What is white balance? In this in-depth guide we explain everything you need to know to make the most of your digital camera’s built-in color balance options. Starting with some of the common questions people have about taking control of white balance, we’ll move on to explain how to fine tune white balance in-camera, white balance Photoshop fixes… and why it’s OK to use the wrong setting!
Different light sources produce ‘white’ light with slightly different colour tints, but our brains do a great job of correcting for these variances, so we don’t see a shift in colour as, for example, we move from a sunny garden into a shaded room and turn a light on.
However, a camera needs to work out, or be told, what light a subject is lit by in order to produce images with natural-looking colours. In the above scenario, a camera would produce images with quite different colours in each situation unless the white balance setting was adjusted.
As the name suggests, the aim of a camera’s white balance system is to make white objects appear white in your images, neutralising any cast created by the light source so that all the colours appear as you saw them.
If you shoot Raw, getting the white balance right in-camera isn’t as crucial; because Raw files contain all the available data for an image, the white balance can be changed successfully post-capture.
However, JPEG files hold much less data, and although they can be edited, extreme colour adjustments are likely to be less successful, and some colours may end up looking unnatural, and exhibit posterisation or banding.
Digital cameras have advanced white balance systems, but to be sure of getting the best results you need to understand the available options, and take control of white balance yourself.
And when you’re done you’ll also want to check out our free cheat sheet illustrating the color temperature scale and how this applies to your digital camera’s white balance settings. But first…
What is white balance? Common questions answered
Your camera’s white balance control helps you to make sure that things that are supposed to be white actually look white in your final image. Different sources of light create different colour ‘casts’ – for instance, candlelight creates an orange glow, whereas twilight can give everything a cool, blue hue.
Our vision compensates for different types of light, so we see that a sheet of white paper is white, whether it’s viewed by candlelight or in twilight. The camera doesn’t; it records what’s in front of it, which can lead to pictures that are too ‘warm’ or too ‘cool’.
What do you mean by warm and cool?
Each light source has its own individual colour, or ‘colour temperature’, which varies from red to blue. Candles, sunsets and tungsten bulbs give off light that’s close to red (hence the ‘warm’ look they give to pictures), whereas clear blue skies give off a ‘cool’ blue light (download our free color temperature cheat sheet).
So the white balance control allows me to change the way my camera sees this light?
Spot on. By ensuring that whites appear white and cast free, all the other colours in the scene will be correctly displayed too. Your camera enables you to adjust the white balance setting to match the lighting conditions, and it’s available either as a dedicated button, or via the camera’s menu system (learn how to use a color chart to set white balance for perfect tones).
How do I know which setting to use?
There’s a range of white balance options open to you, and choosing the right one can be a bit daunting at first. Luckily, the default Automatic White Balance (AWB) setting does a good job of getting the colour of your shots right in most situations.
However, as with all automatic settings, it’s not foolproof. It can only operate within a relatively restricted range of colour temperatures, and it will often struggle to get a picture that doesn’t look orange when shooting indoors at night, or one that doesn’t look blue when you’re shooting before dawn.
Camera manufacturers know this, which is why they include a range of presets for more precise white balance settings.
Presets? Are those the picture icons in the White Balance menu?
Yes, that’s right. The number of presets will vary from camera to camera, but most SLRs offer Tungsten or Incandescent (light bulb symbol), Daylight (sun), Shade (house), Cloudy (cloud) and Flash (lightning). There might be one or more Fluorescent settings (bar with lines) too.
Each of these settings corrects for the typical colour cast from the corresponding light source. So, the Tungsten setting will remove a predetermined amount of warmth to bring the colour balance closer to neutral, while the Shade setting will correct for the cool blue quality that shadows have on a sunny day.
My camera has another couple of options – a black circle and two triangles, and also a letter K. What should I do with those?
The K stands for Kelvin. Colour temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale and the K setting enables you to set a specific colour temperature by dialling in the Kelvin value you want.
The lower the number, the warmer the colour. Candlelight is around 1,000K, whereas a clear blue sky is around 10,000K. The colour temperature of daylight and flash are towards the middle of the range (5,200K for daylight, and 5,900K for flash).
The other curious-looking symbol represents custom white balance. This is essentially your camera’s manual white balance option. It enables you to create a precise white balance setting based on an image you’ve previously taken, or by taking a dummy photograph of a white or neutral grey card and using that setting for subsequent shots.
The method of setting custom white balance depends on your camera, but will be explained in your camera’s manual. To get you started, we’ve created a guide to setting a custom white balance.
My camera has a white balance bracketing option. What is this for?
Just as you can use automatic bracketing for exposure values (find out how to use auto-exposure bracketing to conquer high contrast), to give you a choice of darker or lighter versions of an image, you can use the same technique with your camera’s white balance setting.
Many digital cameras allow you not only to manually tweak white balance settings, but also to take a sequence of shots with white balance values either side of the chosen value. You may prefer a slightly warmer or cooler result, and using the White Balance Bracketing option enables you to do this.
Talking about mood, how do I make sure that the white balance setting doesn’t get rid of, say, all the lovely warm light in a landscape at sunset?
There are indeed times when you might not want to correct a colour cast in an image. When shooting a sunset you usually want your scene to be bathed in a warm golden glow to add atmosphere; correcting it would make it look cold and uninviting.
To guarantee you get the white balance setting that you want, switch from shooting JPEGs to taking pictures using your camera’s more flexible raw quality format.
Shoot JPEGs, and the white balance setting is applied to your image in-camera. You can still alter the colour balance of an image in Photoshop CS or Elements later, although this is a destructive change – you’ll sacrifice some of the quality.
Shooting raw enables you to adjust the white balance setting at any time when you process the image in Adobe Camera Raw or similar raw conversion software. If you want to make a shot warmer or cooler, all you have to do is drag the Temperature slider to the left or right. It’s that simple!
PAGE 1: What is white balance?
PAGE 2: Correcting white balance in-camera
PAGE 3: Using white balance in mixed lighting
PAGE 4: Correcting white balance in Photoshop & Adobe Camera Raw
PAGE 5: Why it’s OK to use the ‘wrong’ white balance setting
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