Photography Basics #5: What is White Balance?

Michael Sand
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What is White Balance?

White Balance refers to the overall color cast of an image or scene. When the White Balance is set properly, all neutral elements should be white or gray.

Consider this scene:

Here you will notice a huge color variation. Depending on the ambient light, your image may appear too red, too blue, or too yellow.

Somewhere in the middle, which is considered the right look for this scene, it should really be a lot closer to white.

That’s the role of White Balance. It just helps you to get as close as possible to neutral with your image.

If you find yourself shooting without adjusting your white balance, you are probably going to run into a situation like this.

Sources of different colored light have to be neutralized to white to achieve accurate white balance. For example, you might shoot a scene with window light during the day.

The blue light of the sky mixed with the yellow light coming from the lamp will usually result in a lot of orangeish color cast.

To neutralize this scene, you will have to use a daylight or electronic flash setting on your camera.

White Balance Settings

White Balance is simply a way of controlling the color temperature of your camera. I know what you’re thinking, __________________ temperature?

I know, I know. The temperature goes up or down from time to time. But, this has nothing to do with our photography analogy. All you need to remember is that the camera can be configured to deliberately add an orange or blue tint to your image. The tint is not a bad thing unless you’re creating a white balance preset that you want to use as part of a creative project.

You can always choose whether you want to be creative for photography or not. Taking a photo with the white balance preset left on auto mode is just fine. However, if you’re ever interested in learning more about photography and enhancing your creativity with some creative white balance modes, you will need to learn how to use them.

A white balance setting can be applied to an image by using a preset or manually. Presets are good enough to use as a starting point, but it’s best to learn the manual settings.

Auto White Balance

Vs. One Click White Balance

White balance is important for all kinds of photography but particularly in shooting food.

If you want your food photos to look as delicious as possible, you use the right white balance so that it is appetizing and inviting.

Cameras automatically adjust to outdoor lighting conditions (in this case, sunlight), and adjust the white balance of the scene making it look more yellow, orange, or red than it is.

The way auto white balance works is that as soon as your camera focuses on a certain scene, the camera will start shooting and then find the correct white balance to adjust the color of the viewfinder to the correct values.

One way to find the proper white balance manually is by shooting in RAW and then correcting the white balance later. Many photographers prefer to do this because it gives them more flexibility in the final look of their photos.

When shooting in RAW, you also have the chance to shoot multiple shots in one photo session with different white balances and use them all in a final composite image.

The other way to shoot with proper white balance is by setting the proper white balance before you shoot.

You do this through a RAW processing program or even your camera's internal processing with a preset setting.

In the case of my DSLR there are white balance settings for all kinds of artificial light, from candle light to fluorescent light, and even "direct sunlight".

Preset White Balance

White balance is the term used for adjusting the colors in a photograph taken under different lighting conditions to make things appear as they really are. Most cameras have a preset white balance option that makes this adjustment and also a way to select an auto white balance that does the same.

The white balance setting is a camera setting that will make pictures taken under different lighting conditions to be displayed with the same colors. The concept is not only used for color temperature like in the case of daylight or tungsten lighting, you can also set the white balance value to show colors in a way that can be considered natural and close to accurate.

It’s similar to your car’s GPS, it will prevent you from getting lost by always showing you the realistic direction (as it is).

A camera with presets can be set to the custom white balance value and as a result, colors will be shown as being natural. The best part is that you have to do nothing, a preset is simply selected and the camera does the rest of the job.

For cameras with auto setting, they would need to measure the present light in order to get the right color temperature and show the colors accurately. This normally takes a few seconds and you can set your value manually.

Manual White Balance Adjustments

When the white balance is not exactly on auto, you basically tell the camera what the light source is. You can then give it more information by telling the camera whether it should be above or below its white balance.

Understanding the color temperature of light is necessary to get a good white balance. The color temperature of light is rated in degrees Kelvin and it is what helps you identify the type of light.

Shooting in RAW

If you want take great photos of nature and landscapes, you must be able to adapt to changing light conditions. As the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. To capture great moments you need to be prepared to use whatever devices you have close to you, including cell phones.

A basic camera setting that every photographer should know is white balance.

White balance, simply put, controls the color of your photo. It helps neutralize colors in your photo from being too warm or too cool.

White balance control is most critical when shooting in JPEG. The white balance that you choose will determine the colors in your photo. For instance, if you are shooting a photo in RAW and choose warm white balance, your pictures will look yellow as the tones are off. And if you shoot in RAW and choose the cold white balance, your photos will look blue.

The JPEG format was created to process images as quickly as possible. The processor that edits the files does not have the ability to alter white balance like it can with RAW files, as each image is a finished product.

It therefore must choose a white balance setting that works for the image. It is different in each situation. Sometimes warm white balance pictures look the best; while on other occasions you may want your pictures to be blue (cool).

How to Post-Process White Balance

The color temperature is the light source. As such, shooting accurate and consistent color is crucial for all photographers at all levels.

As a beginner, you probably didn’t give this much thought when you were looking for the auto white balance setting on your camera.

Still, did you know, the auto white balance setting is the least accurate white balance setting?

Instead of exposing for the object you’re shooting, auto white balance exposes for the overall light source.

The result is images that appear a little cooler or warmer than expected. The solution is simple though.

Since you’re looking at color all day, there’s a good chance you can see what’s right.