How to be Creative with White Balance - Digital Photography School

How to be Creative with White Balance

This is the fourth in a series of articles by Andrew S Gibson, the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras.

01

My approach to photography is to keep things as simple as possible from a technical point of view. That helps me concentrate on emphasising with my subject, finding beautiful light and getting the best possible composition. These concepts are harder to pin down but they are the ones that are really important when it comes to creating beautiful images. Of course, the technical settings are important too, because they help you capture and make the most of the vision that you have in your mind. But keeping the technical side as simple as possible gives you time to concentrate on the other stuff.

02

White balance

Now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with white balance. Here’s the answer:

The simplest way to deal with white balance is to set your camera’s white balance setting to daylight and then forget about it.

If that statement puzzles you don’t worry, I’ll come back to it in a bit.

First, let’s take a brief look at what the white balance function does.

Colour temperature

If this is the first time you’ve come across an explanation of white balance you may be surprised to learn that the colour of ambient light can vary. Our eyes adjust to it automatically, so we often don’t realise until it is pointed out. This phenomena is called colour temperature.
03

If you take photos by the light of the setting sun, then anything illuminated by the sun’s light turns orange. That’s because the light from the sun, at this time of day, has a strong warm cast (that’s why it’s called the ‘golden hour’).

Similarly, if you take a photo of something lit by the light of a tungsten bulb (ie at night or indoors) then the light has a strong orange colour and your subject will also come out orange.

04

If you take a photo after the sun has set, but while there is still a little light in the sky, then the light has a strong blue colour. I mentioned the golden hour earlier, this period is called the ‘blue hour’ by landscape photographers.

If you take a photo on a cloudy day, the light also has a blue colour, although it is not so noticeable.

If you take a photo of something in the shade on a sunny day, the light also has a surprisingly strong blue colour.

If you take a photo lit by the sun at around midday it will have neutral colour. That’s because the white balance setting on your camera is calibrated to give photos with a neutral colour cast at this time of day. The exact colour of the light at this time of day depends on your geographic location and the season, so it does vary, but generally holds true.

Candescent light

What do all these scenarios have in common? The light in each is created by a candescent light source. That means that the light is generated by a burning object. In the case of daylight, that’s the sun (a burning ball of flammable gases). In the case of tungsten light, it’s the filament inside the bulb that is burning. There are no flames because there is a vacuum inside the bulb.

Light produced by candescent light sources behaves predictably and is easy for your camera to cope with. It is either neutral in colour (ie sunlight at midday) or it has a warm colour cast or it has a cool colour cast.

Daylight white balance setting

So, why do I use the daylight white balance setting on my camera? The reason is that I always use the Raw format. That lets me make the final decision regarding white balance when I process the images in Lightroom 4 (the software I use to process all my Raw files). I can warm up or cool down the white balance as required. I also use a calibrated monitor so I know the colours I see on-screen are accurate.

There are two benefits to setting colour temperature in post. One is that you can see the result of your adjustment right away on the monitor. The other is that you can also set the white balance on an individual basis per photo if you need to.

If you use the JPEG format life gets a little more complicated. While there is a lot you can do to a JPEG file in post, it’s not as flexible as a Raw file. You need to get the white balance setting as accurate as possible when you take the photo. That takes more work. It can distract your attention from making the most of the light and the subject at the time of shooting, so I avoid it.

There’s another reason I use the daylight setting, and it’s a personal one. I started in photography before the digital age, and I used daylight balanced slide film for most of my colour work. It taught me to appreciate the way that the colour of light changes throughout the day. With slide film, there is no post-processing, so you had to think about the colour temperature of the light and use filters to warm it up or cool it down if necessary. Now, I appreciate that my digital cameras make dealing with colour temperature much easier. That’s why I set it and forget it.

Using white balance

There are three ways to use the white balance function:

1. To create a photo with a neutral colour cast. This is important if you’re taking say, a product photo for a catalogue company, or you want a ‘clean’ look to your photos.

2. To emphasise the natural colour of the light. This is a creative way to use white balance. For example, if you are taking a photo of something lit by the setting sun, you may choose a white balance setting that emphasises the warmth of the light instead of trying to neutralise it.

3. To warm up photos that benefit from warm colours. A good example is portraits. Warm light is generally the best for creating a flattering portrait. There are exceptions, but warm is generally best.

There are some examples of photos with creative light balance at the end of the article.

Incandescent light sources

We’ve already looked at candescent light sources (light sources that burn). But light can also come from incandescent sources. These are light sources that produce light by a method other than burning something. The most common types you will see are fluorescent light, neon light and sodium lights (used in street lighting).

The light from these sources is more difficult for your camera to deal with as they don’t fit neatly on the cool to warm scale of candescent light sources. They are often mixed with daylight which makes your job even more difficult. You may be able to adjust the white balance to produce a neutral coloured image in daylight, you might also be able to do it with the artificial light, but (fancy post-processing techniques aside) you can’t get the white balance right for both light sources at the same time.

The lesson? Avoid fluorescent, neon and sodium lights as much as you can when you take photos. For example, if you are taking a photo in a building indoors lit by fluorescent light (and daylight coming through the windows) turn off the fluorescent lights (if you can) and just use daylight. Or turn off the lights and use flash instead (that’s how real estate photographers get such great results). The results will be better.

However, there are times when you can use these light sources creatively. A good example is if you take a photo of street scene at night or at dusk. The light from different light sources may add to the atmosphere.

Creative white balance examples

Here are some photos where I have used white balance creatively:

05

Here’s a portrait taken in shade. The quality of light in the shade is soft and beautiful – perfect for portraits. But the colour of the light is blue. I warmed up the image in Lightroom 4.

06
Here’s another portrait taken in the shade. The difference is that the girl’s hair is lit by the last rays of the setting sun. That’s what has produced that lovely warm colour on her hair.

07
A neon light against the evening sky. The light from the neon sign is red, and the ambient light illuminating the rest of the scene is blue. The colour contrast between the two is what makes the photo.

08

Steel wool spinning. Again, the colour of the ambient light at this late hour is blue. The light of the from the buildings in the distance and the burning sparks from the steel wool spinning is orange. There is a strong colour contrast between the two.

Previous articles

This is the fourth in a series of four articles. You can read the previous articles here:

Introducing the Creative Triangle

Finding Your Way Around the Mode Dial

Understanding Colour on Your Digital Camera

Understanding EOS

09

Andrew S Gibson is the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras. The use of white balance is one of many topics explored within the ebook.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to DPS. Please see their details in the post above.

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  • Staj

    Thanks a lot for the article Andrew. I only started Photography in January and I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Please pardon any questions that highlight my naivety.

    I usually leave the White Balance as AWB most times when I shoot but I particularly love the effect of high temperatures (>K7000), does it really matter what the white balance is set to knowing that in post production I can have it adjusted?

    On the 2nd potrait picture, the effect of the sun’s rays are visible on the subject’s hair but not on her body, I’m guessing there were probably some rocks blocking the sun’s rays.

    I don’t like the “too high” sharpness that flash gives to images especially indoors. I haven’t yet purchased a flash diffuser but I use Paper at varying distances from the flash and the results are turning out better than using just flash. I actually just found out a tip, using cigarette boxes as a diffuser. How do you make the best use of flash without does unwanted high contrast, shadowy results?

    Thanks Andrew.

  • Scottc

    I’ve been doing this, though without realizing it until I read this article. I like the way the WB turns out in many cases, and it’s easy to change the ones I don’t like.

    It is the lazy way.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5283282902/

  • http://islaphotochallenge.wordpress.com harold

    at staj,

    try bouncing your flash off the walls behind you or around you, or bounce to the ceiling or anywhere you can bounce the light in your particular scene you are trying to capture. the light that would come back to your subject would be less shadowy and i think usually better. it may help at what you are trying to get.

    Just a little piece of my thought. hope this helps you.

    harold

  • Staj

    @harold,

    thanks harold, i’m currently stuck with the built-in pop up flash for now until I’ve covered most of the technical basics of Photography and use of the 60D, then i’ll upgrade to external flash and take your advice. thanks again.

    staj

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog Andrew S Gibson

    Hi Staj,

    The answer to your first question is that no, it doesn’t really matter what your white balance is at the time you’re shooting if you use Raw, as you can change it in post.

    Regarding flash, you’ve probably realised that the built-in flash is quite limited. An external flash unit of some sort will give you many more options. The cheapest way to soften an external flash is to use a shoot-through umbrella. These are inexpensive and very flexible. Another options is to use a softbox. Lastolite make some good ones, so do other manufacturers. Small softboxes are less expensive and more portable. Larger softboxes are more expensive and a bit more difficult to carry around, but the light is a lot softer.

    And yes, there were some rocks blocking the sun in the second portrait.

    Hope that helps.

  • Staj

    @Andrew

    Thanks a lot Andrew. It’s always Great getting tips from a Professional.

    I’ll try to get external flash as soon as I can but for now I’ll try out your suggested alternatives.

    It would be Great to have a medium via which newbies like myself can post photos so you can critique them.

    Looking forward to more insightful articles, thanks again.

  • http://www.shutterbug-photo.us Mike Anderson

    candescent=incandescent (i.e they’re synonyms and mean the SAME thing, NOT antonyms) and (in)cadescent means “glowing with/from heat” and not “burning” (if a tungsten filament WAS burning, it would burn to ash in a matter of a second or so. That’s why you have the vaccum, is to keep the oxygen away from it so it does NOT “burn.”)

    Floresent lamps are NOT “incadescent” bulbs as they do not require heat to operate. Halogen lamps ARE incadescent (same as regular bulbs) but do have a different wavelength or color due to the operating temperature (the hotter the light source, the “colder” or blue-er, the color of the light.)

  • Gary Duerr

    I have run across a simple device that attaches to your hot shoe and reflects your on camera flash (as many DSLRs have) to the ceiling. I have had some success with it. It cost me about $18 in the US. You so have to have a prism mounted flash to make use of this particular accessory & it is a bit of a work around, but it helps with the harshness of the flash.

  • John Longmire

    @Staj. & Gary
    I also recently bought a lightscoop (basically a mirror that throws your onboard flash up at the ceiling or the wall if you are shooting portrait orientation). I love it for the fact I don’t have to pull out my speedlite when I just want to pop a couple of shots.
    The puffer adapter (also slides into hotshoe) is also great at diffusing… and a styrofoam cup or a plastic cup lined with aluminum foil on one side thrown over the pop up flash also does an awesome job of busting up the flash.

  • Staj

    @Gary & John

    I’m going to get the puffer soon, but (Gary) can you send me a link of the device you’re referring to.

    @John, this is the light scoop right? http://www.amazon.com/Professor-Kobres-Lightscoop-Standard-Version/dp/B0017LNHY2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363359988&sr=8-1&keywords=camera+light+scoop

    thanks Guys

  • http://none dave mitchell

    Staj: For now, cut a hole in a ping-pong ball or 35mm transluscent film canister and slipt over the pop-up flash. Great for close ups too. Used the film canister for twenty years (I’m cheap!) Dave Mitchell

  • http://steveboer.smugmug.com/ Steve

    @staj, if you’re shooting in RAW and plan to take more than one picture in the same area or of the same subject, pick any white balance setting EXCEPT AWB. It will make it much easier to post-process and get the same white balance on all of your final images. If you leave it on AWB, it could give each shot a slightly different color temperature and make it more difficult to assign a uniform white balance to them.

  • Dennis Kloppel

    While the concept of the article is good, I’m not certain that all of your examples clearly added to illustrate the creative use of changes in color temperature. The coolness of the late evening over the seascape supports your use of the shift in color temperature for creative advantage.

    While a bit closer, the contrasting orange spray of (incandescent) steel sparks and the red glow of the Neon sign against the blue rich evening sky are more of study of contrasting colors.

    The two images of the models fall way to neutral to illustrate a color temp shift.

    The visual effect of color temperature (whether in the camera or during post shooting adjustments, affects the entire image with a shift from neutral blue (High color temp) through red/yellow (Low color temp) while missing the green part of the spectrum. Manipulation of color temperature without selective masking produces an overall effect to the image. Increasing the color temperature, for example, will shift the overall color toward blue, but it will also affect and attenuate other colors in the image at the same time, especially the yellow and orange values.

    The term given to the brain compensating for the subtle shifts of color temperature is called ‘Chromatic Adaptation’, not color temperature. The term ‘color temperature’ is the general term that defines the concept that relates to the apparent visual color of a light source. As color temperature changes, our brain adapts to the change in color temperature, allowing us to interpret ‘white’ as white.

    ‘Candescence’ is an adjective and is rarely used. It’s defined as ‘glowing as if from heat’, but it’s not a photometric term to define color temperature.

    Incandescence is a photometric term and is the emission of light by thermal radiation that is high enough to render the source, visible (such as, the filament in a light bulb or the flame of a candle).

    You mistake metal and metal discharge sources for incandescent sources. They are quite different. Fluorescent lights work by electrically exciting mercury vapor, which releases UV energy that then excite phosphor coatings inside the tube envelope, that then emit light. Mercury and Sodium vapor lights (combinations of or other similar ‘discharge’ sources) pass an electrical current through the metal vapor, exciting it and thereby radiating light energy in the process. The Fluorescent and some discharge sources can be characterized with a color temperature value, but it becomes more problematic as these sources have discontinuous spectral outputs with spikes of color.

    Mixing light sources, especially fluorescent and metal discharge, produce ‘cross curves’ which can be very difficult to correct.

  • Staj

    @Dave, thanks a lot, cheap is good for now, i’ll be upgrading to proper equipment as I progress.

    @Steve, thanks for the tip.

Some older comments

  • Staj

    March 28, 2013 02:09 am

    @Dave, thanks a lot, cheap is good for now, i'll be upgrading to proper equipment as I progress.

    @Steve, thanks for the tip.

  • Dennis Kloppel

    March 19, 2013 02:06 pm

    While the concept of the article is good, I’m not certain that all of your examples clearly added to illustrate the creative use of changes in color temperature. The coolness of the late evening over the seascape supports your use of the shift in color temperature for creative advantage.

    While a bit closer, the contrasting orange spray of (incandescent) steel sparks and the red glow of the Neon sign against the blue rich evening sky are more of study of contrasting colors.

    The two images of the models fall way to neutral to illustrate a color temp shift.

    The visual effect of color temperature (whether in the camera or during post shooting adjustments, affects the entire image with a shift from neutral blue (High color temp) through red/yellow (Low color temp) while missing the green part of the spectrum. Manipulation of color temperature without selective masking produces an overall effect to the image. Increasing the color temperature, for example, will shift the overall color toward blue, but it will also affect and attenuate other colors in the image at the same time, especially the yellow and orange values.

    The term given to the brain compensating for the subtle shifts of color temperature is called ‘Chromatic Adaptation’, not color temperature. The term ‘color temperature’ is the general term that defines the concept that relates to the apparent visual color of a light source. As color temperature changes, our brain adapts to the change in color temperature, allowing us to interpret ‘white’ as white.

    ‘Candescence’ is an adjective and is rarely used. It’s defined as ‘glowing as if from heat’, but it’s not a photometric term to define color temperature.

    Incandescence is a photometric term and is the emission of light by thermal radiation that is high enough to render the source, visible (such as, the filament in a light bulb or the flame of a candle).

    You mistake metal and metal discharge sources for incandescent sources. They are quite different. Fluorescent lights work by electrically exciting mercury vapor, which releases UV energy that then excite phosphor coatings inside the tube envelope, that then emit light. Mercury and Sodium vapor lights (combinations of or other similar ‘discharge’ sources) pass an electrical current through the metal vapor, exciting it and thereby radiating light energy in the process. The Fluorescent and some discharge sources can be characterized with a color temperature value, but it becomes more problematic as these sources have discontinuous spectral outputs with spikes of color.

    Mixing light sources, especially fluorescent and metal discharge, produce ‘cross curves’ which can be very difficult to correct.

  • Steve

    March 19, 2013 12:23 pm

    @staj, if you're shooting in RAW and plan to take more than one picture in the same area or of the same subject, pick any white balance setting EXCEPT AWB. It will make it much easier to post-process and get the same white balance on all of your final images. If you leave it on AWB, it could give each shot a slightly different color temperature and make it more difficult to assign a uniform white balance to them.

  • dave mitchell

    March 19, 2013 03:54 am

    Staj: For now, cut a hole in a ping-pong ball or 35mm transluscent film canister and slipt over the pop-up flash. Great for close ups too. Used the film canister for twenty years (I'm cheap!) Dave Mitchell

  • Staj

    March 16, 2013 02:08 am

    @Gary & John

    I'm going to get the puffer soon, but (Gary) can you send me a link of the device you're referring to.

    @John, this is the light scoop right? http://www.amazon.com/Professor-Kobres-Lightscoop-Standard-Version/dp/B0017LNHY2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363359988&sr=8-1&keywords=camera+light+scoop

    thanks Guys

  • John Longmire

    March 16, 2013 12:49 am

    @Staj. & Gary
    I also recently bought a lightscoop (basically a mirror that throws your onboard flash up at the ceiling or the wall if you are shooting portrait orientation). I love it for the fact I don't have to pull out my speedlite when I just want to pop a couple of shots.
    The puffer adapter (also slides into hotshoe) is also great at diffusing... and a styrofoam cup or a plastic cup lined with aluminum foil on one side thrown over the pop up flash also does an awesome job of busting up the flash.

  • Gary Duerr

    March 15, 2013 10:59 am

    I have run across a simple device that attaches to your hot shoe and reflects your on camera flash (as many DSLRs have) to the ceiling. I have had some success with it. It cost me about $18 in the US. You so have to have a prism mounted flash to make use of this particular accessory & it is a bit of a work around, but it helps with the harshness of the flash.

  • Mike Anderson

    March 15, 2013 03:26 am

    candescent=incandescent (i.e they're synonyms and mean the SAME thing, NOT antonyms) and (in)cadescent means "glowing with/from heat" and not "burning" (if a tungsten filament WAS burning, it would burn to ash in a matter of a second or so. That's why you have the vaccum, is to keep the oxygen away from it so it does NOT "burn.")

    Floresent lamps are NOT "incadescent" bulbs as they do not require heat to operate. Halogen lamps ARE incadescent (same as regular bulbs) but do have a different wavelength or color due to the operating temperature (the hotter the light source, the "colder" or blue-er, the color of the light.)

  • Staj

    March 9, 2013 02:27 pm

    @Andrew

    Thanks a lot Andrew. It's always Great getting tips from a Professional.

    I'll try to get external flash as soon as I can but for now I'll try out your suggested alternatives.

    It would be Great to have a medium via which newbies like myself can post photos so you can critique them.

    Looking forward to more insightful articles, thanks again.

  • Andrew S Gibson

    March 9, 2013 08:54 am

    Hi Staj,

    The answer to your first question is that no, it doesn't really matter what your white balance is at the time you're shooting if you use Raw, as you can change it in post.

    Regarding flash, you've probably realised that the built-in flash is quite limited. An external flash unit of some sort will give you many more options. The cheapest way to soften an external flash is to use a shoot-through umbrella. These are inexpensive and very flexible. Another options is to use a softbox. Lastolite make some good ones, so do other manufacturers. Small softboxes are less expensive and more portable. Larger softboxes are more expensive and a bit more difficult to carry around, but the light is a lot softer.

    And yes, there were some rocks blocking the sun in the second portrait.

    Hope that helps.

  • Staj

    March 9, 2013 07:52 am

    @harold,

    thanks harold, i'm currently stuck with the built-in pop up flash for now until I've covered most of the technical basics of Photography and use of the 60D, then i'll upgrade to external flash and take your advice. thanks again.

    staj

  • harold

    March 9, 2013 07:09 am

    at staj,

    try bouncing your flash off the walls behind you or around you, or bounce to the ceiling or anywhere you can bounce the light in your particular scene you are trying to capture. the light that would come back to your subject would be less shadowy and i think usually better. it may help at what you are trying to get.

    Just a little piece of my thought. hope this helps you.

    harold

  • Scottc

    March 9, 2013 07:08 am

    I've been doing this, though without realizing it until I read this article. I like the way the WB turns out in many cases, and it's easy to change the ones I don't like.

    It is the lazy way.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5283282902/

  • Staj

    March 9, 2013 04:42 am

    Thanks a lot for the article Andrew. I only started Photography in January and I've been doing a lot of reading. Please pardon any questions that highlight my naivety.

    I usually leave the White Balance as AWB most times when I shoot but I particularly love the effect of high temperatures (>K7000), does it really matter what the white balance is set to knowing that in post production I can have it adjusted?

    On the 2nd potrait picture, the effect of the sun's rays are visible on the subject's hair but not on her body, I'm guessing there were probably some rocks blocking the sun's rays.

    I don't like the "too high" sharpness that flash gives to images especially indoors. I haven't yet purchased a flash diffuser but I use Paper at varying distances from the flash and the results are turning out better than using just flash. I actually just found out a tip, using cigarette boxes as a diffuser. How do you make the best use of flash without does unwanted high contrast, shadowy results?

    Thanks Andrew.

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