Should you set white balance if your photo is captured using your camera’s raw format? This is a common question when just starting out shooting raw. So does white balance matter if shooting raw? The short answer is: no. When you set the white balance on your camera (or if you leave it up to the camera), whatever white balance that is applied to the final image is only for the purposes of display on your camera’s LCD (and if you also save JPEG with your raw file). The white balance setting that is “attached” as part of the metadata info on your raw image file is used by your photo processing software (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) as a default when you first open your image. But at that point, you are free to manipulate white balance as you see fit, and it will not negatively impact image quality. That’s because raw format (which really isn’t an image format per se) is exactly as the name implies, the camera is capturing the raw data seen by your camera’s sensor. White balance is applied in post-processing to a final image, and when you shoot raw, you don’t yet have a final image. If you only shoot in JPEG, white balance post-processing is done in-camera. But when you shoot raw, the white balance that is “attached” to your raw image file’s metadata serves only as a suggestion.
So that means you should never worry about white balance when you shoot raw? Well, just a second there, professor. While it is true that you don’t “have to” set white balance when you shoot raw, there might be a reason why you “want to.” Consider this scenario: You dial in your settings, compose your shot, then you fire away. Now you take a look at your photo on the rear LCD display to confirm it is the masterpiece you saw through the viewfinder. After careful scrutiny you decide you can do better, so you make some adjustments, re-compose your new shot, but damn, things still aren’t exactly as you expect them to be. Well, it’s entirely possible that your camera’s choice of white balance is throwing off the “processed” image you are seeing in your rear LCD, and in-turn may affect your decision-making. Many times a bad white balance choice is obvious (ever try shooting at the sun with auto white balance?), but it could be a more subtle effect on the final image that is leaving you with a less than perfect capture. Setting the white balance for the given conditions could lead to a better initial capture, giving you better “information” to work from, and hopefully leading to good decisions that make it possible to capture that work-of-art.
In practice you will likely use auto white balance most of the time, I know I do. And when shooting raw, its reassuring to know you have the ability to set your white balance later. But next time you are in a complex lighting situation and your camera just can’t seem to figure out the white balance on its own, its time to set your white balance manually. It might be the difference between discarding a mediocre shot and capturing something special. After all, if you later pass judgement on this photo before adjusting the white balance, you will never know.