White Balance is Really Really Relative

OK! Already I can hear the machine-gun click of computer keyboards as serious tech heads, number crunchers and other mathematically inclined folks hurry to remind me of Gretag-Macbeth targets and RGB 255,255,255 as absolute, target able and well defined white values, and I take their chastenings well to heart. However, I’m talking about the observed white balance of a finished print as viewed by an on looking onlooker, and this renewed questioning of white balance and pure whites is fueled by an interesting recent event.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I’ve recently undergone a “rite-of-passage” for citizens of a certain age; a cataract removal on my right eye. Now not only did everything go smoothly but I am right here advocating for everyone with more than six decades of life experience to go out and pester their ophthalmologist until they get “the surgery”. You see, part of the process is to remove the cataract but the miracle part is that you get a new lens implanted in the eye replacing that tired old lens you’ve grown accustomed to in the last half century plus. Imagine that you weren’t able to wash your windows for fifty or to sixty years. Of course you can see something out of them but closer observation would surely tell you that closer observation (pun intended) is not facilitated by the accumulated detritus of the passage of time. Translated: A dirty window is fuzzy, dirty brown and hard to see detail through. That’s what my left eye feels and looks like now. The right eye with the new lens is miraculously clear and the colors of everything are stunning, and vision at about 3 feet is razor sharp. Whites are now an amazingly ethereal white, like someone added a bunch of blue to the hue. They almost seem to glow as one would imagine the robes of angels. Surely this is what our vision looked like as an infant which is probably why babies are always seem to be sort of gazing with wide eyed wonderment at everything. Everything is fantastic when viewed through a clear lens.

The brain is a remarkable instrument and when it must come to grips with divergent viewpoints it will eventually trick itself into being “just fine” with disnormal variances in sight, hearing and other sensory inputs. After just 10 days, with both eyes open I don’t exactly “see” the difference between the two eyes unless I seek to look for it. The mind kind of ignores the brown halo that gets superimposed on the edges of light or white objects unless I force it to “pay attention”. But when I alternately close one eye and then the other, the difference is startlingly clear. Here is roughly what the differences look like.

And yes; I am in a hurry to “do the other eye” to get parity between the two.

But now that raises a question. Since everybody’s lenses discolor over time and everyone’s sight deteriorates slightly as the years go by, there are a few image workflow questions that bear mild pondering, for example… 

  • If I adjust white balance on my prints from here forward with the “good” eye, will they appear over white or exaggeratedly bluish to someone with tired lenses like my left eye?
  • Or should I balance for youthful vision and allow that older brains which have adjusted for the fading of years will perceive white as white within their frame of relativity?
  • Or should I try to hit the midpoint between the two whites and make everyone sort of happy?
  • Or after we do all this image preparation and printer calibration, is the end result only in the observers head after all?

I think it appears that in the end, the viewers mind is where the story begins and ends because after all the fine adjustments we apply, the neural structure of the beholder is juggling the eye, intellect interface that we will never know the exact parameters of and so we are in fact adjusting the illusion of perfection as seen through the literal eye of our own imperfect illusion. Right?

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July 2010

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All Photographic Images ©Arni Cheatham, Segami Images and Eyes and Ears, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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