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How to work with white balance when shooting 360° panoramas

Posted by Jan Vrsinsky on

Setting white color balance is needed to make the colors right in your photos. The color of light changes during various lighting conditions and during different times of the day. Human eyes are able to automatically adapt to these changes, your camera, however, cannot. Well, it can, sort of. Many cameras have a so called “automatic white balance” which is supposed to work in a way a human eye works and in most cases, actually, it works quite ok. I will show you, however, that when you are taking panoramas you need to be extra careful with white balance and I will also show you why.

I don’t want to get in too much detail here about what white balance is – you can find very detailed articles about that in any of the photography website or blog. Therefore I will focus mainly on what the differences are for taking panoramas. You basically have these options how to set your camera for white balance:

Option 1: Automatic white balance (RECOMMENDED, BUT…)

If you are a professional photographer you will probably disagree with me here. It may sound illogical to you that I am recommending automatic white balance but let me show you why. The fully automatic mode will work fine in vast majority of cases (if not in all of them) and it will do a better job than your manual setting. The thing to remember here is that taking panoramas should be fun and you shouldn’t spend too much time setting up your camera before each shot. You can lose a valuable shot that way and you will definitely lose fun doing so. You can trust me that sooner or later you will also forget to set your white balance correctly anyway. The second thing to remember is that you can fix all your white balance setting at home when you develop your raw files. I definitely recommend shooting in RAW. The only thing you need to remember is to synchronize the white balance between your shots when developing them. Different white balance setting in your shots for a panorama can lead to visible seams between your photos.

Option 2: One of the preset white balance modes in your camera

Most cameras, including many point-and-shoot cameras, allow you to set one of the white balance presets. These include lightbulb, fluorescent tube, sunny, shade, cloudy, etc. Choosing one of these modes will take only a second. The trouble is that none of these modes will precisely match the lighting conditions – even the sunny one doesn’t match your current sunny day simply because there are thousands of ways of being sunny. Even bigger trouble for me is that you need to remember to set an appropriate mode before each shot and that is very easy to be forgotten. I simply don’t think it’s worth the trouble of setting one of these modes. Don’t do it.

Option 3: Manual white balance

I recommend this when you are serious about your photo and when you have enough time. It is very useful when shooting interiors where lighting conditions are usually REALLY NASTY. I will not cover here how to set the manual white balance but you will need something white (ideally 50% gray), point your camera at it and then follow your camera manual for setting the manual white balance. A huge benefit of this is that it’s not needed to manually adjust the white balance on the computer. A major disadvantage of this method is that it takes a lot of time and when you take casual photos in exteriors it is actually a major waste of your time.

I will leave you with an useful tip: “Manual white balance” can be easily done during post-processing on your computer simply by using a white or gray reference object in your panorama. You will usually find at least one in every 360° photo. It can be a sign, a friend’s t-shirt, a book.. you name it. Just make sure it’s really white. Setting a white balance according this reference object is a matter of clicking the “I” key and a mouse click in Camera Raw. Really easy. What if there is no white object in your photos? You will need to manually adjust the two white balance sliders in Camera Raw until the photo “feels right” – it’s actually not as hard as you would imagine and works just fine.

You can now go back to the Introduction to Effective 360° Panoramic Photography or follow the newest updates on this blog. Most importantly, though, go out there and take some panoramas!


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