Demystifying White Balance

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White Balance (WB) is one of the most challenging camera settings for beginners to learn. White Balance can also be difficult to fix later when you are shooting in JPG format. In this post I’m going to discuss what WB is and how to use it properly when shooting JPGs. I am a food photographer, but keep in mind the WB principals apply the same way, to anything you are shooting.

01White Balance Eggs

The image on the left has a cooler, or bluer, color temperature than the image on the right.

White Balance is one of the most important camera settings because it hugely affects how the colors look in your photos. The White Balance setting is used to tell the camera what type of lighting you are using for your shot, or in what type of scenario you are shooting. White Balance, also known as color temperature, is measured in degrees Kelvin, so I will be referencing that as well. The main reason White Balance is so hard to grasp is because our eyes are so good at filtering light, and our eyes make everything look “normal” under almost any lighting condition. We don’t see the blue or yellow sunlight. It just looks like white light. As you learn more about light and its color temperature, you will start to actually see these slight differences throughout the day.

Where to find the White Balance camera setting

Not all cameras access the WB setting in the same way. Some have a little button on the body of the camera with a “WB” under it, while other cameras make you access this setting in the camera menu. Below is how to find the WB menu for the Canon 5D Mark II. In most Canons the WB menu is located here.

02White Balance camera menu 1

The White Balance is inside the camera settings menus on most cameras.

03White Balance Menu

Here are all the WB settings available for the Canon. Yours make looks slightly different.

If you can’t find your White Balance setting, look it up in your manual or google it for your camera model. If you are having a hard time finding it, make sure you are on the “Manual” camera mode setting, or one of the other modes that your camera will allow you to adjust the WB. Depending on your camera, certain modes will lock you out of the WB menu.

What the WB setting icons represent

To make things easier, camera manufacturers have come up with some standard icons that represent the most common lighting scenarios. When you set your camera to one of these settings, you are setting it to a specific color temperature, or degrees Kelvin. Depending on your camera, you might only have the first six settings. Advanced cameras have settings 8 and 9.

  1. Auto White Balance (AWB) – the camera will analyze the light in the scene that you are shooting, and pick a setting for you. Depending on your camera it will be set anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 degrees Kelvin.
  2. Full Sun – this is for a bright sunny day, hardly any clouds, with a blue sky, and you are shooting in direct sunlight. Degrees Kelvin will be in the 5000-5500 range.04White Balance 1
  3. Open Shade – the icon is showing a house with shade on the right side. This setting is for when you are taking a picture in the shade, no direct sun, and the sky is blue. This blue sky is actually color contaminating your shot. This setting will “warm” up your shot to counteract the blue light that is coming into your scene. Degrees Kelvin will be 7000-7500.
  4. Cloudy Day – this setting is for when you are shooting on a day when the sky is white with cloud coverage – no blue sky is coming through, the light is very neutral so you don’t need to counteract any blue light contamination. Degrees Kelvin will be 6000-6500.05White Balance 2
  5. Tungsten Light – this is your standard household light bulb, or studio hot lights. Degrees Kelvin will be 2800-3200.
  6. Fluorescent – this type of light is generally found in commercial spaces. It has a wild array of different colors and temperatures, and some cameras will have multiple choices in this category. Fluorsescent light also makes images look very green so this setting counteracts that by adding a magenta (pinkish) color to balance the shot. Degrees Kelvin is around 3400-3800 – please note – I did not take a shot with the Fluorescent setting because it would just be flaming magenta.
  7. Flash or Strobe Light – this type of light is emulating daylight so usually this setting is the same as full sun and sets the camera to 5000-5500 degrees. If you have a pop-up flash, your camera might change to this setting automatically.06White Balance 3
  8. Custom White Balance – this option is for creating a custom setting for your scene by photographing a white card (or a grey card), having the camera analyze the light on that card, and then setting your camera to this new custom color temperature number.
  9. Manually Set Degrees Kelvin – this setting is for the shooter who fully understands WB and wants to manually control the color temperature in camera.

Numbers 8 and 9 are more advanced, for those shooters who are making custom WB settings to either neutralize light that might be mixed colors, or to use the WB setting creatively. I use number 9 all the time to warm up my food images. I always like to set this to a “warm” setting. So if I am shooting in daylight (and depending on the time of day), I might put my setting at 7000 or 7500 degrees Kelvin to really warm up the shot, as I am always shooting in open shade, using natural light at my studio.

For those of you who are just starting out here in Digital Photography School, it’s very important to learn about your camera’s White Balance setting when shooting only JPGS. As I’ve mentioned above, adjusting the White Balance on JPG images can be challenging and not nearly as easy as RAW files. It simply doesn’t look as nice as when you tweak RAW files. Below you can see the difference in Lightroom between the White Balance adjustments for JPG versus RAW files. It’s on the very top with “Temp” and “Tint”. When you shoot JPGS, you are limited to a slider (left image below) that goes from blue to yellow with a scale range that does not relate to the actual color temperature in degrees Kelvin. On the right side, you can see that the “Temp” scale has degrees Kelvin right next to it so you can easily customize your images.

07Lightroom WB Setting

The image on the left is the editing tab for JPG files and the one on the right is the editing tab for RAW files.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it

If you are still shooting JPGS, I suggest you give yourself an assignment to really get a feel for White Balance. This assignment is going to be called:

Natural Light White Balance Bracket Test

A bracket is a range of images of the same subject where each image has a setting that has changed. Figure out a shot you can take, preferably on a tripod to make this easier, when you have some time to do this. It doesn’t have to be a studio shot. This could be a landscape or a portrait taken outside. Figure out what your exposure should be. Then find where your White Balance setting is in your camera and take the same shot several times, each time changing the WB setting on your camera – TAKE NOTES. The point here is to learn what each setting looks like. Make notes of where you are shooting, the time of day, and your camera exposures.

Now, for your bracket test – shoot in the following WB settings: Auto, Full Sun, Shade, and Cloudy. Download your files and have a look – which color do you like the best? Make a note of that for future reference. Try to bracket with different shots too. While you are learning photography, if you are shooting a scene that has mixed lighting or it’s just a moment you are capturing at an event or something, then the Auto WB setting will probably be fine for that. I do use Auto a lot if I’m shooting at a farm or something similar where I just don’t have time to fiddle with it.

A few precautions

I have to mention something here – when shooting outside it can be extremely hard to see your camera’s LCD screen, so you might not even see the difference on the LCD when you take the pictures with the different WB settings. You HAVE to look at these on the computer you edit your files on. Here’s the other thing that’s a total drag. Your camera’s LCD screen is very inaccurate for color and many times for exposure too, especially when you are looking at it outside in daylight. It’s very hard to know if you have the correct exposure or not. I’m assuming that you haven’t learned about your camera’s histogram yet for judging exposure, so until then, for this assignment, try to do this in a situation where you can download your files right away to make sure your exposures are good.

Do some test shots, download, adjust if needed, then shoot your bracket. After downloading your image, name each shot the WB setting it was taken in so you don’t get confused. This is why you took your notes. Some software will tell you what your settings are. If you don’t know whether yours does this or not – write down your info so you can just look up your shot number with your notes. Your assignment should look something like this:

08Lav Test 1

09Lav Test 2

When I took these shots above, it was a bright sunny day with a blue sky and white billowy clouds. Time of day was about 2:45 P.M. I prefer the “Full Sun”, or daylight WB. Now, keep in mind that with shots like these, the “correct” color balance can be very subjective and some people might like the warmer shots and some people might like the cooler shots. I think we can all agree that the shot taken in “Shade” is way too yellow for this scene. Until you learn how to edit RAW files, here is what I suggest you do. Set your WB to Auto if you are still nervous about this, OR match the WB to the lighting condition of your scene. If you have time with the shot, take a bracket of your settings.

What I always suggest to new students is to set your camera, if possible, to shoot in JPG and RAW files. The camera will actually create two images of the same exact shot, one as a JPG and the other as a RAW file. They will have the same image number, with a different file extension. Work on the JPG for now, then when you learn how to edit RAW files, you will have these to go back to, and you will be so happy that you did that. On Canon bodies, the menu settings to change the file format look like these below. Notice I am also picking the largest file size I can for each file type. I always do that in case I ever want to print anything.

Canon Quality Menu

Canon Quality Menu

Alright, now go out there, play with the White Balance and see what it does. Get control of that camera and take your photography to the next level.

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Christina Peters is a freelance commercial food photographer and instructor. She teaches food photography classes at her studio in Marina Del Rey, CA. She also has a food photography blog with loads of tips and tricks for shooting food. Download her free food photography ebook on her blog. You can see her photography work with clients like MdDonald's, Taco Bell, Dominos and others at her website - ChristinaPeters.com

  • Walt French

    I understand that JPEGs throw away “extraneous” detail, and perhaps by limiting a DSLR’s higher bit depth to 8 bits, might constrain your flexibility. But color balance? I’d think it more that if you have JPEGs, maybe you don’t WANT the extra flexibility…it’d be confusing.

    Or otherwise, WHY should it be hard to tweak the relative sensitivities/levels of RG and B pixels?

  • I’m not entirely sure I’m understanding your question here, so bear with me, but basically if you shoot RAW then the white balance setting on the camera is irrelevant to what you can do with the white balance later. Because the RAW file captures all the colour information that there is, you can effectively set whatever white balance during post processing that you could have set on the camera at the point of shooting.

    With RAW, the white balance setting on the camera basically just affects the preview you see on the back of the camera, and maybe the default white balance setting in your RAW processor. All the colour that hit the sensor is still present, and so you can re-balance the colour in post to your heart’s content.

    With JPEG, you’re going to lose enough colour information at the point of shooting that you may well not be able to get a picture properly white balanced in post processing. If you’ve shot “too yellow”, that’s the colour information the camera has saved. You can try to balance it toward blue, but the JPEG doesn’t *have* all the blue information that the RAW file would have saved—it’s been thrown away at the point of JPEG conversion—so you’ll never be able to get that information back.

  • Belegost

    I see a several points where there will be problems. First, JPEG does not store RGB pixels, JPEG uses YCbCr – a luminance plane, and a differential red plane, and a differential blue plane. If the conversion from RGB to YCbCr is done in floating point (full decimal values for each element) then the conversion is exact and fully reversible. However, as part of the compression for JPEG the conversion will be done with constrained integers – so there is a loss of color information at this point.
    Further, after the conversion to YCbCr, each plane is transformed with the DCT into a frequency representation, and then as part of the compression, the high frequency elements are zeroed out – these high frequency components are generally not distinguishable to the human eye. However, that is done given a specific color palette, if the colors were to change there would be a different DCT and different components would be dropped.
    So now we have two places where color information is lost – quantizing the color planes, and removing high frequency components. After this is done, trying to adjust the coloring will bring out this lack of information by causing artifacts, color banding, or off hues.

  • There’s also the application of the gamma curve—best description I can find is http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/u-raw-files.shtml

  • Hi Matt, thanks for the excellent explanation of the difference between RAW and JPEG. I could not have said it better myself. I love having the flexibility RAW files gives us. Remember how rigid things were in days of film?

  • andyrays

    Very nice

  • Thanks Belegost, are you a scientist or sorts? Most of those terms are not things very many photographers are familiar with (I have to admit, myself included).

  • Belegost

    I’m a signal processing and machine intelligence engineer, in my time I have written my own JPEG codec to interface with computer vision systems. If there are particular terms that aren’t clear, ask about them, I’m more than happy to explain more.

    I think understanding some of the image processing that happens under the hood can really help understand how to get the best quality out of post-processing.

  • dantefrizzoli

    I am one of those who has not learned about white balance yet. Thank you for this article.

  • Hi Andyrays, thanks for the insight on this. I didn’t know that Kelvin was not considered a typeset of a degree. I’ve always been taught this in photography school and it’s obviously become a very common way for photographers to refer to Kelvin, as degrees Kelvin, even if it’s technically incorrect. That being said, I think the basic concept of thinking of white balance as a type of measurement still comes across here. That was the goal anyway.

  • You’re welcome! Glad you liked it.

  • Jay Griffin

    This is awesome, Christina! Though I’m at the point where I’m trying to break out of the standard modes and want to dig in to choosing the correct Kelvin, I was a bit stuck on how to begin. Maybe my search skills are failing me, but I haven’t found a good article or class on it yet. But I’ll use your bracketing method here with the Kelvin temps. By the way, is the Kelvin selected in camera in the metadata anywhere? I use Lightroom 5 and I’m not sure where to find that, if it’s there. Otherwise, I’ll have to take super good notes, or use flash cards! Thanks for the article.

  • Hi Jay! Ok so you can do this in AV (aperture priority) mode, TV (shutter priority) mode and Manual mode. Are you still shooting Jpeg? If so then you’ll have to do a WB bracket to find the best WB for your scene. There is one image in my article above the title, “Here is your assignment…” That is how Lightroom will see the color temp and it looks the same in Lightroom 5 as well. In the image, on the left, the slider is just a scale of numbers with either a minus of a plus for more or less (blue or orange) for the WB. This is inside the develop module and under the first tab called “Basic”. If you are looking to change the Kelvin manually in LR (or other apps) you have to shoot RAW file format. The RAW files are the only files that have this WB metadata.

    If your camera can shoot RAW files, shoot both Jpegs and Raws until you are comfortable with this to only go with RAWs.

    Here are some free great videos from Adobe TV for LR 5. http://tv.adobe.com/watch/learn-lightroom-5/controlling-white-balance/

    Let me know if this helps and if you have any more questions.

  • Jay Griffin

    Thanks, Christina. I do shoot RAW. So if I use the Kelvin white balance on camera, the Temp that I see on that image in Lightroom will be the Kelvin temp that I chose on camera? Did I understand that right? I guess that makes sense, and if that’s the case, it will help immensely!

  • Yes, so when you import your images, in LR in the WB section you’ll see at the top a little popup next to the “WB:” then you’ll see it say “as shot” UNTIL you start changing the slider right below it. Once you change the slider it will show, “WB: Custom” because you’ve changed the numbers. Then you can also see several other WB options and see what they look like, or pull the slider to where you like how it looks. You can always go back to your initial WB setting and set it to – “as shot”.

    To be clear, and this will sound odd – it doesn’t really matter what Kelvin setting you are actually shooting in with RAW because you can completely override that in LR in post in this module. It’s only when shooting jpegs that it’s hard to tweak WB after shooting. Does that make sense?

    I am always changing my WB in LR after shooting. If I am shooting in a scene where the light is changing a lot then I will shoot with the camera in Auto WB and then tweak in post production as needed. If I am shooting in a scene with consistent light I might set my WB to let’s say “cloudy day”, then all my images will be the same WB so if I want to change it later then I just apply my change to all the files at once in LR. Point is, I’m always changing my WB in post production with images I’ve shot on location.

    When I shooting in my studio, I am ALWAYS shooting tethered (camera hooked up to computer with a cable) to the computer and shooting into LR – then as the files come in as I’m shooting I am tweaking my WB just once or twice then the whole shoot will have my custom WB on it as I am shooting.

  • Jay Griffin

    Thank you so much for the detailed responses, you have helped!

  • Guest

    This is one of my favourite features of my Olympus cameras, the One Touch White Balance. Essentially you take an image of something that you know is white (either a white card or paper if you can get something as white as possible) and put it in the light you are trying to capture. Hit your one touch white balance and now it’s all set, no auto modes getting confused by light reflecting off of unknown surfaces or other things confusing the camera auto mode or even guessing what white balance to use when you have multiple light sources.

  • That does sound great. So many cameras hide changing the white balance in certain shooting modes so that’s great that your camera has it front and center. That is called the Custom WB setting on other cameras. I did not mention that here as many point and shoots do not have that setting. The icon looks like two little triangles on their sides with a circle in between the two on top of them. For those of you that have that on your camera, look at your camera manual for the specific order in which to shoot the card and then turn on the setting as this varies per camera. This setting can work well for mixed lighting scenarios.

  • Graeme Kershaw

    My Pentax K-3 has a Multi Auto WB setting. The book says that if various light sources are present the camera automatically adjusts the white balance according to the light source in each area. Do you know anything about this?

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    I prefer shooting on Kelvin. But, then, you need a good reliable camera too. Kelvin setting works very well with Canon. But, all Canons do not give you Kelvin option for White Balance.
    Before you arrive at the right Kelvin setting, you have to do quite a few experiments.
    The main advantage on Kelvin is CONSISTENCY. AWB is very very dangerous for shooting interiors in available light without a flash.

  • Hi Rustom, I agree that leaning how to use custom kelvin settings you have to do a lot of experiments. Like most things with photography, it takes time to learn the concepts.

    You have to be very careful when saying that “AWB is very dangerous”. This needs to be clarified for our readers who are starting out. EVERY camera is different. When folks are just starting out, they don’t know about white balance. Then they have to use auto settings until they learn otherwise. Some cameras are excellent at shooting interiors in available light, with mixed lighting, without a flash set on AWB. My Canon 5D Mark II does very well with this scenario.

    Also, When shooting in RAW file format, it’s a great practice to be as accurate as you can when setting your WB, but, the reality is it can always be corrected later in post. So it’s not dangerous shooting in AWB with RAW files because they can be easily corrected. Shooting in AWB might create more work IF the camera is shifting the WB every time you shoot. So if you are referring to “danger” in that scenario, maybe that’s what you mean there – more work adjust each file for WB.

    When shooting Jpegs AWB can cause issues because every time you take the picture, the camera analyzes the light and the WB can shift with each press of the button. As mentioned in the article, this can be difficult to change later because there is not a way to accurately adjust the Kelvin settings in post. So, I’m guessing this is what you are referring to with the danger comment there. When just starting out in photography, most folks are shooting in Jpegs and use auto settings on their cameras, especially AWB, until they learn otherwise.

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    I think you should do more experiments and better homework before writing such big articles.

  • I’m not even going to address the obvious negative tone of your comment. This article is written in the spirit of sharing and hopefully giving the folks starting out some valuable info on how white balance works. Good luck to you.

  • Do you teach also Rustom? If you feel you can write a good article for us please use the Contact Us form at the bottom to get in touch and apply to write for us. I’d love to have such a detailed, and well researched article as you mention. Don’t forget to include your website, some of your past writing examples and where we can see your portfolio of work when you submit an author request. Thanks.

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    No, Madam. I don’t teach. I LEARN. Learning and studying is my passion. Thanks. All the best.

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    Madam, You are all lucky people. Being above the tropics, even the natural lighting is soft and good. Besides, people do not like gaudy things.

    Here, in India, we have to work under horrible conditions. Even the daylight is too contrasty and the atmosphere is usually polluted.

    When we work at Weddings, the halogen lights are so strong that AWB gives horrible, inconsistent results. Canons are very sensitive cameras and therefore lighting and colour temperature of light are very important.

    I keep three custom settings. One is at ISO 160, Kelvin 5000, f6.7 aperture priority. Second is at ISO 2000, Kelvin 4800, F6.7 aperture priority. Third is at ISO 4000, Kelvin 4800, F6.7 aperture priority.

    I have a unique method of combining my flash on the camera with a Studio Flash also, where I use the Studio Flash as the main flash and the flash on the camera as a fill-in flash WITHOUT USING THE TTL.

    When I shoot indoors in available light, I shoot on ISO 160 Kelvin 5000, F16 aperture priority with +1 if needed.

    Then I do the post production work by composing (without losing the pixels), sharpening and then adjusting the levels.

    The information that I have given above, I normally do not disclose to anyone.

    If you wish to learn from me, please contact me directly on rustomhavewalla@gmail.com.

    LET US PUT OUR EGO ASIDE AND LET US BE FRIENDS.

  • Johan Bauwens

    WB is often a matter of taste. I set mine nearly always on cloudy, for macrophotography outdoors, but for concerts as well. But it’s often a matter of taste, not pure science. When returning from a concert, nobody remembers what the color temperature was like !

  • Sharon

    I frequently take photos of various functions at my church. The walls are painted a medium shade of taupe and coupled with the fluorescent lighting always seem to tint my photos a brownish color. I shoot with a Canon Rebel Xti. Can you suggest a setting that might help me take better shots in this ‘environment’? Thanks!

  • Hi Sharon, if you are not on Auto WB already – try that. If that is what is giving you a brown look then you might have to do a “custom white balance” for the room. On your camera you access the white balance by pressing the little black button, on the back of the camera, right side, with the “WB” under it. Look up your manual for instructions on how to do the custom white balance setting – you will be photographing a white card to read the weird light in that room.

  • WB is certainly a matter of personal preference in a lot of situations. I always warm up my food shots as the auto settings make the shots too cool in color temp. When I’m shooting products, then the color has to be perfectly accurate and that’s usually the time my white balance will be as neutral as I can make it.

  • A great explanatory article on WB. I used to only shoot in JPEG but since updating my camera I enjoy shooting in both JPEG and RAW file. I have a lot more control in Lightroom 5 with the WB shot in RAW. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  • @dantefrizzoli:disqus, I am fairly new to using WB, myself; but, love the flexibility, correction, and artistic options it provides. Thank you, @disqus_il9FsnhI6k:disqus, for the extra insight for each option. I have just been “wingin’ it”; so, I am encouraged to try your assignment.
    Curious, why is it important to adjust the Exposure before the WB?
    Thank you!
    Neneh
    Creator & Tour Guide of Potty Mouth Tours
    http://pottymouthtours.com/

  • mona

    Thank you very much I liked the Mtalbtvn


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  • RM

    Excellent explanation on WB and how to edit it in LR. And #8 – custom white balance: I always use that but didn’t know I have to do it on a white paper. You live and learn 🙂 Thanks!

  • Carmen Anderson

    this is such a useful lesson, and the bracket exercise is a really good one. I am going to change my settings to enable me to have RAW files too. looking forward to the next lessons…. thank you!

  • You’re very welcome Carmen!

  • Ultravixen

    Just a nerdy point. Kelvin is an absolute thermodynamics scale, the word degree dos not apply like in Farenheit or Celsius. One just talk about Kelvin.

  • Daniel Buckenmyer

    So when talking about Kelvin, would you say, “I set my camera to 5500 Kelvin” vs. saying “I set my camera to 5500 degrees of Kelvin.”?

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