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Sensor Color Balance: What It Really Is

Sensor Color Balance: What It Really Is
BY ART ADAMS ON MARCH 31, 2014

OPTICAL SCIENCE

Do sensors have a native color balance? What does that even mean? I’ve got a theory… read on!
When the original RED One M camera was released, RED
stated that the native color balance of the sensor was 5000K.
At the time it had never occurred to me that sensors had
native color balances. I knew that older prism cameras seemed
to be natively balanced for 3200K because they had a filter
wheel containing an 85 or 85B daylight-to-tungsten color

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correction filter that we had to use when shooting day
exteriors. This was back in the days of black-and-white
viewfinders, and it was common for rookies to shoot daylight
for a while before realizing they hadn’t actually rotated that filter into place! The Sony D50 was the first “pro” camera
I used that had a digital 5600K button that corrected the color electronically, without using a filter wheel, and I
distrusted it completely because of this. “What witchcraft is this,” I thought, “that they think they can correct daylight
to tungsten without a filter?” Little did I know that tungsten was the real problem, and daylight color balancing was
relatively easy.
In those old days it was common knowledge that the blue channel was always the noisiest, although for the longest
time I never understood why. It took a little lesson in the native response of silicon to lightwaves before I caught on.
This web page points out that silicon is sensitive to wavelengths of light from 300nm (UV) through 1100nm (IR) while
the human eye only sees from about 400nm (deep blue) to 700nm (bright red), so it’s fair to say that silicon is most
sensitive to IR, or light we can’t see anyway. A further complication is that silicon sensors “see” when light passes
through a red, green or blue filter and strikes the photosite underneath, creating an analog voltage response that is

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then measured as “light,” but long wavelengths (red and IR) penetrate more deeply and result in higher voltages
while shorter wavelengths (blue and UV) penetrate less deeply and result in lower voltages. In short, silicon “sees”

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red much more easily than it “sees” blue. (And, if we consider how sensitive silicon is to longer wavelengths that we

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can’t see, it’s ironic that we shave off the part of the spectrum it’s most sensitive to and leave behind what we’re

camera mic

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most sensitive to!)
Tungsten light contains a lot of red light and not much blue, and it turns out that’s why the blue channel is always so
noisy: in order to make the blue signal strong enough to white balance with red and green it’s necessary to add
approximately 6db—or two stops—of gain (power) to boost the blue signal. If you take an already shaky signal and

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increase its strength artificially you’ll enhance all of its defects too. In this case the main defect is noise.
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Years ago I shot a test with a Sony F35 and proved that silicon sensors are much more “balanced” under daylight

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than they are under tungsten light. I shot a test chart under both kinds of light and saw that under tungsten light,

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which contains lots of red and not much blue, the red channel was very clean and blue was very noisy, while under
daylight the opposite was true: red was a little noisy and blue was very clean. It occurred to me that RED’s statement

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that the sensor was balanced for 5000K might have to do with noise.

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18-80mm Zoom Lens
The following are frames that I captured recently from a noise test shot on a Sony F55. I capped the lens port, did a
black balance and an APR (“automatic pixel replacement”) pass, and then recorded black to XVAC in SLog2 at several

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different white balance presets. Here’s what I saw when I pulled the footage into Da Vinci Resolve:

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or daylight. 4100K. 5500K. Blue seems a little bit noisier. or tungsten light. red is a little noisier. or midway between tungsten and daylight. red is very clean. Red and blue channels are nearly equal in noise. Blue channel is really noisy.Cine Lens at NAB2016 SPONSORED ADS 3200K. Blue is less noisy. .

is needed to boost the color channels so they are the least noisy they can be. American Cinematographer. Element Labs. where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects. More color samples equals less noise overall. but the difference is rarely noticeable. commercials. Schneider Optics. visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area. That’s just the way silicon is.) So if you’ve ever wondered what “native color balance” means. or a little cooler than daylight. Most of the time the differences are very subtle. preDragon. Cineo Lighting. Blue becomes tamer under daylight because. daylight consists primarily of blue light so the blue channel gets a LOT of exposure. and this page at Arri’s website shows this effect fairly well visually. (Green is always the cleanest channel as single sensors that employ a Bayer or other mosaic pattern typically have twice the number of green photosites as red or blue. are the exception to this. I’ve seen this effect on nearly every camera I’ve worked with. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild. Arri. His website is at www. the answer appears to be that it’s the color temperature of light where the least amount of gain. That’s consistent with what we see above with the F55: under daylight the red channel gets a little bit of a gain boost while blue doesn’t need any. When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. Canon. Just be aware than when someone says “But suchand-such camera is really ‘daylight balanced'” that this isn’t unusual… because. they all are. while most other cameras respond to both types of light more or less equally. Red might be a little bit noisier.fearlesslooks. but they are generally present.com. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films. For every camera I’ve tested this is always closer to daylight than tungsten. Find him on Twitter: . Arri’s “Alexa FAQ” states that while their sensor doesn’t have a “native” color balance the least gain is added to the color channels at around 5600K. Red and blue noise are nearly equal. Sound Devices and DSC Labs. music videos. Tiffen. Modern cameras are so quiet and their built-in noise reduction is so good that you have to push them pretty hard before noise becomes an issue. They almost never make any creative difference at all (RED cameras. As you can see. and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE. while silicon is less sensitive to blue light. TV series. There are some common differences that can be seen easily on a vectorscope. Australian Cinematographer. the cooler the light is the more balanced the red and blue channel noise becomes. Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. About the Author Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. PRG. His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro. His clients have included Sony. in effect.) RED is a bit of a special case because the M and MX sensors show significantly better color response under daylight than tungsten. or amplification. where colors containing red show a lot more “punch” under tungsten light while blues “pop” under daylight and HMI light. There’s less red light in daylight than in tungsten light so the red channel becomes a little noisier as the signal needs to be boosted a touch.6500K.

SHARE. Schneider Optics.net background. Discuss this article in our forum. and applying that information in a wide variety of creative applications. commercials. Arri. 1+ (512) 796-0958 Copyright © 2016 DV Info Net . music videos. Element Labs. tel. but most all visitors are welcome to read and your@email. Cineo Lighting. When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects. visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro. Australian Cinematographer.The Digital Video Information Network :: San Marcos. # " + & % ) * ABOUT THE AUTHOR ART ADAMS Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a + # living at the age of 12. ABOUT THIS SITE NEWSLETTER CONTACT DVi — The Digital Video Information Network — is a Subscribe to our newsletter for site updates. PRG. highlights and exclusive content from DV Info Net. Canon. TV series. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films. DVi is mainly intended for a professional audience.net ADVERTISING SALES John Harms participate on the site regardless of their technical john@dvinfo.address Sign up Chris Hurd chris@dvinfo. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild. EDITORIAL & PRESS technical and creative resource for learning about digital video technology. and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE. His clients have included Sony. American Cinematographer.@artadams. TX :: All Rights Reserved " # + % & . Tiffen. Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. Sound Devices and DSC Labs.