Why White Balance is Important in Video

Why White Balance is Important in VideoWhite balancing can make the difference between a video that looks natural and well-made and one that looks a little off, giving the audience reason to feel as though something isn’t right.

While a bad white balance may be obvious in some cases, even the slightest shift in color can spark a subconscious uneasiness in the mind of the viewer. We know when something isn’t right, especially when looking at things like skin tones, grass, and clouds in the sky. Things may look a bit too blue (cool) or yellow (warm).

This problem is caused by a difference between how cameras see things and how our eyes perceive the world. What, to us, would appear to be a slight difference in lighting would appear far more significant to a camera. Different types of light sources splash surfaces with a slightly different color. The sun adds a shade of its own while fluorescent and incandescent lights are totally different. When dealing with video, you quickly become aware that the phrase “soft white” isn’t actually very white at all.

Most cameras have white balancing settings to mitigate this problem.

What Makes Color Different?

Light temperature is measured in kelvins. Different light sources give off a different temperature, making the reflected color from objects slightly different.

A match flame, for example, gives off 1,700 K, which is considered a very warm color. This may be confusing to some as light sources with higher kelvins are considered to be cooler colors. Just bear with me; it makes more sense with a little practice.

The color temperature of an outdoor scene during sunset or sunrise is roughly 1,850 K, while the sun at high noon gives off light at between 15,000 and 27,000 K. A lot of this is due to the reflected light from the sky. A big, blue (cool) sky gives off big, blue light. A cloudy sky gives off a color temperature of around 6,500 K.

All perceived color is basically just an interpretation of light reflection by our brain. When the light source changes, so does the color reflected from the object. Think of light as a dab of blue food coloring in yellow dough. The more food coloring you put in, the bluer the dough will become; you will never turn yellow dough truly blue. Light adds a blend of color anywhere on the scale from infrared to ultraviolet. Cameras pick up on these subtle tones and amplify them considerably. Our eyes, on the other hand, have evolved to filter out much of this discoloration.

It’s up to the person shooting the video to correct for this discoloration and make objects appear as they would if you were seeing them with your own eyes. The camera is dumb. It doesn’t know what light even is, let alone how to correct for it. Our brains calculate all of this for us and it’s up to us to be the brains for our cameras. Even automatic white balancing has its drawbacks.

What Problems Does White Balancing Correct?

Believe it or not, a great deal of an image’s problems can be corrected just by making sure that the white balance is accurate. A video that too cool (blueish) can look washed out and not as crisp as one that is properly balanced. Likewise, a video that is too warm can appear dull and come across as dirty or otherwise offsetting. By finding the right balance, you should be left with a crisp, vibrant scene that you can refine more easily to meet your needs as a videographer.

Skin tone that looks even a tiny bit off makes the viewer uneasy. Even a seemingly unnoticeable difference can play with someone’s subconscious psyche and make them feel as though there is something wrong with the video, though they usually can’t quite place their finger on it.

A video editor I once worked with told me that you have to walk to the tree before you can climb it. This was in relation to color correction and how, until you know what white and black are, you will have a tough time making red, green, and blue look natural. Poor white balancing plays games with people’s clothing and different objects in the background. You can spend all day attempting to make a balloon look like it did in person using color correction, but until you’ve corrected the whites, you’ll never quite get there. Contrast and brightness are often the first things an amateur video editor will attempt to correct in order to make the video look more correct. Unfortunately, this rarely actually yields the best results.

It’s always a good practice to get your white balance as accurate as possible on the camera and spend a moment working on it during editing before attempting to refine any other characteristics. White balance will get you to the tree, and other adjustments will help you climb it.

This has been my experience, at least. What are your tips and tricks for achieving the best results for video?

Photo: Public Domain (Yerocus)

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Ryan Matthew Pierson