the RAW and the Muse

the RAW and the Muse

On this trip to Sumatra, I did what I always do; I shot in RAW. RAW images files are fantastic, they give you the latitude to make changes to your images while processing that JPEG files just don’t allow. This, of course, is old news to most of us. Nate Watkins, the buddy I was shooting with on this assignment, asked me a question I get fairly often, “What white balance are you using?” I gave Nate the same smug answer I give everyone, “I am shooting in RAW, the white balance doesn’t matter. The white balance when shooting in RAW really only effects the preview. So I just shoot in AWB (auto white balance).” This of course is true and it sort of squelched the conversation and we went on shooting.

After a few minutes, I took a quick look at Nates LCD on the back of his 7D. His shots were rich, golden and really were capturing the feel of the coffee plantation we were shooting. I was jealous. I knew in my brain what I was seeing was only a preview. Just an embedded JPEG and I knew that I was able to get the same richness once I imported the images I shot that day into Lightroom. But something happened when I looked at his LCD. Just like all good photographs do, his images evoked emotion in me. I looked at the images on my LCD, but that same warmth and emotion was lacking. Same place, some of the same images – but my LCD was lacking the emotion that I was feeling when I looked around the coffee plantation. Now, maybe a better photographer than I could ignore this and continue on shooting. The thing is, I’m a visual person and what happened there had a rather immediate effect on me. I asked Nate what white balance he was shooting at and he told me 6300 Kelvin. I change my white balance from AWB to the same Kelvin number and started shooting. It did something to my creative juices, a Muse arrived that had been missing and she started whispering in my ear. It was a small thing really. But changing the white balance to show a warmer preview gave me inspiration. Some of the best images I shot on the trip came from this day.

Maybe you didn’t know that your camera’s white balance has no effect on your RAW image? Well, it doesn’t. But it does effect your raw emotions. Certainly, I can go back and change any images that I shot throughout this assignment to 6300 Kelvin or to any other temperature. The point isn’t what the photograph looks like later in Lightroom. The point is at that moment, on the back of the LCD screen I found inspiration. I was excited to see something closer to what I imagined. It’s a small thing and many of you already do. I realize now that I had let knowledge trump inspiration. I had banished the Muse with AWB.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. heimana

    Hi Matt, interesting thread! I always shoot RAW and usually in AWB too, somehow I use to lock the WB between 2800 and 3300 when shooting inside (tungsten lights) or concert (lots of green and red lights) because I started to see that even shooting RAW, when I edit in LR, the greenish and redish (and yellow and orange, etc) light wouldn’t switch to something more natural… unless you put it in B&W… Even if you desaturate, it keeps an awful pink on the faces.
    So in order to don’t have friends and bands looking like Frankenstein or over red-sweating people, I choose to lock the WB to something of low temperature. But until now I only use this on special lighting, maybe should try it outside too!

  2. selenite29

    I read a magazine about how some photographs choose between JPEG and RAW (or both). An old traditional film photograph shoots only in JPEG because he considers, as a former reporter, that his pictures have to be well taken or not. It´s kind of extreme measure, but I understand it.
    Nevertheless, I think the way you chose is more suitable for me, meaning taking pictures in RAW as I am taking in JPEG only. Thus I am less lazy and more inspired by my own live result and in case of mistaking… I still can retrieve what I would originally get!
    In addition RAW allows me more than retrieve the right white balance, indeed thanks to the conversion I can get more details and a better dynamic range than JPEG files.

    A French fan of your work,

  3. ian furniss

    Now you mention it, I do seem to remember getting more excited when I used to shoot my old Fuji that didn’t have the raw option. I might have to try it out again! 🙂

  4. marcoryan

    A stimulating post as usual Matt that makes us stop, think and examine our own approach

    Whilst not something that impacts WB at the moment of shooting, I have adopted the Xrite color passport checker into my workflow. It has done 3 things for me. It has made me much more aware at the moment of shooting of the white balance and color tones, with the result that I douse selectively different WB modes. Secondly, it has made me much more observant of the impact of light at different times of the day on the feel of colors and the emotional impact they have on the end image and thirdly , within Lightroom, it has made me more efficient and more true to the original colors that I saw.

    But thanks for this post. As ever a great read that has me thinking

  5. Sean Breslin

    What a coincidence. I did exactly the same thing today. I was photographing a model and had my 5D Mark II set to AWB in sRAW mode (I don’t need big files) but felt the images looked cold. Especially in today’s heat. I knew it was an easy fix in LR but suddenly a Joe McNally voice popped into my head telling me to change the white balance to cloudy. He always sets his WB in camera even though he shoots RAW. I did as the McNally voice demanded, the previews looked a lot better, and I gained confidence.

    Furthermore, the model, who I’m guessing isn’t as nerdy as us when it comes to camera settings, saw the previews and thought they looked better. This gave her more confidence resulting in better shots. And when I opened the files in LR I saved time by being able to leave the white balance as As Shot.

  6. heber vega

    I don’t want to sound to much of a geek but, some photographers have discovered that WB can “play” – mess – with the way the histogram is shown in camera, EVEN in RAW format. So having a WB incorrect can show you an incorrect histogram. Why? because the histogram in our cameras are “based’ on our JPEG settings!
    Since I read that article and saw actual facts, I decided “locked” my WB before I start shooting, that way my histogram is close to what it should. In Auto mode, it can show you “fake” histograms. (All this only apply to you if use your histograms for establishing your exposures. Landscaper use it a lot)

    Second, a small tip. You can use your Live View to see which (live!) WB looks better in your scene. That way you don’t have to be guessing what to chose.

  7. Jordan N.

    I think you hit a good note here, Brandon.

    You hit on something that would sound like nails on a chalkboard to a histogram preaching, pixel peeping, technically good image goer. But to the others I think this frees us to experiment with mood, emotion and at the base of it capturing another layer of a moment.

  8. Ed

    Matt, I really know how you feel. There’s something about the immediacy of seeing a better image, even if it is a jpeg preview that can be changed in LR, on the back of your camera. It just feels right. I have found this myself and always set my WB as part of my routine. Some people don’t seem to understand that trying to get the WB right in camera, or the framing right in camera, is your choice because it moves you to do so rather than because you are simply a “purist” during the time of digital post-processing where changes to the temperature, framing or cropping of an image can easily be made. But, I could not have said this as eloquently as you have here.

  9. Peter Pham

    Great post Matt, thanks for sharing the technique. I will try this on my next shoot… I always shoot in RAW and AWB, which results in many not-so-good-looking previews. Now I can be proud of my previews and not shy of showing my friends at time of shooting…

  10. Cathy

    Ah….what a neat and simple idea.

    I’m always reluctant to show my previews on the back of the screen as they look so flat. I try to then bluster and justify with the RAW argument – especially to the non-photographers around me, inevitably drawing blank stares and a sinking feeling that I’m trying to cover up inadequacies.

    And if it helps the creative juices flow more…well, even better!

  11. Matt Brandon

    Heber, You make a really good point. Thanks for chiming in. I am not claiming to be an expert on histograms, but from what I understand and read you are right…but. The but is, remember it is based on the JPEG settings. So as long as I precess the RAW file close to the WB settings I am shooting things should be fine. Also, you use the term, “incorrect” WB. What is incorrect? The WB is what we set it to. Many shooters far more experienced than me shoot with a WB far from what is “auto” or “correct”.

  12. Matt Brandon

    Cathy, I am glad this might make life easier for you. 😉

  13. Matt Brandon

    Peter, Always glad to help. Thanks for being a regular here.

  14. Matt Brandon

    Thanks Ed. I am a big fan of shooting the crop, so to speak. Getting it right in the camera. I really don’t like to spend hours in Lightroom or worse, Photoshop messing with cropping and dodging. Thanks for chiming in.

  15. Matt Brandon

    Thanks for showing us how this also can encourage our models as well. I never thought of that, but it make complete since.

  16. Radek Kozak

    Interesting post Matt, great to hear You have abandoned the AWB… nothing wrong with it when shooting RAW but the thing with it is exactly what You described ! You cannot get into the mood when shooting and when you’re not feeling the scene and the subject you can sometimes loose the essentials that build up the entire experience. There is a time right after you took the photograph and watched it on your display that you cannot replace with idea ‘it will look better at home when i download it to Lightroom’. Photographers are just like you said pretty visual people and the first notion of picture on your camera lcd matters. I’m glad that at some point someone taught me i should always try to match my WB to the existing scene and that i should not be lazy with leaving it at AWB just because i can. It’s a small thing as You said but indeed makes a difference!

  17. heber vega

    You are right Matt when you say, “as long as you process the RAW file close to the WB settings I am shooting things should be fine.” So that’s an “ideal” scenario… I made a mistake to called it “correct”, we can say is “ideal”.
    So when I say “incorrect”I meant to say the opposite idea of that… ;-).

    Anyway, again… this only apply to people who establish their exposures based exclusively on their histograms. If you use a WB setting too far from “ideal”, then you will have a histogram that misrepresent the scene as well.

    One more thing… I’m also learning that WB is far from being “correct” or incorrect per se. It should be dictated by your vision. WB is a great way to set a “mood” in a photograph, and that really matter!

  18. Franck ERNULT

    How true! I think it also helps when you show the images on your LCD to the person you took a picture a picture of (or to the client if one is a commercial photographer).


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