What White Balance for Flash Photography?

Strobist reader Gabriel Bratescu, of Bucharest, Romania, asks:

"What white balance setting do you use when you shoot with 1/4 CTO filter, flash or sunny? I find that my indoor pictures that I shoot with Flash WB tend to be a little to warm so I shoot with flash but with Sunny WB."

Great question Gabriel, and the answer comes down to global color control vs. selective color control.

First, the short answer: I almost always shoot on daylight white balance when shooting flash. Rare exceptions will be if I am intentionally shifting the white balance for effect.

Here is why I do not like the "flash" white balance setting, and why I almost never use it. It is a global adjustment, locked into one value. First, I can easily do that in Photoshop, but with more control and variability.

Second, and more important, the fact that it is a global change can create new problems just as it is solving the "too blue" problems your electronic flash can have.

(And yes, many flashes do appear too blue to give pleasing skin tones. Which is why camera manufacturers include a warmed-up, "flash" balance setting to begin with.)

So this setting fixes the flash, but it also "fixes" everything else. Which means adding warmth to the ambient light portion of your scene, too. Which probably did not need warming up. For instance, do you really want some blue taken out of your background sky?

So I think it makes way more sense to fix the problem -- and only the problem -- by warming up the flash and shooting on daylight white balance.

The question then becomes, which warming gel do you want on your flash? I like a 1/4 CTO, but I think that choice is dependent on both the photographer and the chip involved.

For example I hear that Canons seem to see and saturate reds more than Nikons do. So that might mean changing to a 1/8 CTO, or even something from the CTS family (less red) of gels. Totally personal choice. But I do always gel my key light when shooting people.

And once you choose a warming gel that works for you, you might consider just leaving it on one of your flashes and designating that flash to be the key light. It saves setup time and gives you consistency/predictability.

I do this myself, with my permanently 1/4 CTO'd key light also having been given some pieces of white tape on a couple of sides so I can easily pick it out from my bag when setting up lights.

Thanks (mulţumesc) for the question, Gabriel.

If you have a technical/lighting/whatever question you think might make a good QA, just drop it into the comments of any post. I'll pull the best ones up for all to see.


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