The RAW File Myth About Correcting White Balance in Post-Processing

Most people realize that shooting photos in RAW image format has many advantages and is really the only way to do it right. I cannot emphasize enough how important RAW format is for many reasons.

 However, I keep hearing many people saying that they can adjust white balance in post-processing, because they use raw files, hence, don't have to worry about it during shooting. This is a dangerous misconception, as it is very easy to blow out an individual color that way. Take the below example, where I shot a scene with a strong blue light in a white balance that was way too warm. How can you tell? Look at the concrete bridge, which is not gray, but rather yellow-ish. It looked funky because of the white strip on the sculpture, but if you look at the RGB histogram, all three colors look properly exposed. Once you go into post-processing and adjust white balance such that concrete looks naturally gray, though, the blue suddenly shows blown out as it is, which explains why that left edge is clipping.

My standard advise when shooting night photos (which in this case applies to all photography, really) is to

  • Shoot in RAW format (it gives you more latitude in adjustments)
  • Try to get the white balance at least close to what it is supposed to be. If you are doing long exposures (e.g., at night), use a high ISO preview to get short exposure previews of white balance, composition and exposure
  • Enable your RGB histograms for the review panel on your LCD, not just the (white) luminance histogram. This will show you individual colors and how they may be clipping. The white luminance histogram averages the three colors and may, for example, average a clipped blue with an underexposed red to show proper exposure, if, in reality, one color is clipping.

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