White Balance Follies

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Few people (at least not those that regularly read this web site) doubt the benefits of shooting in raw mode. But, for those that still don’t appreciate the benefits of working with raw files, here are a couple of examples that I recently created to demonstrate this issue to some students at one of my seminars.

The purpose of this exercise was that since I almost never shoot JPG, I didn’t have on hand any examples with which to demonstrate some of the limitations that JPG files have when strong to extreme manipulations are required. So, to rectify this I set one of my cameras to shoot combined JPG and raw, and took my dogs for a walk around the block.

Above is a frame taken in late afternoon sunlight. The camera’s white balance was set to Auto. The JPG and the raw files were virtually identical.

Below are white balance conversions done in Lightroom. In both cases I tried to normalize the shot by clicking on the bike’s license plate as a white reference. The results speak for themselves.

From JPG From raw

The frame on the left is the best white balance that can be achieved from the JPG file, while the one on the right is from the raw file. As can be seen, the raw file can have the warmth of the late afternoon sun completely removed, and post exposure white balance can be easily achieved, while the JPG, though some adjustment can be achieved, simply can’t be properly white balanced after exposure.


Exposure Follies

Similar results are found when extreme exposure adjustments are needed. Above is a strongly back lit shot with hardly any visible detail in the shadow areas. Below are two conversions, one from the JPG file and the other from the raw.

From JPG From raw

In both cases maximum exposure recovery and Fill Light adjustment were used in Lightroom. As can be seen the JPG has almost completely lost colour information, while the raw file still retains a reasonable amount of colour in the shadow areas.

The Bottom Line

These are just two simple examples of how working with a fully baked JPG file out of the camera seriously reduces the ability that one has to fix white balance and exposure problems, especially when strong adjustments are needed. There simply isn’t enough information available in a JPG to do the job as well as with raw files.

There are other reasons, such as reduced colour space, reduced bit depth, and baked in sharpening, but the above should be enough to help you realize what you’re giving up when you shoot JPG instead of raw when you don’t have to.

November, 2007



As so frequently happens on the Net, people bring their own biases and preconceptions to what they read. In this case several people have written to ask why I would try and change the white balance of the late afternoon sun, or why I would want to extract detail from such a poorly exposed image.

I wouldn’t.

The reason for using these examples was that they are extremes. I was not attempting to show photography at its best, but rather at its worst, and then how by having a raw file one can somewhat salvage the image.

Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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