Theater White Balance Makes my Brain Hurt

When shooting theater and dance, I struggle with white balance settings. Should I try to capture the lighting effects, or should I try to create flattering skin tones? I haven’t figured this out, and agonize over it every time. I shot The Wool Gatherer at Besant Hill School in RAW so I could experiment with white balance afterwards. This is another conundrum that reminds me of the old New Yorker cartoon of the little man carefully studying a painting, while his wife explains to their hostess, “He knows all about art, but he doesn’t know what he likes.”

Auto white balance, right from the camera. 2849 degrees, -17 tint.

In this one, I chose the white of her eye or the cabinet in the background as a white point. 3885 degrees and -9 tint. This is the selection I chose to share, but it does not reflect the gelled lighting of the set.

Just for kicks, I tried a daylight setting of 5000 degrees. You can see there is a warming effect.

Had I been shooting jpegs, I would have chosen the tungsten setting, because the lights in the theater are certainly tungsten lights. But as you can see, there's something faintly nauseating about the color in this tungsten-balanced image.

This whole frustrating process also reminds me of my days at Kinko’s, when Canon and Xerox introduced competing color copiers. Just as with Kodak and Fuji in the film wars, the American company strove for accuracy, while the Japanese company delivered pleasing colors. The Japanese companies won. By shooting in RAW, I keep the option of producing “pleasing” colors after the shoot, but white balance influences exposure, so if you are trying to nail the shot in camera right from the start, you need to put a stake in the ground vis a vis white balance.  Ultimately, I think this is one of those decisions that will partially define my personal style, if I ever develop one. How do you make white balance choices?

1 Comment

Filed under Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Post Processing

One response to “Theater White Balance Makes my Brain Hurt

  1. Michael

    Hi Dean,

    I have not found one setting that works well for all theaters. When photographing a dance recital on the big stage at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, I found that a setting around 4,000K provided a nice look. A musical theater production at Thousand Oaks High School looked good with the Tungsten setting. In general, I do not want to neutralize all of the colors since the stage crew often puts some thought into the use of colored lights to set a mood. I would like to show that without it looking way off. So for me, I either take a few test shots at the very beginning or use live view on my D300 and then either use Tungsten, a custom setting between 3,000K and 5,000K, or AWB to get a white balance that I am comfortable with. I am surprised at how well AWB actually works for stage productions. These settings get me close enough that the white balance will not affect my overall exposures.

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