White Balance Does Not Work The Way That They Say, Maybe Not For You, Definitely Not For Me

(Original posting date: 2016-07-27)

Spiritia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s quite common for photography writers to write something like, “The human eye… adjusts the colors you see,” whenever discussing white balance. I never encountered one of these articles that also referred to scientific research, and I am unsatisfied with the explanation.

For one thing: it’s not consistent with anything that I learned in physiological psychology or psychophysics regarding vision.

For another thing: it is extremely common for scientific-thinking people to disprove much of what photographers teach.

By Håkan Bergknut (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For another: it’s not consistent with my personal experience, which is more like this:

I don’t believe that my “human eye… adjusts the colours [I] see.” I am very aware of color temperature. I suspect that most photographers develop this awareness, and some people have always had it.

When I am in an environment with soft white light, that’s what I see, but it’s everywhere. It’s even affecting the color of the photos on my wall. If those were white balanced, then the light from the too-warm bulbs is affecting the colors of those photos exactly the same way that it’s affecting everything else in the room, so it’s tolerably similar, but not changed by my eyes.

I left that as a comment on a Picture Correct article on white balance, and Wendy disagreed, but her rebuttal is not actually inconsistent with my comment above. She wrote:

Some say it’s the “eye” that adjusts, some say it’s in the “brain,” point is, you DO adjust to a “normal” WB. If you’ve been inside with a bunch of tungsten–especially low-light, like in a theater–and then suddenly go outside, the world will be blue-shifted for a few seconds while you adjust.

I make temari (embroidered thread balls), and I’ve got one that’s got a design in blue and three shades of purple. Thing is, in dim light, your eyes will try to convince you it’s red, yellow, green and blue–that you’re just seeing it in a different “white balance” than you really are.

She gives an example of an adjustment here, but I am not convinced it is. To me it looks like an example of becoming aware of the different colors of light, but I am always aware of them, and people that think about light will be too.

The “human eye adjusts” isn’t a scientific explanation, it’s an expectation. Photographers think about white balance this way, because that’s what they have been taught, but in reality, they do see three shades of purple as non-purple, because there’s no real adjusting going on.

That said: adjusting white balance in your image is important, because the colors in your photo are affected by the light that you are viewing it in, exactly as much as every other color that’s in that same light. Your photos won’t look “right”.

On the other hand, by all means: monkey with white balance in order to meet your artistic goals.

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