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White Balance (video cameras)

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To the inexperienced videographer and average consumer, white balance may be an elusive concept. The reason being threefold: (1) low-end consumer cameras only have auto-mode, thus permitting no white balance; (2) film cameras don’t require white balance, hence users of the old 35mm SLRs never had to learn the concept; and (3) the human eye adjusts naturally to all light sources, overshadowing the notion of color temperature.

The first step in understanding white balance is understanding color temperature. Different light sources emit different light colors. You and your perfect human eye wouldn’t know it, but sunlight is actually blue, whereas wolfram (tungsten) bulbs are yellow. The video camera picks up this difference.

Suppose you’re shooting in a tungsten-lit interior through a window and there’s daylight outside. You, the videographer, has to make a choice. Note that you have two light sources: tungsten bulbs and the sun. In this situation, you have to choose which light source to balance your camera to. If you white balance to the tungsten interior, the interior will look normal, but the exterior will be bluish. If you do the opposite, you white balance to the daylight outside, the exterior will look normal, but the interior will be amber.

How to White Balance?

To manually white balance, first make sure your camera is in manual mode. Then go to the location illuminated by the light source you want to look normal (be it sunlight, tungsten, or fluorescent), and hold an absolutely white piece of paper (or white T-shirt or white board) in front of the camera. Zoom in and fill frame with the white paper and press the white balance button. Looking though the viewfinder or LCD monitor, you should notice the color shift, making the white paper truly white to the camera. Different cameras have different peculiarities. Check your camera’s manual for specific instructions.

Most cameras also have white balance pre-settings. Pre-settings are quite handy when working on the fly like in newsgathering or documentaries. In narrative filmmaking, the luxury of time allows and demands the operator to always manually white balance.

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