In this article I’ll show you how to white balance like a pro. White balance is a feature on video cameras we use to make sure the colours look correct. Because most films are coloured graded, I recommend you white balance for speed and consistency. You can then polish the picture in the grade. There’s no need to be a perfectionist during the shoot, work quickly instead.
Digital cameras have two colour axes. These are colour temperature and colour tint. Temperature goes from a reddy orange to sky blue. Tint goes from green to magenta.
How to White Balance
There are four ways you can white balance a video camera:
- If you set the camera to auto, it tries to guess the correct settings, with varying degrees of success. Auto white balance has its place, but it ain’t pro.
- You can use a built-in preset. Choose one that best matches your lighting conditions.
- There’s custom white balance which involves using a white or grey card.
- Or you can manually adjust the white balance, using the colour temperature and tint sliders.
While one method is not necessarily better than the others, selecting a preset is the easiest and quickest.
White Balance Camera Presets
These are examples of common presets. Choose the one that most closely matches your lighting environment and the camera will adjust the colours.
Custom White Balance
Custom white balance is where you use a white or grey card. Some cameras are more accurate with a white card, while others prefer middle grey. Always make sure you’re using a professional reference, not a piece of printer paper.
- Set a good exposure on the camera.
- Position the card in front of the subject’s face, you need to balance to the light that’s falling on them.
- On the camera, make sure the card is in the centre of the image. On some touch screens, you can move a target over the card.
- Press the White Balance button to execute.
If you see an error message, saying the image is too dark or too bright, adjust the exposure and try again.
When it’s successful, the new white balance will be saved as a custom preset. Some cameras have an A and B memory slot, so make sure you know where it’s saved. You might think a custom white balance will result in perfect colours, but that’s not always the case. As long as it’s close, the colourist can do the rest.
Manual White Balance
When you colour balance manually you can adjust both the colour temperature and the tint. Use the colour temperature slider to balance the orange and blue axis and tint to balance the green and magenta.
Let’s take a closer look at colour temperature. The warm colours, which are the oranges and yellows have a lower colour temperature. The cool colours, which are the blues have a higher temperature.
The most basic presets you’ll encounter on a camera are Daylight and Incandescent. Daylight has a colour temperature of 5600 Kelvin, which is the colour of daylight at noon. Incandescent, also known as tungsten, is 3200 Kelvin. Domestic incandescent lights are around 2800 Kelvin, giving them a warmer colour. Domestic fluorescent lights have a colour temperature between 4000 and 4500.
If you have different coloured light sources in your scene, you can use the Mixed Lighting preset, which is around 4500. When you’re shooting outside on a cloudy day, which is pretty typical here in Britain, colours are more neutral or slightly blue. So it’s a range of 6500 to 7500 Kelvin. If you’re shooting in an exterior location with shade, the colour temperature will likely be between 8000 and 9000.
Download the Indigo Film School Colour Temperature guide. You can see at a glance which preset most closely matches your situation. If you’re adjusting the white balance manually, you can see which colour temperature you need to use.
So I recommend you white balance for consistency rather than perfection. This means you set your colour balance once for each scene and cover all the shots without changing it. Let’s see how this helps during the grade.
Colour Correcting in the Edit
If you’ve white balanced for consistency, it makes your life easier when colour grading. Here’s the approach you can use:
- Apply a colour wheel effect to one of the clips in your scene and apply a basic grade.
- Copy the clip and paste the effect to the other clips from the same scene.
Because the other shots have the same white balance, this gives me a good starting position. It doesn’t mean the whole scene will be perfect, I still need to tweak individual shots.
Another approach is to create a compound or group clip:
- Select the clips from the same scene and group them together as one clip.
- Apply a colour wheel effect to the compound / group clip to grade them all.
- To tweak individual shots, open the compound clip in its own timeline or expand the group clip.
While we’re on the subject of white balance and colour grading, let’s talk about colour charts. These can be very useful on a multi-camera shoot, especially if you’re working with different camera models. Shoot the colour chart at the start of every scene. This helps the colourist match shots between the different cameras. But make sure the scene is lit and the colour chart is positioned close to the actors.
There are different colour charts, but I recommend the DSC OneShot and the X-rite Colourchecker Passport Video. They have the primary and secondary colours which correspond to the boxes on a vectorscope. And they also have different skin tones, which should show up very close to the skin tone line on the vectorscope.
Color Match in DaVinci Resolve
If you’re using a colour chart and you grade with DaVinci Resolve, you can use the Color Match feature. Tell Resolve which colour chart you’re using and it gives you an overlay to drag over the clip. Click the Match button to correct the clip, using the colour chart as the reference.
Setting Clips to Neutral with the Parade Scope
For a single camera shoot, colour charts are less useful. And because they’re so expensive, I’m reluctant to recommend them. But there is a way you can give the colourist a useful reference without spending loads of money. At the start of each scene, shoot a middle grey card. The colourist can use this to set the clips to neutral, which is one way to start a grade. When the shots are neutral, white is white, without any bias on the temperature or tint axis.
In your editing software, apply a colour wheels effect and activate your scopes. Choose the parade scope, this shows separate waveforms for the red, green and blue colour channels. In each colour channel, you should be able to identify the lines in the trace that represent the grey card. If it’s higher or lower in one channel, it tells you the colours aren’t neutral. Let’s imagine the grey card appears higher than the green in the red channel, but lower than the green in the blue. This tells me the image is a little warm, meaning it has an orange colour cast.
Our job is to neutralise the colour cast, by making the grey card traces line up. In your colour correction effect, use the Master control. This affects the full tonal range of the image. Lower the Red channel until it lines up with the Green. Then raise the Blue channel so it lines up with the other two. This neutralises the colour, giving you a good starting point for the rest of the grade.
Have a go with the three methods for white balancing your camera. You might prefer one over the others. Or you might decide to use different ones depending on your situation. I certainly recommend using presets, it’s a quick and easy way to balance the colours. The colours won’t be perfect, but they will be consistent, which is fine for grading. When using a custom white balance, make sure it’s saved in one of your camera’s memory slots. If you want to set the white balance manually, download this Colour Temperature guide. You’ll find it very useful.
If you’re the cinematographer and someone else is grading the film, you can see it’s important to establish good communication with the colourist. Tell them your intention for each scene and how they can improve it. Their job isn’t to undo your hard work, but to make it look even better.
If you found this useful, check out the rest of my fantastic Camera Training videos:
- Intro to Cinematography
- Don’t ETTR, Use a 50% Grey Card
- Exposure Controls for Video
- Balancing Exposure for Video, Thinking in Stops
- What is ISO?
- Camera Resolution
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