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Understanding White Balance

By Scott Shaw


For anyone who has ever filmed a movie on a professional level they understand the concept of White Balance. This is the same for people who shoot for television or other means of formalized distribution.

For those of you who may not know, White Balance is the method of balancing your color temperature. White Balance is where you set your camera’s lens to shoot at a constant and perfect state of color. The reason you do this is so that unrealistic colors do not cloud your image.

The way you gain White Balance is to focus your camera on a pure white object. This object can really be anything: a bounce card, a white handkerchief, whatever… As long as it is pure white.

Various cameras have various ways to adjust White Balance. As the video and the digital age came upon most video cameras have an auto White Balance setting. But, this auto function is oftentimes far less than perfect. So, the true professional always sets their White Balance manually.

The thing is, you can’t just set your White Balance once and let it ride through your entire day of filming. With each lighting change, the White Balance changes so you need to reset it for every alteration of light; be that natural light or artificial light.

Once upon a time, it was very-very important that your White Balance was right on if you hoped to get your movie distributed. Every time an independent film was presented to a distributor they would check things like resolution and White Balance. If your White Balance was off, your film may be rejected.

Something happened somewhere around the early 1990s, however. Altered visual styles began to become accepted in the mainstream. I think to television series such as CSI Miami where I am sure they filmed their scenes with perfect White Balance but they altered the visual image to posses a very obvious orange hue in post.

The thing about White Balance and its importance is, if your original image is not perfect it is very difficult for it to be altered with any sense of color precision. It is for this reason that following White Balance protocols is essential in the creation of any filmed footage if you want it to be able to be presented with color perfection.

In the recent decades the home movie craze has taken hold. Think about how many people broadcast visual images filmed via the camera on their computer, their DSLR camera, or even their phone. As these technologies have taken hold, the acceptance of what is or is not acceptable has changed radically. Think about how many movies are now filmed on a person iPhone. Combine this with all the visual effects that are readily available and the landscape of independent filmmaking has profoundly changed.

Though the world has changed and what is or is not visually acceptable has evolved, there still remains a level of excellence that must be possessed by any film or visual project if you hope to reach the mainstream. Think of any A-market movie you see. Think of any TV show you watch. Though some do things like say, CSI Miami did, and alter their image in post production, what they film is done so with an established understanding of accepted standards and protocols.

What does this tell us? What it tells us is that, yes, you can do whatever you want in the realms of abstract, artistic filmmaking. But, the standards that exist have not left us. If you hope to move your project from only being viewed on people’s computers and/or their phones you really need to gain the understanding and put into practice the protocols of such things as White Balance if you hope to move your film(s) into the world of the mainstream.

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