Lightroom white balance RAW vs JPEG

Why Lightroom White Balance settings are different for RAW and JPEG files

04 JPEG white balance

Lightroom white balance RAW vs JPEG

This is a JPEG version of the same picture. At first sight it looks identical, but if you take a look at the white balance panel you’ll see that although the Temp and Tint sliders are still there, the values they display are different. They’re centred on a value of zero rather than showing absolute values. That’s because the JPEG has no extended colour data to draw on and the starting point for any adjustments is simply the image as it stands.

05 White Balance Selector

Lightroom white balance RAW vs JPEG

So I’ll do the same thing with the White Balance Selector tool, clicking on the white cloth over the altar. So far, everything looks just the same…

06 Corrected JPEG image

Lightroom white balance RAW vs JPEG

But although the corrected picture looks much the same as the corrected RAW file, the white balance panel shows that something different has happened. Lightroom has shifted the existing colours relative to their original position rather than accessing extra colour data. But does this matter if the picture looks the same at the end of it?

07 RAW versus JPEG white balance adjustment

Lightroom white balance RAW vs JPEG

Well let’s see. I’ve created this split image with the adjusted RAW file on the left and the adjusted JPEG on the right. They might look similar, but there are differences. The RAW version has a little extra contrast and cleaner shadows and highlights. The JPEG version is similar, but the colours just aren’t as clean and there are signs that some of the tones are ‘clipped’ – the JPEG image does not have the extra data needed for the highest quality white balance adjustments.

At the same time, this proves that you don’t have to shoot RAW in order to adjust the white balance later. As you can see, you can adjust JPEGs too, and the results are still pretty good.

It’s not just Lightroom that differentiates between RAW and JPEGs in this way. All other programs work the same way, offering absolute temperature and tint values for RAW files and relative values for JPEGs.

See also

More Lightroom tutorials

2 thoughts on “Why Lightroom White Balance settings are different for RAW and JPEG files

  1. I’m not satisfied with this explanation. While I agree that lossy JPEG compression does compromise the available range of white balance correction, it seems that by providing a water-downed WB tool for non-RAW, the folks at Adobe are handicapping me when I use non-lossy compression, such as lossless JPEG or TIFF. If have tried to WB correct TIFF losslessly converted from CR2, and the results were no better than WB correcting JPEG files.

    The fact that the sensor information is converted to color information is immaterial. If I know the formula to convert sensor data to pixel color, I can always revert to the original sensor data (conditional on lossiness of conversion). Even if there are non-linearities in the conversion to conform match the human eye, I can undo it, apply the WB correction and then re-apply the non-linearity. The fact that Lightroom WB correction doesnt not yield the same results for JPEG and RAW is a consequence of software design choices, not fundamental.

    1. The loss of white balance data is not caused by JPEG compression – that’s a separate and unrelated topic. It happens when the RAW data is converted into any editable image file format, whether it’s TIFF or JPEG. This is why you’re getting the same results from trying to correct both TIFFs and JPEGs.

      RAW files contain additional colour data that TIFFs or JPEGs can’t accommodate, which is why the white balance decision has to be made at the RAW conversion stage. By the time you have a TIFF or a JPEG, the additional white balance data in the RAW file has already been discarded.

      As a result, you cannot reconstruct the original sensor/white balance data from a TIFF or JPEG.

      This is not a restriction created by Lightroom – it’s the same for all editing tools and happens whenever RAW data is converted into TIFFs or JPEGs. I simply used Lightroom as an example because it can edit RAW files and TIFFs/JPEGs side by side but offers different white balance options for each – it creates an apparent anomaly that I thought deserved an explanation.

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