White balance

August 10th, 2005  |  Published in old and busted

I learned an annoying truth this weekend with regards to my camera, but I also figured out how to fix it. Since I’ve spoken to at least one other Powershot owner who despises what his camera does when the flash fires, I figured I’d post it here.

The Powershot G5 provides a collection of white balance settings, including “sunny,” “cloudy,” “tungsten,” a pair of fluorescent settings, a flash setting, and two custom settings that allow the user to hold a piece of white material in front of it and get a meter of what passes for “white” in the current lighting conditions.

The standard advice for most point-n-shoots seems to be allow the camera to auto-select this particular setting, which makes sense … especially since it offers a “flash” white balance, which one assumes might be selected if the flash is engaged.

It turns out that isn’t so. The automatic white balance setting on the G5 seems to never select “flash” to judge from the results of any flash photo taken in Program mode: They’re invariably cold and blown out, no matter how much care is taken to dial down the flash intensity or make sure there’s some complementary natural light, even if it’s not enough to remove the need for a flash at all. It was kind of bothering me, and pushing me toward thinking I could use an external flash so I could bounce the light and diffuse some of the glare.

But it turns out the G5’s flash white balance setting works really when it’s turned on: The subject retains more warmth and the picture looks a lot less harsh.

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p>iPhoto does have one useful tool for fixing mis-set white balance during edit: the “warmth” slider adds back some of the natural tone and color bleached out by the flash, though it takes some additional fiddling with the contrast and magenta/green balance to keep all the tones surrounding the bleached skin looking natural. It works much better in a setting like a shot inside a house, where the surrounding tones can be a little more variable without looking unnatural. Bringing warmth back to subjects shot outdoors requires more fiddling to keep the greens and browns looking right. That’s a personal judgment, anyhow … I don’t care much if walls pick up a bit of an overwarm-cast … trees are a different story.

Since a lot of my recent shooting has been outdoors, but in variable conditions (moving in and out of shade, for instance), I’ve been flipping the flash on and off a lot. Having to set the white balance by hand to make up for the G5’s blindspot is sort of a pain, so I’ve used one of the camera’s stored settings positions to keep a basic “shooting with flash” profile that includes the flash white balance setting. That way I can switch back and forth by turning a dial instead of fiddling with the on-screen white balance menu (which isn’t that hard, but is certainly less easy to do with one eye on the subject than using a dial).

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p>On a side note: For my second stored setting, I’ve got the camera set to flash, with the flash intensity dialed down a few notches, the white balance set appropriately and the manual focus locked to infinity. I plan to use it for getting shots quickly when waiting for the relatively slow autofocus to get a lock will be a problem. That’s an idea I’d already kicked around, but Digital Photography Hacks helped fill in some missing knowledge in terms of how to best set that up.

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