Manipulating White Balance for Artistic Effect

Manipulating White Balance for Artistic Effect

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The ability to control white balance, even changing it from one shot to the next, is one of the greatest advantages of digital over film. Sure, with film you could shoot negatives and let some machine or lab technician do color corrections for you. If using slide film however, once you loaded a roll, you were stuck with that film’s color balance until you finished it and loaded the next roll.

It’s not hard to find advice online for understanding the various white balance settings found on most digital cameras. For the most part, these settings are pretty self-explanatory and most moderately experienced photographers (that would include practically all DPS readers) can figure them out simply by playing with them.

Most people approach white balance with the mindset of getting true color representation. That makes sense. You want your whites to be white and all your other colors to be true representations of the original scene as you shot it.

warm.jpg

There is a case to be made for deliberately setting the “wrong” white balance to achieve artistic effects. For example, when at the beach on a perfectly sunny day, you might set your white balance for cloudy or even shade. This tells the camera that the ambient light has a slightly blue cast to it. The camera will compensate by adding a bit of a bronze (red/orange) tone to offset this supposed cast. The result is that your subjects get an instant suntan!

Be warned that this may not work for scenes in which the sky is visible as the color manipulation may be quite obvious in your final images.

Conversely, when photographing an icy scene, perhaps you should try setting your white balance to Tungsten. This tells the camera that the light is slightly orange so it will introduce more blue to offset that. The result is an image that simply looks “cold”.

cool.jpg

For even finer control, it pays to develop a bit of understanding of the Kelvin scale. Many cameras will allow you to directly set a Kelvin temperature for the ambient light. Tricking the camera by claiming that the light is warmer or cooler than it actually is can allow you to very finely tune the adjustment, thus giving you the ability to make the effect more subtle. (Or more garish, if that’s what you’re after.)

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Jeffrey Kontur is the author of two books on photography. You can see more of his work at More Satisfying Photos where he also publishes and distributes his own email newsletter with free weekly photography tips.

Some Older Comments

  • Katyy April 5, 2011 09:03 am

    Im only 15 but I want to be a photographer but I dont know if Ill have the money

  • Sii March 4, 2011 11:47 pm

    My camera allows me to adjust the WB exactly as I want it using the primary colors plus green. I use this setting often to convey more of intention to the veiwer, as shown in the two pictures of the beach and of the icicles. However, I find it difficult to gage the correct WB for a 'true to life' shot and so I tend use the most suitable auto setting and make any adjustments in post processing. A grey card is not always convienent and more often than not there is no handy reference in the shots I take, and so I fear that my post processing adjustments are not 'correct'.

    Is there any method I can use to make sure my post adjustments are correct? The main problem is I lack the confidence of my convictions. Any help would be greatly appreicated.

    Sii

  • GariRae December 30, 2010 08:35 pm

    I prefer to keep the white balance in Auto, then adjust in Photoshop. Then, I'm better able to really see the impact of WB adjustments. I often find I need to "warm" cool shots and "cool" warm shots just a bit. My concern with adjusting the camera setting is forgetting to change the setting when the situation changes, which it can by just moving from inside to outside, shadow to sunlight, room to room.

  • Jeff Kontur April 30, 2010 07:44 pm

    Abbie, all other things being equal, in an ordinary daylight shot to warm it you'd use cloudy or shade. (Makes the camera think the light is blue so it makes the picture more orange to compensate.) To cool it you'd use tungsten. (Makes the camera think the light is orange so it makes the picture more blue to compensate.) Of course you can get into all sorts of lighting scenarios but this is it at its most basic.

    1 EV = 1 f-stop
    EV stands for exposure value. It's an easier abbreviation than f-stop when writing and is technically the more correct term, though both are exactly equivalent.

  • Abbie April 30, 2010 04:15 am

    Sorry - I don't think I made it clear in my previous post - but I was trying to check my understanding of which pre-set setting to use to get :

    a) a warmer shot
    b) a cooler shot

    thanks!!!

  • Abbie April 30, 2010 04:13 am

    Just getting to grips with all the new terminology that comes with starting to learn about photography. For white balance, if I want to:

    - Warm up my shot - I'd choose the Florescent setting?
    - Cool my shot - I'd choose Tungsten????

    Also what is EV?

  • Jeffrey Kontur March 9, 2009 10:10 pm

    @Tanay- I checked out your picture on Flickr. That is spectacular. With all the greenery in the frame, I probably would have been hesitant about trying white balance manipulation myself but your results speak for themselves. Nice job!

  • Jeffrey Kontur March 6, 2009 11:28 pm

    To Julie: I am not aware of a ready-made cheat sheet, but that doesn't mean there isn't one floating around somewhere. The real key is to understand what you want to do with white balance. If your goal is to correct color casts and come out with true colors, the settings on most cameras are pretty self-explanatory. When the predominant light source is a tungsten bulb, you pick tungsten. When it's flourescent lights, you pick flourescent. (Olympus actually recognizes three different flourescents: warm, cool and all-purpose.)

    If your goal is to manipulate color balance, as suggested in the article, that requires understanding a bit about the color of light. I actually discuss it a in one section of my book Photography Basics. Think of the color spectrum as going from red to white to blue. Tungsten light is orange -- toward the red end of the spectrum. To correct for it (move the recorded color temperature closer to the middle), your camera adds blue -- from the opposite end of the spectrum. If you had a light source with a blue cast, your camera would add orange or red. It always pulls from the opposite end of the spectrum with the goal of "neutralizing" the color so it falls in the middle. That's a very oversimplified explanation but hopefully it gives you something to build on.

  • tanay March 6, 2009 06:36 pm

    yea even i played around with white balance put it on incandescent on a sunny day while taking the picture of a butterfly the results were really nice..the background had less color and the butterfly looked beautiful
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/34459324@N07/3205952996/

  • Sherry March 6, 2009 02:01 pm

    Thanks for this white balance info. I'm very pale and can't wait to try your beach tip!

  • Nick March 6, 2009 01:34 pm

    To Jim:

    The most expensive camera doesn't necessarily take better photos than a cheaper one. Cameras don't make photos, people do. Making a photo neither begins nor ends with the camera exposure; that's only one step in the creative process. There's room for creativity in post-processing too. Ansel Adams was famously quoted comparing his photo making to music, saying, "The negative is the score; the print is the performance."

  • Julie March 6, 2009 10:18 am

    Is there somewhere that has what each white balance setting will do and when is a great time to use each? I am running into all kinds of situations and just wondered if there was a cheat sheet.

  • Jim March 3, 2009 11:43 am

    I've spent a lot of money over the years to get the best camera equipment I can possibly afford. Therefore I will always endeavor to get the images right in the camera and leave the playing to someone else. IF I CANNOT GET IT RIGHT WITH MY CAMERA, THEN I NEED TO WORK EVEN HARDER WITH MY CAMERA. My computer is for storage of the images I take with my Camera.

  • Alan Nielsen March 3, 2009 04:51 am

    I agree with a few of the folks above me. Shoot in raw and you can play with the settings after the fact. Yes, I do try to use the right "mode" when shooting, but it doesn't hurt to be able to play in the dark room after!

  • Gabriele B March 2, 2009 10:14 pm

    You can also use custom white balance and push it more than any camera preset could (to get a red sky, or a blue moon...). Some examples:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/big_mouth/2522466394/
    Blue sky used as a reference value.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/big_mouth/2527877418/
    A white rock used as reference value.

  • Nicolette March 2, 2009 08:17 pm

    Nice tips in the article and even better in the comments! Thanks to all... can't wait to try them out!

  • Jim March 1, 2009 11:53 pm

    If your camera has live view as my D300 does, place the camera on a tripod open the live view and change the white balance as you view your scene, you will see the difference in WB as you go through the various settings.

  • Lorenzo March 1, 2009 08:41 pm

    I often use to play with Kelvin scale, in order to become more skilled in setting white balance to get exactly what I want from each pic. I really love to give sunset a really warm color, anyway I usually take a "correctly balanced" shot too to have the real scene - if needed, I can post product it!

  • Woodsy March 1, 2009 02:10 pm

    Nice post. I've gotten some stunning sunsets by manipulating the white balance, but now will have new tricks to try out!

  • ray March 1, 2009 01:45 am

    great advise..... I feel shady or cloudy gives a warmer feel in daylight.... I was recently told during the day to try tungsten with an EV of -1 or -2 ....... it gives a night time affect ....

  • MeiTeng February 28, 2009 04:18 pm

    Great tips!

  • Jim February 28, 2009 12:27 pm

    I have shot drab sunsets using the various degrees in Flourescent and -EV with some amazingly colorful results.

  • johnny February 28, 2009 06:08 am

    Good advice!

  • Sybren February 28, 2009 06:05 am

    I've used this on many occasions, for example a Tungsten whitebalance setting to get a really cool blue mist.

  • Tate Davidson February 28, 2009 05:29 am

    For those using RAW, the white balance can be tweaked or automatically adjusted in post processing in a RAW file editor.

    Of course, it encourages one to be a little less proactive, but it allows you to worry about capturing a moment rather than overly-tweaking or fiddling with settings when you can do so after the shot.

  • Akshat Gait February 28, 2009 04:23 am

    Learning and loving it everyday.

  • dcclark February 28, 2009 02:51 am

    Here's my favorite hint: when shooting at night, set your white balance to "tungsten" (the "incandescent bulb" icon, typically). This will make the sky appear blue, which is more natural because we're used to seeing (or think we see) it that way, as opposed to grey (which the auto-white-balance usually chooses).

    Short example: this shot which has a blue-ish sky with grey-ish clouds. With auto white-balance, the shot was almost black & white.

  • Mike February 28, 2009 01:42 am

    nice one thanks i will give it a try

  • QPT February 28, 2009 01:32 am

    This can be pretty effective if you're trying to give a particular image a feeling of "cold" or "warm". I would usually do all this in Photoshop using the RAW file later on though rather at the time of taking the photo.

  • LisaNewton February 28, 2009 01:26 am

    I've just started experimenting with white balance. There are so many different settings available on digital cameras, it's hard to decide which one to use first.

    Because many of my shots are at the beach, I'll definitely try your tip about the sand.

    Thanks for the heads ups........................:)

  • Leorolim February 28, 2009 01:11 am

    Or you can make regular silver coins look like gold :)

    http://flickr.com/photos/leorolim/2424876397/

    Done that with my Oli mju mini. Changed the white ballance to the wrong kind of light and it turned out like this :)

  • Brandon February 28, 2009 01:04 am

    I've found this useful for sunset shots to either warm or cool a scene.

    This picture was taken with the fluorescent light setting.