more about what white balance actually is and to do that you have to understand light a little better. As photography is all about light then learning a little bit more about it can only be a good thing I guess.
Different types of light are different colours, even the same light source can change colour and none so more than the sun. At sunset its yellow and golden and full of lovely warmth. At noon on a cloudy day it’s blue and cold and British.
Household lights are yellowish and LED lights are kind of blue too.
The problem with AUTO WB
By default your camera is probably set up for AUTO White Balance which is fine most of the time if you’re photographing somewhere with a consistent light source.
The reason your photos taken inside are yellow is that your camera thought you were going to use a flash and for whatever reason it didn’t go off (stupid camera). By using AUTO your camera will try and make all the blue light from your flash appear normal (not blue) and when the flash doesn’t go off and when the only other light in the scene is yellow then that yellow light appears really yellow.
AUTO White Balance is also a problem when photographing somewhere when we have different types of light. You might get lucky and your camera will decide to be really creative but you are leaving it to chance and that’s not what we’re here for.
With these types of scenes the AUTO settings have a tendency to constantly change. What results is a set of inconsistently coloured images which are a pain to fix later. It’s better to have one consistent wrong white balance setting for all of your images and then the fix in processing later with one consistent correction than lots of images than are wrong in lots of different ways and all need different degrees of correction.
So how do I change my White Balance?
Firstly you have to find it, most camera manufactures cleverly disguise White Balance as WB somewhere in your settings.
Most cameras have lovely little icons which will help you make the right decision about what setting to use. The sunshine icon is good for bright sun, the lightbulb is good for indoors and so on.
Choose three different settings, one daylight, one artificially lit and another that has a mixture of the two.
Set your camera up either on a tripod or just holding it and take a photograph of each scene using each and every one of of your WB settings.
What you will end up with is an invaluable reference for how different light appears when using different white balance settings. Now think about how you might use this creatively.