White Balance Explained

In Photo Editing, Photography Tips by max

One of the things that can make a big difference to beginner photography is learning about white balance.

Like a lot of things to do with photography, white balance sounds complicated, yet is incredibly easy to do. This article aims to explain everything about white balance, such as what it is, and how to use it.

What is White Balance? 

Put very simply, the white balance setting you choose will affect the color balance in your images, making them look warmer or cooler, depending on the light source you are shooting with.

The color of light affects the colors in your photos, but you won’t notice that with your eyes because or brains adapt very quickly to always see the light color as neutral, even when it’s not. The camera records colors exactly as it sees them, which is why photos taken indoors in tungsten lighting have a yellowish tint to them, and a blue tint under fluorescent light.

In film camera days, photographers had to put filters over their lenses depending on what color light they were going to shoot in. Modern cameras have White Balance controls, so it’s much simpler to adjust them. The camera will add or reduce amounts of certain colors to make the image neutral, depending on which white balance setting you have it on.

Auto White Balance

Most cameras will have Auto White Balance (AWB) as the default option. This setting works out what lighting you are shooting in, and adjusts the colors accordingly. It’s OK for most situations, but there are times when AWB is fooled by the light. This can happen with artificial lighting, which can still have a yellow or orange cast even with AWB on.

The image below has Auto White Balance applied. It’s ok, but not exactly how I wanted the WB to look. There is a slight reddish cast to the image, which shouldn’t be there:

Another downside is that AWB can correct casts when you don’t want it to. This can happen when you shoot landscapes or sunsets/sunrises, and you don’t want the camera messing with the colors of the image.

Most DSLR’s have white balance presets, which give a fixed correction for various lighting scenarios, but you have to choose the right one. This gives you more control over your image and better results.

Preset White Balance Settings

Here are the most common white balance settings you’ll find on digital cameras. The proper setting for this image is the Daylight one. You can see how different it looks with all the white balance options applied:

  • Tungsten – this mode is used for shooting indoors under incandescent bulb lighting. It usually cools colors down in photos:

  • Fluorescent – this adds more red/magenta to counteract the cool colors of fluorescent lighting:

  • Daylight/Sunny – use outdoors or indoors in daylight or sunshine:

  • Cloudy – this warms up your images more than the daylight setting, to compensate for the cooler tones of cloudy days:

  • Shade – again, this warms up your images as shade is colder in color than daylight:

  • Flash – this setting is for using with a flashgun or with studio lighting:

Manual White Balance Adjustments

For most situations, the preset white balances will work just fine, but DSLR’s and high-end compact cameras allow you to set the white balance manually, which you may need to do for some studio strobes or unique lighting situations.

The way you set this varies by camera brand, but it is basically telling the camera what is white in a shot, so it has a reference to work off when adjusting the colors. You can buy what is called a ‘grey card’ specifically for this task. They are inexpensive, but if you don’t have one, you can use a piece of white paper. You shoot an image where the grey card or white paper fill the frame, then set your camera’s custom white balance to use that as its white reference point.

Color Temperature and White Balance

All light falls somewhere on the color temperature scale, and is measured in Kelvins. Sunlight is around 5,200K, studio flashes around 5,400-600K, and shade is 8,000K. On the other end of the scale are sodium vapor lamps at 2,700K. The warmer the temperature of light, the lower the number of Kelvins it is, and vice versa.

White balance settings are worked out according to color temperature settings, which go from amber, through white, to blue, but there is also a secondary tint adjustment that adds a green-magenta shift. This can be adjusted on custom white balance settings for fine tuning on the camera, and is often used alongside white balance adjustment in image editors.

Adjusting White Balance in Post-Processing

Most image editing software has the ability to change the white balance of your image, but this only works if you shoot in RAW format – you can’t change a JPEG white balance because the settings are ‘baked in’, whereas in RAW the information can be changed.

This is handy if you shot some great images and forgot to change the white balance (we’ve all done it!). You can change to any white balance in an image editor that supports RAW files.

You can pick from preset white balances, or use the eyedropper tool to select a specific part of the image to create a custom white balance from.

Final Thoughts

White balance is a really simple concept, as I hope I have managed to explain here, but it makes a huge difference to your images. Try learning to set a custom white balance, and you will be able to adapt to any lighting situation with ease.