Practical White Balance and Why You Should Learn It! - Digital Photography School

Practical White Balance and Why You Should Learn It!

Why are Oranges ... Orange ?

White balance can be a tricky subject to master and as a beginner I found both the concept and application difficult. Getting to grips with white balance was a landmark in my early learning, gone were the days of funky looking indoor shots and chilly looking portraits, from then on the world of warm sunsets and natural skin tones lay at my feet. It’s amazing how different an image can look with and without white balance correction applied and consequently the impact on your images can be profound. The basics of white balance adjustment are relatively simple, what takes more time is training your eye to know when you’ve got it right. In doing this you will not only improve the quality of your images but will also save a whole load of time. Here to help you is a basic run down of practical white balance.

What is White Balance?

Despite what we see the actual colour of light is hugely variable. The fact that we generally don’t perceive these shifts in daylight colour is testament to the incredible job the human eye and brain does in adjusting how we see. Our cameras on the other hand are at best dumb instruments and need to be told what colour the light we are shooting is. Ever take a shot of a landscape, but was disappointed to find that the final scene looked orange? Ever used some fill flash for a portrait only to discover the subject to has a blue cast? All of these problems can be fixed using good white balance correction.

Who is this Kelvin Dude?

The colour (sometimes called the ‘temperature’) of light is measured using the ‘Kelvin Scale’. The scale itself was discovered using clever physics experiments, which looked at the wavelengths of light produced by heating black objects to different temperatures. Its definitely useful to know that there is a scale for measuring white balance but all you really need to remember is that the lower numbers equal warmer or redder light with higher the numbers relating to cooler or blue light. Importantly you shouldn’t worry about remembering any of this, its useful knowledge to have but to date I have never needed to know the exact white balance setting of my camera so I doubt you will do either.

See the difference?

In Camera White Balance

The exact method for setting white balance varies from camera to camera but generally the fastest way to do this is by using one of the standard preset values. Simply dial in the white balance correction and hey presto your camera is instantly seeing in a different colour light.

You can pretty much set any specific white balance value you like however in the vast majority of situations the presets are more than adequate. Given that you can fix pretty much anything in post processing why bother doing anything in camera at all? You might be tempted to place your trust in your cameras ‘Auto White Balance’ feature and whilst its tempting, the applied white balance can shift noticeably from shot to shot and wont necessarily get it 100% right either. Imagine having to adjust the white balance on your whole set of holiday snaps, not great.

So now you’re convinced, here to help you is a run down of the major presets and when to use them:

  • Auto White Balance – Basically handing over the white balance correction to the computer in your camera.  In the main pretty good but is set each shot so can change from picture to picture.  Good to use if you are in a hurry.
  • Daylight – A nice mid temperature setting for use in normal daylight.  
  • Cloudy/Indoors – For use in slightly cooler conditions (e.g. an overcast day), has the effect of warming the image up just a bit.
  • Shade – For coller light than the cloudy setting (e.g. dusk or early mornings), warms up the image much more than either daylight or cloudy.  Can also be good for adding extra warmth to normal conditions.
  • Incandescent – Great for indoor shots under artificial lights (e.g. from non flourescent bulbs which can be very warm).  Cools down the image.
  • Fluorescent – For use under strip light conditions, will warm up the image to compensate for the cold and slightly green light produced by these sources.
  • Flash – Warms up light from flash guns which is cool but more blue than flourescent light.

Post Processing

The ability to accurately apply white balance correction is one the major advantages of shooting in RAW format. If you don’t know about or don’t shoot in RAW format, don’t worry you can still make adjustments to other image types albeit not with quite as much flexibility.

For RAW images you have the option to either select one of the available preset values (which will be the same as those available in your camera) or if you wish make a manual adjustment.

Manual White Balance Adjustments

Learning to manually adjust white balance is a great skill to practice as it’s probably the best way to train your eye to recognize the ‘right’ white balance value. The actual adjustment is fairly simple and uses only two controls (although the method for adjusting these will vary according to your post processing software):

  • Temperature – How warm or cold the image is, think of this as adding orange or blue to the shot.
  • Tint – Basically how much green or pink is in the image.

Here is a three step recommendation for manually adjusting white balance. Don’t forget you can select a preset value first and then ‘fine tune’ the result manually afterwards.

  1. Adjust the temperature of the shot, ask yourself is the image too warm or too cold and increase/decrease the temperature value accordingly.
  2. Adjust the image tint, does it look took green or too pink? Look for objects in the image to help you judge this. Good references are skin tones which can either look a bit flush or green round the gills if not corrected properly.
  3. Compare the before and after image (most software will let you turn the white balance correction on and off). Repeat if necessary.

Don’t forget there is no such thing as a right or wrong white balance, if the shot looks how you want it to then that’s good enough.

Generally white balance corrections can also be applied in batches so if you find a setting which works well and all the shots have been taken in the same light using the same settings you can save a lot of time by applying corrections in bulk.

Conclusion

No matter how you do it, making sure you pay attention and manage the final white balance of your shots is an incredibly powerful way to improve the feel and look of your photos. So much of the mood and drama of a photo is conveyed through the colour and quality of light captured and therefore taking those extra few moments to get it right is well worth the trouble. Despite what you may have been told you, getting this right either in camera or postproduction needn’t be a trauma. Hopefully the few hints and tips in this post should point you in the right direction and could make the difference between your next shot leaving you red faced or feeling blue.

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Russell Masters 'is a photographer, blogger and international man of meetings. Check out his work at eightfiftytwophotography.com and drop him a message via twitter @russmasters.

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    So true so true. White balance is so misunderstood and makes you want to rip your hair out. If you work in raw it makes life easier if you make a mistake. However one should always work towards their best which minimizes extra work later.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-41/

  • http://Www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    If you shoot in RAW then you have a lot of flexibility in post processing to adjust white balance and maybe bring an emphasis to the mood you are trying to convey

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/European-Trees-and-Tree-scenes/G0000Ob1moPwW2uU/I0000kcD0lyPIzJs/C0000WoECtQCRF0Y

  • http://qalwn.wordpress.com Joel Morris

    iPhoto cannot do batch editing. What should I be using instead?

  • http://www.deveauxphoto.com Paul Deveaux

    Great introduction to the topic of white balance. What is missing here is the use of a grey card to help you dial in your white balance. Simply take a shot of an 18% grey card in the lighting conditions you are shooting in and you should be ble to get the exact white balance in post. Tools like Xrite’s Color Checker Passport are also helpful here.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Thanks for forcing this on my conscience otherwise I pretty much leave the camera int he auto white balance mode.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/11/half-a-bench-qutub-minar-premises-delhi-india.html

  • http://ecuadormeyers.com David Meyer

    One of the greatest advantages to using a 18% grey card and shooting in RAW is that you don’t have to worry so much about your screen calibration. This is another important factor that needs to be included in this article. Otherwise, you can get some unpleasant surprises when printing your images.

  • http://csafotography.wordpress.com Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    I normally shoot in the AWB, and these are great set of points to think about when I shoot again!!!

  • Jay

    The post and the responses suggesting the use of an 18% grey card are very useful.

    I recently bought a set of key-chain-size cards (white, grey and black). Could anyone please tell me what the white and black cards are for?

    Cheers
    Jay

  • Scottc

    White balance is a basic, and often overlooked key, to a great photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8088031104/

  • http://2hphotography.ca Hagen

    White, black, grey cards are used to set the white/black and grey points of an image. You can find these options in LR, Aperture and Photoshop. I’ve always associated them with levels but you’re basically setting the tonal range of a photo: what is the darkest pint and do you want that to be black black. etc.

  • http://patsheridan.wordpress.com Pat Sheridan

    I have always used AWB and got on just grand. Just finished my second solo exhibition where I have done very well out of both.
    I recently got an interest in studio work and subsequently converted an old shed into a studio. One of the tips I got was “use a grey card” I set up for a ‘custom WB by taking the shot of the grey card and then setting up the custom and all shots taken in that light will be customized to the grey card. Is this correct? or am I doing anything out of place?

    Pat

  • http://www.stacymccants.com Stacy

    Odd that you didn’t make mention of using a gray card.

  • Jay

    @Hagen,
    Thank you. I don’t use these software editors yet, but good to know for future.

    As a start I am now using the grey card – a photo of which serves as a WB point in the Canon DPP for all pictures taken in that light conditions. Need to figure out the black and white cards too.
    Thanks again!

  • CARL DORVIL

    It’s my nightmare and it makes me freak out every time i have to shoot indoors at night. Always ends up with some kind of yellow cast even when i use AUTO WHITE BALANCE. The worst happens when i use a 200 mm lens that can zoom in way beyond the range of my flash.

  • Duke

    I have recently started using the gray card on all my shoots. The first frame I take is of the card in the light I’m shooting in. Then in post, using Lightroom, clicking the card in that photo, then alley to all the captures at once. It makes a world of difference and is one less step in the process. In the absence of the card, in Lightroom, press CMD-U for pretty reliable automatic WB.

  • Mary

    @ Joel, for batch editing you can use Aperture 3 (now only $79 on the App Store–it was $300 US when I bought it less than 5 years ago!) or else Lightroom 4 from Adobe Photoshop for $149 US. The advantage to Aperture is that it is designed to work with the Mac interface and you can easily move your whole iPhoto library over.

  • http://www.eightfiftyphotography.com Russell

    Hi All. I have been struggling to get my responses posted which has been frustrating as there have been so many great comments. Thank you all for taking the time to share.

    Just to give you my thoughts. A grey card is indeed a great way to set white balance however I think its worth mentioning a few of the pluses and minuses:

    Grey cards are a great way to set white balance accurately however they are another piece of gear to remember to carry and use. These are great when taking portraits and set shots when you have the time to take a few test shots, that said they are less helpful when you are doing something like street photography when its more important to keep on the move and be spontaneous. Also remember you need to place the card ‘in’ the light you want to measure so you need to take care when using these on landscapes if there is a variation in light throughout the scene.

    As you can probably tell I never use a grey card as for my photography I can get by with the inbuilt presets and take care of any shifts in post. The process of ‘setting’ the white balance and correcting this in post has really helped me to train my eye to the point where I have a good feel for what is and isn’t right. You can of course do this with a grey card however I have known photographers who get ‘stuck’ on using whatever the grey card sets. Remember white balance is a creative lever so it helps to get used to pulling it. Basically if you like using a grey card then thats great, but you don’t need to have one to get this right so if you are a beginner and find this a bit intimidating don’t worry its not essential.

    A few specific comments:

    @Pat Sheriden – Congratulations on your exhibition. You are absolutely right, you can use AWB no problem. I just wanted to make the point that when shooting in situations where the colour of light varies this can increase the amount of post processing time required which again is no big problem. You are spot on regarding your studio set up, jut make sure you set up all your lights first and that you zoom right in on your card.

    @Car Dorvil – I suspect what is happening here is that your flash is not the dominant light in the scene. Assuming you have the WB set to flash, this will be warming up the scene. So if you are shooting past the flash you will be warming up the already warm ambient light. Hope this helps.

  • Edward Millership

    Sometimes, especially sunrise and sunset, we don’t want accurate colour we want what we ‘see’ I shoot RAW so it matters not what I set, but when I do I set at Cloudy.

  • Alison

    actually, there is such a thing as correct white balance – that is why we use a WhiBal card or a Color Checker!http://youtu.be/QPQORXvNlB8 and you need a calibrated monitor in order to make judgement by eye.

  • Gary

    Thought lower number is cool, higher number is warm?

  • jumbybird

    Higher number is hotter, so the color is cooler (whites to blue) while cooler temperatures have warmer tones, reds to yellows. Confused?

  • jumbybird

    Higher number is hotter, so the color is cooler (whites to blue) while cooler temperatures have warmer tones, reds to yellows. Confused?

  • Gary

    While cooler temperatures have warmer tones? Huh? White and blue = cooler. Warmer tones, reds, yellow = warmer? Yea, the post is confusing. Or maybe I don’t understand the viewpoint.

  • Olivia Bennett

    Hi! can anyone summarize this article for me?

Some older comments

  • Russell

    December 2, 2012 10:33 pm

    Hi All. I have been struggling to get my responses posted which has been frustrating as there have been so many great comments. Thank you all for taking the time to share.

    Just to give you my thoughts. A grey card is indeed a great way to set white balance however I think its worth mentioning a few of the pluses and minuses:

    Grey cards are a great way to set white balance accurately however they are another piece of gear to remember to carry and use. These are great when taking portraits and set shots when you have the time to take a few test shots, that said they are less helpful when you are doing something like street photography when its more important to keep on the move and be spontaneous. Also remember you need to place the card 'in' the light you want to measure so you need to take care when using these on landscapes if there is a variation in light throughout the scene.

    As you can probably tell I never use a grey card as for my photography I can get by with the inbuilt presets and take care of any shifts in post. The process of 'setting' the white balance and correcting this in post has really helped me to train my eye to the point where I have a good feel for what is and isn't right. You can of course do this with a grey card however I have known photographers who get 'stuck' on using whatever the grey card sets. Remember white balance is a creative lever so it helps to get used to pulling it. Basically if you like using a grey card then thats great, but you don't need to have one to get this right so if you are a beginner and find this a bit intimidating don't worry its not essential.

    A few specific comments:

    @Pat Sheriden - Congratulations on your exhibition. You are absolutely right, you can use AWB no problem. I just wanted to make the point that when shooting in situations where the colour of light varies this can increase the amount of post processing time required which again is no big problem. You are spot on regarding your studio set up, jut make sure you set up all your lights first and that you zoom right in on your card.

    @Car Dorvil - I suspect what is happening here is that your flash is not the dominant light in the scene. Assuming you have the WB set to flash, this will be warming up the scene. So if you are shooting past the flash you will be warming up the already warm ambient light. Hope this helps.

  • Mary

    November 18, 2012 10:41 am

    @ Joel, for batch editing you can use Aperture 3 (now only $79 on the App Store--it was $300 US when I bought it less than 5 years ago!) or else Lightroom 4 from Adobe Photoshop for $149 US. The advantage to Aperture is that it is designed to work with the Mac interface and you can easily move your whole iPhoto library over.

  • Duke

    November 10, 2012 02:11 am

    I have recently started using the gray card on all my shoots. The first frame I take is of the card in the light I'm shooting in. Then in post, using Lightroom, clicking the card in that photo, then alley to all the captures at once. It makes a world of difference and is one less step in the process. In the absence of the card, in Lightroom, press CMD-U for pretty reliable automatic WB.

  • CARL DORVIL

    November 9, 2012 10:54 am

    It's my nightmare and it makes me freak out every time i have to shoot indoors at night. Always ends up with some kind of yellow cast even when i use AUTO WHITE BALANCE. The worst happens when i use a 200 mm lens that can zoom in way beyond the range of my flash.

  • Jay

    November 9, 2012 10:26 am

    @Hagen,
    Thank you. I don't use these software editors yet, but good to know for future.

    As a start I am now using the grey card - a photo of which serves as a WB point in the Canon DPP for all pictures taken in that light conditions. Need to figure out the black and white cards too.
    Thanks again!

  • Stacy

    November 9, 2012 09:04 am

    Odd that you didn't make mention of using a gray card.

  • Pat Sheridan

    November 9, 2012 05:23 am

    I have always used AWB and got on just grand. Just finished my second solo exhibition where I have done very well out of both.
    I recently got an interest in studio work and subsequently converted an old shed into a studio. One of the tips I got was "use a grey card" I set up for a 'custom WB by taking the shot of the grey card and then setting up the custom and all shots taken in that light will be customized to the grey card. Is this correct? or am I doing anything out of place?

    Pat

  • Hagen

    November 9, 2012 03:53 am

    White, black, grey cards are used to set the white/black and grey points of an image. You can find these options in LR, Aperture and Photoshop. I've always associated them with levels but you're basically setting the tonal range of a photo: what is the darkest pint and do you want that to be black black. etc.

  • Scottc

    November 6, 2012 10:19 am

    White balance is a basic, and often overlooked key, to a great photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8088031104/

  • Jay

    November 6, 2012 05:44 am

    The post and the responses suggesting the use of an 18% grey card are very useful.

    I recently bought a set of key-chain-size cards (white, grey and black). Could anyone please tell me what the white and black cards are for?

    Cheers
    Jay

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    November 6, 2012 04:35 am

    I normally shoot in the AWB, and these are great set of points to think about when I shoot again!!!

  • David Meyer

    November 6, 2012 01:47 am

    One of the greatest advantages to using a 18% grey card and shooting in RAW is that you don't have to worry so much about your screen calibration. This is another important factor that needs to be included in this article. Otherwise, you can get some unpleasant surprises when printing your images.

  • Mridula

    November 5, 2012 03:42 pm

    Thanks for forcing this on my conscience otherwise I pretty much leave the camera int he auto white balance mode.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/11/half-a-bench-qutub-minar-premises-delhi-india.html

  • Paul Deveaux

    November 5, 2012 09:08 am

    Great introduction to the topic of white balance. What is missing here is the use of a grey card to help you dial in your white balance. Simply take a shot of an 18% grey card in the lighting conditions you are shooting in and you should be ble to get the exact white balance in post. Tools like Xrite's Color Checker Passport are also helpful here.

  • Joel Morris

    November 5, 2012 07:37 am

    iPhoto cannot do batch editing. What should I be using instead?

  • Steve

    November 5, 2012 05:36 am

    If you shoot in RAW then you have a lot of flexibility in post processing to adjust white balance and maybe bring an emphasis to the mood you are trying to convey

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/European-Trees-and-Tree-scenes/G0000Ob1moPwW2uU/I0000kcD0lyPIzJs/C0000WoECtQCRF0Y

  • Jai Catalano

    November 5, 2012 02:29 am

    So true so true. White balance is so misunderstood and makes you want to rip your hair out. If you work in raw it makes life easier if you make a mistake. However one should always work towards their best which minimizes extra work later.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-41/

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