I hate white balancing, and I try never to do it. If you must, here’s when and where to do it.
In years past, when I’ve shot quickly without benefit of a monitor or DIT, I’ve occasionally gotten myself into a lot of trouble by white balancing, so I try to rent gear from places with strong engineering support. Half the battle is going to a rental house that takes care of their cameras and takes great pride in sending them out looking as best they can. White balance is typically set by the in-house engineer to his or her favorite specs, unless that person feels the factory white balance is appropriate. The important thing to recognize is that white balances can vary from camera to camera because they are not always a set-in-stone reference. There’s a lot that can go wrong.
I remember using an F900/0 (yes, it was never upgraded) for several years and learning how to make it look great in spite of its limitations. I did this with the assistance of a video engineer/DIT that I had on every shoot. Until the last one. The production company hired me to do a fast and dirty shoot, and the first time I white balanced outdoors and checked the results on a monitor I discovered the picture was bright yellow. The only reason the camera had ever white balanced before was because a DIT had done it manually, with a chip chart, vectorscope and paintbox.
White balance parameters are adjustable, and I’m not talking about presets. Presets are adjustable, certainly, which is why you should always check them before using them. But the way the camera white balances in the field is also adjustable, so be sure to check that as well.
If I do a white balance in the field, I’ll white balance both the A and B switch settings and then leave the switch at B. That way I’m less likely to bump the switch to A (which should be the same as B) or preset (the farthest switch setting from B, and the only one that really would screw up the look under those conditions). But if the shot works on either daylight or tungsten preset, that’s where I stay–because those results are the most predictable without a monitor, as long as I’ve viewed them in advance and found them acceptable.
I will occasionally cheat the white balance digitally. Varicams and SDX900’s occasionally look a little too neutral to my eye, so if I’m working quickly and without much of a crew I’ll go into the menus and change the white balance preset from 3200k to 3300k. That adds a hint of warmness to flesh tone without being obvious.