The sheer hell of white balancing – 8 tips

You’ve set up the interviewee. You’re on a long lens, 15 feet away. You’re ready to press the red button then you remember: you forgot to white balance.

How many times has that happened to you and does it matter?

Well, yes it does. And you should do a white balance because…


What’s a white balance anyway?


It’s simply how we tell the camera that this is what white looks like under the prevailing light conditions. Cameras need to know that cos they’re not as smart as you. You know it’s a sheet of white paper. The camera sees a sheet of orange or blue or whatever because that’s the colour of the light falling on the white. Unless you tell it otherwise.


Take care with it…


You need to put a sheet of white card in front of your interviewee. Not on the other side of the room. And it needs to be catching the light that’s really falling on their face. So don’t be angling it down to the floor etc. Check it’s properly exposed and, in most cameras, check it’s covering the whole frame.


Believe the camera…


If you’ve done this carefully, as above with correct exposure of a proper white card or grey card (no colour in a grey card) then BELIEVE THE CAMERA. Even if you’re surprised by the result.


Why? Can’t I just guess it?


Well, we could do that, as a tolerant DoP friend of mine always used to say to my various directing suggestions. So you might say: “There’s only daylight coming into this room so if I set it at 5600K then I’ll be fine and I won’t look an eejit in front of my interviewee.” But imagine if that daylight is coming in through wooden slatted blinds. They’ll make it more orange. Or bouncing off a blue wall. Or a red carpet and sofas, as here? That room does have wooden slat blinds and a lot of red/orange stuff and the average white balance comes out aroundf 4300K with only daylight entering the room.


Dial it in?


It’s not a bad thing to scroll up and down the Kelvin scale until you settle on what looks right on your camera’s built-in monitor. But that’s only changing the blue to orange parameters. You’re not compensating for green or magenta (often called tint in camera or edit settings). A proper manual white balance will compensate for tint as well – that’s what the plus or minus numbers after the K reading mean.


But it’s such a hassle…


It really is. On the Canon C70 and C300s and the Sony FX6 I use you’re meant to fill the frame with white, which can be a bit of a pain – especially if you’re on your own. I use a Sony FX30 as well and that’s got a much better system (right) where you can sample a small part of the frame. That’s SO much easier and I do wish they had it on the bigger cameras.

Sony maestro Alister Chapman has a neat trick where he has the camera peering through a cut-out window on a black card so you don’t need such a big white card. See what you think.


Do gizmos like this work?


No. I wish they did. I tested this one (left) very carefully and it gives readings 900K off where they should be. You may as well guess it.


When does it not matter?


Well, if you’re filming an entirely lit interview where all the light comes from lights with known colour temperatures then you’re not going to go too far wrong from dialling those into your K scale. It’s worth checking, though, from review sites like the brilliant Andrew Lock’s Gaffer and Gear YouTube  what the real colour temperature of particular lights is. It’s often 200K off what the makers claim.