White balance in raw vs JPEG, part 1

A traditional reason given for shooting raw (if you can call any aspect of digital photography “traditional”) is to be able to set white balance in post-production rather than during the shoot.


The old argument goes like this: when you shoot (particularly events, concerts, weddings…), you have enough to worry about without having to add white balance concerns to the mix. Why rely on auto white balance or set custom white balance using large grey cards for each type of light? You’re better setting it after the fact, taking the occasional shot using a small grey card in it but not having to fiddle with the camera settings. This argument was often advanced by proponents of a raw workflow, who claimed that this approach only worked when you shot raw, not JPEG.


Others now claim that you can shoot JPEG and take the same approach—set white balance when you’re back at your computer, in a single click, as if you’d shot raw. They say that it’s just as easy and you can even use the same white balance tool.


Here’s what you need to know.

  1. Just as easy but not as good. Yes, it’s just as easy to use the one-click white balance tool with a JPEG but compare the result with a raw file shot in the same conditions and you’ll see significant differences in colour: the JPEGs can look distinctly unconvincing by comparison.
  2. The more challenging the light, the bigger the differences. If you’re shooting in low light and particularly if that light is tungsten (regular indoor lightbulbs), your results can end up looking a little rough; if you’re shooting JPEG, they’re can get very rough. You’ll know this already if you shoot conferences and events in ambient light and deliver colour results. It’s just as easy to click and change white balance in post-production with a JPEG but it’s much harder to look at the results with anything but disappointment.
  3. Challenging light conditions are not uncommon. Current digital cameras struggle when there’s a strong imbalance between red, green and blue light in scene, particularly if there’s not much light around to start with, overall. For example, if you shoot events in ambient light and deliver colour work, your files have very little blue colour information in them because tungsten light provides mostly orange and yellow. (You won’t see things that way at the time—your own internal white balance routines are much more sophisticated than those of your camera.) When you get the images back to your computer and set white balance, that tiny amount of blue information needs to be amplified to make the images look colour balanced and that process can introduce noise and colour shifts that make the images look a little flat, even with a raw file. With a JPEG, things are worse because of the way the files are compressed. The same thing can apply at dawn or dusk (lots of blue light) or in the mixed light you find at concerts and nightclubs.

Coming soon in part 2, some examples of raw-vs-JPEG white balance corrections—some will be extreme, others less so. You’ll be able to see the differences between raw and JPEG quite clearly.

And a quick update on group training

We visited several potential venues in London last week and we’re working out figures and catering costs. Things are looking very good for January and February, with places (and gift certificates) available later this week. More news to follow shortly—please pass on details of our site to anyone you think might be interested. Meanwhile, we’re still taking bookings for one-on-one training sessions at your studio, office or home. Mail us and we’ll work out a course structure and schedule that suits you: develop@shootraw.co.uk.