Photography Basics: What is White Balance?

White balance is one of the elements that new photographers often skip over learning about. Introduction guides often focus on the holy trinity of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, leaving other finer details out. White balance isn’t too complicated to get to grips with, but doing so can help drastically improve your pictures. It can also help you understand the principles of light and photography better. This guide will take you through some of the key points to answer the question, what is white balance? We’ll also go through some of the settings and functions your camera has in relation to white balance.

What is White Balance?

For a digital photographer, white balance refers to how natural and accurate the colours in your photos look. If you’re new to photography, you may have noticed that sometimes your images come out looking less than appealing, with incorrect hues and washed out colors. This is because different lighting conditions will affect how the colors of your image turn out.

Different sources of light have different colour temperatures. The table below gives a rough guide of the color temperatures we’re most commonly exposed to (measure in Kelvin)

As you can see from the table, there are a variety of different colors represented. Candle flames and incandescent lightings cast a darker red/yellow light, whereas sunlight and the camera flash have more of a neutral color. At the other end of the spectrum, cloudy and overcast days produce a cooler tint that leans towards blue. The human eye and brain are particularly good at ignoring these vastly different changes in color. To ensure that what we see is a consistent color under all lightings, the brain continually adjusts the way we see things without us noticing. A digital camera isn’t quite as sophisticated however. This makes it harder for the camera to ignore these changes in lighting and produce a consistent representation of what is neutral/white.

Digital cameras need more assistance in determining how a color should look. That’s where white balance comes in. Although automatic white balance settings have greatly improved over recent years, you may often find that pictures you though would come out perfectly are either completely washed out or have a blue/purple tint. This is why it’s useful to know when to change your white balance settings.

White Balance Settings

Auto White Balance

The auto white balance function on most modern cameras does a fairly impressive job of accurately balancing neutral colors. If the lighting is natural and consistent, the chances are the camera will be able to figure out what it needs to do. However, in more complex lightings it can often struggle.

Artificial lighting can mean that auto white balance produces an overly warm/yellow tint. Conversely, sometimes auto white balance can adjust the cast of the colors even when you don’t want it to. Trying to photography a sunrise or sunset can be frustrating if the white balance keeps giving you inaccurate results.

Preset White Balance

In order to get around the fact that auto white balance isn’t always effective, most DSLRs will give you a variety of preset options. These presets will give you a guide as to what kind of lights they’re suitable for, as well as a scale of temperature in Kelvins. Below are some of the most common presets you’ll find:

  • Daylight/Sunny (Approx. 5200K) – although not all cameras have this, it’s essentially the ‘normal’ range for white balance.
  • Shade (Approx. 7000K) – in the shade, lighting tends to be a little bluer than in sunlight. This mode warms things up a little.
  • Cloudy (Approx. 6000K) – in between daylight and shade is this cloudy setting, which nudges colors a little warmer.
  • Tungsten (Approx. 3200K) – when you’re shooting indoors in incandescent lighting (traditional bulbs) it cools down the colors a little to remove the overly yellow glow they would otherwise have.
  • Fluorescent (Approx. 4000K) –Fluorescent lighting tends to be cooler than tungsten, so this mode will warm things up more.
  • Flash – most cameras have a fairly cool/blue flash light. This mode warms tour colors a bit to compensate.

Manual White Balance Adjustments

Hopefully you’ll find that one of the above modes gives you the correct white balance for your images. However in some cases small adjustments are needed to get the right color cast. Different cameras handle this differently, but essentially what you need to do is give the camera some indication of what ‘correct’ white looks like. You can do this by directing the camera at a piece of white card that’s specifically designed to give the right reference point. When you then take a photograph in the same lighting, the color cast should be correct. This can be a really useful method of getting the right colors and tones for your images.

Shooting in RAW

Most digital cameras default to capturing pictures in JPEG format. JPEG is useful as it produces fairly small images, meaning you can shoot a lot more before your memory card/hard drive becomes full. However, one of the downsides of this is that often a lot of data is disregarded. For example, even though your camera’s sensor captures a lot of data regarding color and white balance, it will only save the data for the current setting. This means that once you’ve taken the picture, you’ve no way of correcting the white balance if it’s off.

RAW files hold far more information than JPEGs. Although this takes up a lot of room, it also means you have a lot of data with which to correct your images. All of the color data captured by the sensor is accessible, so if your shots are the wrong hue, you can make adjustments to get a more accurate result. Programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop can do this, although it can be time consuming. When shooting in RAW, try and get the correct white balance as you go, but rest assured you can alter it in post-production if not.

How to Post-Process White Balance

As we just mentioned, photo editing software can help you edit your RAW files if the white balance is off. Doing this is relatively easy. Start by loading the RAW file into your program of choice. You should then be able to see all the data and variables that you can edit. A ‘color correction’ panel will help you correct the white balance. By using the dropper tool, select the white or neutral point of your image and the software will set the white balance to match this. It’s easy enough to do, but it can take a lot of time if all of your images have an incorrect white balance.

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