Creative Color Processing (Part 1/3 - White Balance)

Creative Color Processing (Part 1/3 – White Balance)

It is often said that photography is a visual language. Through our photographs we tell stories, share experiences, and communicate emotions. Aside from journalism, where faithful captures are important for ethics reasons, photography is often about creatively interpreting a scene, rather than simply recording what is in front of the lens.

Tokyo street scene with creative color

Tokyo street scene with creative color

Tokyo street scene with 'normal' color

Tokyo street scene with 'normal' color

Creative use of color can be a powerful tool for controlling the mood in your photographs. In a series of three posts I will discuss three Lightroom controls that can be used to control color and mood in your photos:

1. White Balance
2. Split Toning
3. Tone Curve

In this first article in the series I will discuss white balance, the simplest of the three tools.

Note: I shoot Raw and import my photos into Lightroom, converting to DNG on the way into Lr. Shooting Raw gives me much more flexibility to make creative color decisions in post processing. The screenshots from are from Lightroom 4, but with the exception of the Tone Curve technique that I will cover in Part 3 of the series, these techniques can be used in previous versions of Lightroom.

White Balance

White balance allows you to control the overall color temperature of your image, and adjust for different light sources like tungsten, daylight, flash, etc. If you’ve never heard of white balance take a look at this post.

White Balance Example

Example of different white balance settings

Most of the time you’ll read that white balance is there to help you get accurate color in your photos. This article is not about accurate color. For the next few minutes, forget about accurate color and let’s just look at how white balance can be used to change the mood in a photo. I like to think of white balance as just another tool for controlling color image my images. Thinking of white balance this way is liberating and encourages experimentation.

Tokyo Taxi White Balance Example

Tokyo Taxi White Balance Example

Notice how a cool white white balance creates a totally different mood than a warm white balance for the same scene? Which of the above images do you prefer? When you feel like getting creative with your images, try shifting the white balance either cooler or warmer for creative effect.

I hope this article has encouraged you to think creatively about white balance, and to experiment with shifting white balance for creative effect. I love hearing your feedback, please comment below or feel free to connect with me through Facebook or Google+.

In Part 2 of the Creative Color series I will discuss Spit Toning, and demonstrate how white balance and split toning used together for even more creative control over color.

Update: See Part 2 and Part 3 of this series below:

Read more from our Post Production category

Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

Some Older Comments

  • satesh December 16, 2012 05:03 am

    Used the white balance to warm up my sunset...

  • Jason Weddington December 13, 2012 09:12 am

    @George - thanks!

    @Stefan - There's a screenshot of the settings for the Tokyo motorcycle photo on my flickr page here: I didn't discuss the settings here because that image combines all three techniques, white balance, split toning, and tone curve. In part 3 of this series, I discuss putting all the techniques together.

    The only problem with recommending settings for various scenes is that it depends on the temperature of the light source. White balance settings that render a bluish look under daylight would give a warm look for a photo shot under tungsten lights for example. But movies sometimes have a blue-green tint. Take a look at this video on my site to see how to get a movie look:

    @Nishal - thanks for the comment and the links to your work, you have some wonderful shots in your portfolio. I agree that vibrance is usually better than saturation for brining out colors. Your suggestion of warming the overall image using WB in Lr should work well for some images. Another thing to try is the Hue Saturation Luminance (HSL) adjustment and just saturate certain colors, like red and orange for example.

    My next two posts in this series will cover split toning and tone curve adjustments to individual RGB channels. Check those out too, they should be published in a few days.

  • nishal December 13, 2012 12:10 am

    Hi jason,

    thanks for sharing this piece.

    I am well aware what white balance can actually do, that is, just by working with the temperature. Like you mentioned, cool and warm colors, which can be achieved easily with this. Having said this, what I didn't know was I could actually work with them, and then further with color sliders *in lightroom* and can achieve something even better.

    I like to have my wedding photographs to be very colorful. Indian weddings, you know. A Lot of colors.

    I have been always working with Vibrance *prefer this to saturation*, and color sliders. But now your article just rung a bell some where. How about deliberately increasing the temperature *making the colors warmer*, before finally working with the color sliders? Which is what I am planning to do with my next assignment.

    Jason, if you have other ways to do it, do share your thoughts. I would love to hear from you.

    You could check some of my work here, *for my portfolio* / *for my profile*.

  • Stefan Maier December 12, 2012 10:19 pm

    Wonderful introduction to an effect which, I think, most us have used predominantly to ensure the "accuracy" of color. I liked how you pointed out that this one little tool can serve us in another aspect, too.

    Can you or a reader recommend settings for certain tones, such as movie, vintage etc.?

    Looking forward to your next articles, which will deal with instruments that I am not so familiar with.

  • George Suresh December 12, 2012 09:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing Jason. Really insightful and effective techniques showcased here - especially loved the Tokyo street scene and the impact created by the white balance shift.

    George S.

  • Jason Weddington December 12, 2012 05:10 pm

    @Tim - good point thanks!

    @Nicole - you're welcome! Part 2 should be up in a few days.

    @Clickstation - exactly! Sometimes an accurate photo is important, sometimes not.

    Personally I enjoy creatively interpreting a scene and using color to try to communicate the emotion that was present in that moment. For the Tokyo shot, I used a combination of white balance, split toning, and tone curve. Stay tuned, Part 2 of the series covers split toning, and Part 3 covers tone curve.

  • clickstation December 12, 2012 05:01 pm

    Cool little article!

    A bigger picture that I can draw from this is just that photography don't always have to be "accurate".

    If I may make a request: don't forget to teach us how to achieve the tone in the first picture (Tokyo).. Cool movie-like tone there :)

  • Nicole P December 12, 2012 10:39 am

    Really good article Jason. I think you have really opened up readers to new possibilities with their camera settings. I like playing about in Photoshop with the colour balance, but sometimes I like to tinker with my camera settings. Can't wait for article number 2. :)

  • Tim December 12, 2012 09:10 am

    I'd add that tints are nice for sunsets, and for correcting the color shift on long-exposure film shots, or making them prettier. :D

  • Jason Weddington December 12, 2012 09:04 am

    @Tom - thanks! It took me 10 years of shooting digital before I realized the creative potential of white balance. For a long time I just though of it at a tool for "fixing" color, not "controlling" color.

    No particular reason for not touching tint, I just didn't need to for any of these example images. When I shoot green scenes like grass or plants, I'll often pull the tint towards green, that works well when the image is predominantly green. Here's an example:

    For that image, the tint is -3 toward green, just enough to give the greens a little extra something.

  • Tom December 12, 2012 07:05 am

    Cool little article Jason, thanks. I've never thought about using White Balance for creative colouring, normally I just set it so that it looks "correct" and then use other controls, I'll have to try changing my workflow.
    Was there a reason you didn't touch on the tint control as it's in the same menu and has a similar effect?