Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nikon D700 Running Review: Automatic White Balance

In photography, probably the second most vital thing to making a good picture (after being in focus) is the white balance (WB), which amounts to color tone brought upon by light source. So, what does that all mean?

Through millions of years of evolution, the human eye has adapted so that it can adjust to different light sources so that any given color, say white, always appears its true color no matter what the lighting condition/source is. Example: incandescent lighting has a low temperature of about 3000K while shady areas on a sunny day reflect light at around 8000K. Result: if you set your camera to the wrong WB, the color cast will be completely wrong.
Back in the film era, you had to use different color lens filters to get correct WB as different light sources have different temperatures. In the digital age, you can set your WB in the camera, but one is more likely to forget now as in the past because way back when, you couldn't help but notice what color filter was on your lens as you looked through the viewfinder! Result: a lot of pictures shot under the wrong WB setting. I know, I've done it and you've probably done it too.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid having to constantly worry about the WB: the auto WB setting, which, in the case of the D700 uses Nikon's 1005 segment RGB sensor to measure the light source. Unfortunately, the auto WB function's evolution, unlike the eye's, is only a few years old, which means that the technological systems are anything but perfected. So, how does the D700 do in auto WB?

Answer: pretty darn good.

Under most settings, feel free to leave the D700 in the auto white balance setting as there is really no problem with the color casts produced. Sure, there may be a slight color difference in some situations, but they are always so minor that I personally wouldn't bother with changing the WB manually.

Auto white balance in sunlight.

 AWB in fuorescent lighting

AWB with flash (top).
Oh yes, the D700's built-in flash in no whimp, either.

 AWB in shade.

AWB under cloudy skies.

AWB in mixed light (incandescent and Sun)

Now I've shot with a lot of digital cameras and, so far, the most challenging lighting condition in which to get an accurate WB result in auto mode was under incandescent (tungsten) lighting. So how does the D700 do here?

Answer: it's the best I've ever used.

To this point, just about every single camera I've ever shot with, with exception of the Coolpix s550, also a Nikon (coincidence?), has failed to consistently meter a color temperature cool enough under incandescent light. Result: a very warm-looking picture with a deep orange/orange-yellow color cast to it. Needless to say, when using these cameras (which were good in every other lighting condition), I always set the WB to incandescent when shooting under such lighting. The D700? It's a heck of a lot better than anything else I've ever used. In practice, the D700 under incandescent lighting may produce a slightly warm image some of the time, but nothing truly objectionable. Yes, the dedicated incandescent setting produces cooler image (too cool in some lighting), but the D700's auto WB under incandescent lighting is the best thing I've ever seen. As a side note, I'd love to see what the new D7000 does as it has an all-new meter with over twice the sensors the D700's does, my guess is that it will be even better.

AWB under incandescent lighting.

As a last note to the WB settings in the D700, you can adjust them. By going into the shooting menu and selecting 'White Balance,' you can adjust the exact level of compensation the camera makes at each setting by altering the shades of Green, Blue, Amber, and Magenta. Result: you can fine tune the WB to your specific shooting conditions if so desired. For me, I may want to play around with the incandescent setting by shifting it a little to the blue in order to get a slightly cooler image under tungsten lighting.

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