The Importance of White Balance

The Importance of White Balance

For a few weeks, I’ve been intending to create this post on the importance of white balance in infrared photography, but I kept getting waylaid by additional experiments I wanted to try. I’ve finally come to the conclusion – I will always think of something new to try and if I wait until I’m done, I will never post anything!

So, here is the basic understanding of white balance in infrared photography as I have studied it thus far…

For some infrared photographers, white balance is everything. Google the keywords “white balance infrared photography” and a plethora of blog posts, articles and forum questions will pop up, all of which say the same basic thing – white balance is important.

The most basic explanation I can come up with on the subject is more of a piece of advice – create a custom white balance before each session of shooting. If you move locations, create a new custom white balance. If you change filters, create a new custom white balance. If you change lenses or the lighting drastically changes, create a new custom white balance.

The basic steps to create a custom white balance are…
1. Select auto white balance
2. Take a reference photo
3. Change auto white balance to custom
4. Select the reference photo you’ve just taken.
For additional information, consult your camera manual.

For typical photography, the three traditional colors used in creating a custom white balance are white, black and gray. You can purchase nice sets of cards that are long lasting and great in the field. However, from what I’ve read, most infrared photographers use a nearby patch of grass or a section of pavement (something that doesn’t have a lot of color variation and fills the whole camera view) for their reference photo.

I read one particular blog post which said the author/photographer received a few tips from people using red, green or blue pieces of paper for their reference photos. He posted his results using the different color paper and said the paper didn’t make a difference. I couldn’t think of how this could be true, so I created my own experiment!

First, I bought a $2.94 pack of paper from Wal-Mart, grabbed a camp chair, my tripod (and camera, of course), my audiobook and setup camp where I had a view of trees and the sky. Next, I went through the process of taking a reference photo of one paper color, setting it as the custom white balance, taking a photo of the view in front of me, and repeating the process for each paper color.

I’m glad I took the time for the experiment, because it opened up so many opportunities!

Ninety results and three worksheets later

I have a very analytical mind at times and the easiest way to assess my results was to create a worksheet. In this worksheet, I laid out the reference images (the colored paper as captured by the infrared camera), the images straight off the camera and the images after the channel swapping process in editing. (This last step will have it’s own blog post in the future.) I also left room for personal notes and a place to mark the images I like the most.

As you can see, even at a glance, using different colors for white balance yields different results. I have a full-spectrum conversion and did not use any filters for the photos on this worksheet. All of the images in the second column are unedited and unaffected by anything except white balance. Look at all those options to play with! A yellow reference photo gets you a blue sky and purple foliage, a green reference photo gets you a blue sky and pink foliage, a tan reference photo gets you an autumn affect!

Now, the basic result after channel swapping is essentially the same – blue foliage, orange-gold sky – with a few differences, such as a yellow reference photo creating white foliage. But overall, between using images straight off the camera and swapping channels, using different colors for white balance gives a multitude of options to move forward into the editing process.

Here’s my confession: I actually did this process three times – once without any filter, once with my LifePixel 720nm (Standard IR) filter and once with my LifePixel 470nm (Hyper Color) filter. So, yes, throughout this experiment, I took 90 photos!

Once I was done laying out all three worksheets, I was able to narrow down the results I liked the most and determine if I would really need to carry all the colors with me all the time. As it happens, I found a bit of a pattern in my taste.

Across the board, I prefer the yellow, green, purple, white and tan results the most.

Preparing for the field

Coincidentally, after I finished this experiment I was going on vacation, so I wanted to figure out a way to carry these colors with me in the field. I needed them to be easily accessible and preferably long-lasting – obviously carrying around paper isn’t ideal.

My first solution was to laminate the paper, but unfortunately, I found out – rather quickly – this wasn’t the lasting solution I was looking for. The cards started peeling halfway through the week and I feel like the reflection from the lamination affected the results I was getting.

So, my next solution was fabric! I got some fat quarters from Hobby Lobby for $1.75 a piece and these worked much better – I got fantastic results! I did get tired very quickly, though, of pulling them out and creating a new white balance every time I wanted to take a new photo.

After playing with my camera a bit, I found I can lock (“protect”) photos and keep them from getting erased. So I went back to the paper, with a label maker this time, and took a photo of each sheet with and without my filters. I added labels in each corner so I’d know what color the sheet was and what filter I used when taking the photo. Then I locked them all and my theory is I can use them in the future.

Adding onto this theory, I know these saved reference images will only work when I’m shooting in similar lighting conditions as when the reference images were taken. So I made sure to take them on a clear sunny day, which is when I’ll shoot most. I’ll also carry the fabric squares in my bag, just in case my lighting conditions change drastically.

What’s next?

After white balance, the next important step in the infrared process is editing! This is where you can create or enhance the fun colors often associated with infrared. The editing process will also be covered in additional posts, so come back soon and visit!