White balance: digital vs. film

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by radek42, Oct 9, 2013.

  1. radek42 macrumors regular

    May 27, 2008
    Here, there, and everywhere

    I am trying to wrap my head around white balance and digital capture (specifically dSLR) and how it goes with film.

    I understand different WB settings such as "shade", "sunny", "flash", etc. and their effects on captured image. I also know, that since I shoot raw, I can adjust/correct WB later in post processing.

    Clearly, when shooting film there is no white balance settings. Rather, type of film/slide "determines" color balance (velvia, provia, etc.). One needs to use color filters to alter WB if desirable.

    With digital, one is at mercy of auto WB (AWB) or perhaps one can increase luck by selecting appropriate WB settings depending on light conditions. However, changing settings all the time is clumsy.

    I was wondering, if one could set dSLR to use constant WB settings corresponding to "film". This way, at least all images would be consistent. Moreover, one would get similar "feel" like shooting film.

    It appears, that "custom" WB would be way to go. However, question remains, how to take "reference" photo to lock WB?

    I would really appreciate your thoughts and inputs, especially from former (current - if any) film users. [I would not call myself film user since I paid no attention to different film except for ISO values in my film days]

    Cheers, Radek
  2. Bending Pixels macrumors 65816

    Jul 22, 2010
    First, are you shooting in the camera's native RAW format, or JPEG?

    The main advantage of shooting in RAW is that you're essentially working with an unprocessed digital negative, whereas if you're shooting in JPEG, then it's processed (offering less editing abilities in Aperture/Lightroom/Photoshop/Pick Your Favorite)

    You can (and many do) set their white balance to Auto, and adjust in post. If you're shooting under known lighting conditions (tungsten/florescent) or know how to do a custom white balance (it's actually pretty easy), then that will help get a better initial white balance.

    Best advice all around - shoot in RAW.
  3. acearchie macrumors 68040


    Jan 15, 2006
    I think you are getting a little confused with film stocks and white balance.

    Whilst different films will different DR/sharpness/colour rendition this can not be explained as a simple white balance shift.

    Film has a native daylight white balance I believe but there are tungsten films that are available for a warmer look.

    If you were looking to replicate a filmic white balance then you should attempt to get as accurate to a correct white balance as the time you were shooting. Film did not really have a white balance shift therefore the methods for shooting have changed.

    I'm not hugely knowledgable, but we don't notice these changes with our eyes but to a sensor it wrecks havoc. Especially at extreme WBs. Personally I love long exposures at night shot on film as I don't think digital can gracefully capture the colours as they were.
  4. leighonigar macrumors 6502a

    May 5, 2007
    Tungsten films would surely come out very blue if shot in daylight, colloquially that would be a cool look. They have to be made to compensate for the yellowness of incandescent lightbulbs. I'm not sure it's even that simple anymore, as we have all kinds of fluorescent and LED bulbs now which may have colour balances far from old-fashioned filament bulbs. Like you, I've never shot tungsten balance film - a filter could do a similar thing, probably, at the expense of light.

    When I used to shoot film (I still do, actually) I would have tried to avoid shooting indoors without flash because with normal films everything would have come out yellow. Being able to change white balance on the fly is a great boon of digital cameras, and it is not to be given up lightly. Of course, we also need flash for indoor film photography because we can't crank the ISO to 6400 at the drop of a hat.

    What I do do with digital cameras is sometimes use a slightly inappropriate white balance to capture the way the colour of the light changes at, for example, dawn and dusk. With film I'd have the look of the emulsion and warming/cooling filters if I liked.
  5. phrehdd, Oct 10, 2013
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013

    phrehdd macrumors 68040


    Oct 25, 2008
    The colour of light is often measured in Kelvin.

    Typical daylight film has a certain location within the Kelvin scale. The same with tungsten film etc.

    In the digital world, there is greater flexibility to render images in a more pleasing way and often it is not accurate just more pleasing. Typical would be to adjust the Kelvin level when shooting in shadowy areas so it is more "neutral" or mid day balanced. Also, there are changes in the colour gamet when the white balance is set to an extreme and this too can render a pleasing or negative effect.

    In short, white balance should be used sparingly and consider some shifts to be the equivalent to colour correcting filters for colour film with film cameras. Instead, you are simply doing it in the camera rather than a filter. Ideally, white balance should sit between 5000-6000K. Usually 5000, 5200, and 5600K are the most popular to use as general settings.

    I remember very well using Tiffen 812 filters at the beach to render sand a more neutral to warm value (also good for skin tones) so that sand would not come out grey or bluish. With a digital camera, I can adjust either the white balance or use in some cameras filter presets that do similar.

    When shooting slides/transparency film, often I could colour correct when printing when shooting indoors with daylight film. It would never be perfect but very close. The only major challenge I had when printing was daylight or tungsten film used under gas bulbs (florescence tubes). For the latter, I would always colour correct for the subject and yes, it was easy to note that not everything look "natural." If you leave your white balance as is, you can more often than not colour correct the file (raw or jpeg for that matter) with a decent computer graphic software (Pixelmator, Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture etc.).

    Hope this helps a bit.
  6. swordio777 macrumors 6502

    Apr 3, 2013
    Scotland, UK
    Acearchie is right - the film stock (velvia, etc) dictates colour saturation and to a degree, contrast; not white balance. In days gone by, the lab that printed your photographs would often have colour corrected your prints. Their input would have much more influence on the colour temperature of the final images than your choice of film would. With that said, using coloured filters at the time of capture would obviously get your starting image closer to the correct colour temperature.

    You're only at the mercy of AWB if that's what you chose to use ;)
    My recommendation is never to shoot auto WB. I always shoot raw, so when I get a new camera I set it to Flash WB and then never touch it again. This means all of my images are consistent - extremely important when shooting in the studio or when ambiance is important in locations with changeable lighting.

    Flash balance is extremely close to daylight balance, so by selecting that mode, all photos shot indoors with flash or shot outdoors will be consistent and very close to the correct temperature. If they're slightly off (for example, on an overcast day) then the fact that I've shot with a consistent WB means all images will need exactly the same adjustment (from about 5500k - 6500k). Quick & easy.

    Shooting auto WB only gives you more work in post production because you have to manually change the WB of more images afterwards.

    I couldn't agree with this more! Bear in mind, White Balance is for getting colours "correct". All too often it's used as an artistic tool, but it's rarely the best tool to add artistic colour shifts.

    Hope that helps.
  7. kingalexthe1st macrumors 6502


    Apr 13, 2013
    You can get lens caps that have a neutral-grey window built in to them. The idea is that you take a picture with this lens cap on, then set the resulting image to be the custom white balance file in your camera. In theory, you should then get perfectly white-balanced pictures for the environment you're shooting :)

    I'm making my way over to film photography in the new year, as a step-up challenge from digital and to (hopefully) make my photography better. I'm interested in what everyone is saying in this thread, so thanks to all.

  8. radek42 thread starter macrumors regular

    May 27, 2008
    Here, there, and everywhere
    Thanks for many useful and rather interesting replies.

    I admit, that this might be a little odd thread. Basically, it bugs me to fiddle with WB all the time (since AWB might often do more harm than good). My thinking was back to film, where pictures looked great 99% of time w/o even knowing about WB.

    Granted, it could be the photolab adjusting WB; I am not sure.

    This. I really hope this works.

    However, I am not certain if setting flash WB always results in the same temperature or if camera still guesses correct WB (with certain constrains).

    Bottom line is, I want to focus on taking pictures rather than playing with settings all the time. Worrying about aperture, shutter speed, and to some degree ISO is more than enough :) Less time I can spend in post-processing, better it is.

    Cheers, R>
  9. snberk103 macrumors 603

    Oct 22, 2007
    An Island in the Salish Sea
    [Emphasis Added Above]
    Swordio777 is bang on here. Set your WB to either Daylight or Flash - and then just leave it. All of your photos under any one particular kind of light will be consistent. You can colour correct one image, and then apply to correction across the entire shoot. The 1st image takes 5 minutes (more or less) to get right - the other 150 (ha ha) take about 5 seconds in total. If you are shooting RAW, the WB is entirely arbitrary. Regardless of the WB setting you choose, a RAW file captures the same information. The only thing the WB setting does is apply a 'filter' to the image that is displayed.

    An alternative is to set the WB to one of settings (Flash, Daylight, etc) and then shoot something grey. I carry a grey card with me usually, but road pavement is pretty close to grey. Just shoot something grey that is in the same light and then shoot your subject. In post production you set the 1st photo (with the grey subject) for the correct colour and then apply that to the rest of the photos in the set. With some practice you can easily find something neutral grey in most places.

    (See bolded text above) It was the photo lab. One of the 'advantages' of digital is that we are now our own photo labs. Whether we want to be or not. It is now part of the package that a competent photographer also has to be a good photo lab technician. Try shooting slide film for a bit and you will see what I mean.
    When set at AWB the camera is guessing each time. When set to a particular WB then there is no guessing. However, the WB will be 'wrong' except for when the camera is in the lighting conditions for that particular WB. It may look 'wrong' - but it will be consistent and easy to adjust to be 'correct' (and by 'correct' this could mean deliberately warmer or cooler to enhance the composition). The key to correcting the WB is to have something you know is grey in the photo. Use the WB tool in post production to make it 'grey' then apply the correction to all the images in the set, and you're done.
    See my comment above. To be a competent digital photographer you need to also be good at the photo lab stuff. Otherwise....
  10. swordio777 macrumors 6502

    Apr 3, 2013
    Scotland, UK
    It does. I've been doing it for about 6 years without issue.

    Nope. White balance is fixed in all modes but auto. It's basically just an easy way to select kelvin without having to memorise all the numbers. I believe flash balance is the equivalent of 5500k.

    Quite right!
  11. BJMRamage macrumors 68020


    Oct 2, 2007
    Lots of good advise here.

    This year I have tried my hand at setting my White Balance (via Kelvin and Modes), setting Custom White Balance (Expodisc-type cap...mine was a cheap version to give it a try), shooting in RAW & finally shooting more in Manual mode.

    It was quite a lot of info to learn and try and use correctly.

    Anyway, using the WB Cap (expodisc) worked out great but not trying to fiddle with it in varying rooms, etc.

    On a recent vacation, I tried using Kelvin (and at times the WB Modes). I read that using Cloudy/Cloud would warm up your images. many times the sky was overcast and the days were dreary. wanting to have warmer images I used Cloudy WB quite a bit. Then there was the time shooting indoor that probably would have benefited from using the WB Cap but instead I shot a few practice shots and used the LiveView method to scroll through a few WB to get a general WB. that seemed to work really well. I've only needed very minor adjustments to get teh whites white, but using LiveView helped a lot.
  12. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    I've shot a lot of color film. It matters with slide film to get the balance about right in the camera but with color negatives you can fix it when it is printed pretty much the same way we do with digital now.

    You can'r adjust slide film so we adjusted the lighting and or used filters
  13. monokakata, Oct 10, 2013
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013

    monokakata macrumors 68000


    May 8, 2008
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    18% gray card. You can still get them. They can also be very useful for exposure, also. Who hasn't been shooting snow only to find that the snow is rendered gray?
  14. phrehdd macrumors 68040


    Oct 25, 2008
    Transparency film is less forgiving of over exposure than it is for being slightly off in colour of light. I have done plenty of corrections using Cibachrome printing with reasonable results. However, what you say is the BEST solution and that is to correct the lights either directly or with lens filters. If the light source is way off from 5000-6000K print correction is never perfect even when correcting for the subject other areas may fall off the "ideal" as far as colour shift and even at some point loss due to exposure differences.

    The only reason colour neg is more forgiving (it really isn't in some respects) is that it already is biased with a "tint" to the film base (thus that amber/orange look) and that in turn means out the door one huge correction. Where neg film does have an advantage is in exposure.

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