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