Choosing White Balance with Flash

Today's post is simple Show & Tell. A number of times, I've heard photographers give the advice that you should change your White Balance to Cloudy while shooting with Flash to warm up your subject.  I decided to give it a shot and wanted to show you the results.  These are right out of Aperture without any adjustments, other than straightening the horizon line.  The first shot is with Auto White Balance and the second with Cloudy White Balance

Auto White Balance

Auto White Balance - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

Cloudy White Balance

Cloudy White Balance - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

This is only my opinion, but I think the second one looks like shit. The ocean isn't blue anymore. It looks like someone peed in the pool.  Her dress isn't white, it's aged. When I look at the overall color cast from shooting on Cloudy White Balance, I'm not digging it at all.

The problem is that it isn't just warming the model, but it's warming the entire scene and turning colors that shouldn't be changed.  I think I'd be much happier using a warm gel on the flash and hitting the model while leaving the rest of the scene in its natural color.  Granted, that would still leave her dress looking warmer, but I think that would make for a much more interesting color contrast between the cool color of the water & sky vs warm colors on our subject.

I know that I like to say “too much is never enough”, but this advice makes me change my mind.

It's not that I'm against using color balance to affect the image, but I think it needs to work in cooperation with your scene, not in competition.  For example, setting the white balance to Tungsten would deepen the blue water & sky.  Offsetting that cooling effect with a warm gel on the subject would make for some very nice color contrast.

The lesson is that you shouldn't trust anyone's advice. Experiment.  Find out what works for you in a given environment and make up your own mind.  Happy flashing.

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3 comments

  • John Francis August 31, 2011   Reply →

    I generally use Cloudy. But, I think because of the way software reads Nikon WB, shooting an image in Cloudy gives a cooler look than changing the WB in post.

  • Steve Thomas September 4, 2011   Reply →

    This is tricky for sure. Because of the late hour photo #2 is probably more accurate in color. Was her dress really white and was the ocean really blue at that time. I believe this is one of those times that a different white balance improves the quality of the image.

  • Dan G. October 8, 2012   Reply →

    I completely agree, however the golden color tone that reflects off her skin is more natural looking with the setting sun. I would use the gold reflector and try to get the best of both worlds.

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