The subject of white balance used to be a huge source of confusion when I started out in digital photography. There are so many new terms when you enter this world that it can get quite confusing. But there’s actually a very simple way to understand them all, specifically, white balance.
In this article, you will discover what white balance is and why it’s important in your photography. Like with ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, you can let the camera decide by using auto settings. However, it’s much better to have an understanding of how white balance works so that you can make your own creative decisions.
Table of contents
- What is white balance?
- Why is white balance important?
- How is white balance measured?
- Does white balance affect exposure?
- How do you adjust white balance?
- Should you use Auto white balance?
- How do you set white balance manually?
- How to set a custom white balance
- Should you adjust white balance for every shot?
- Should I change white balance in-camera or in post-processing?
- What is the difference between white balance and color grading?
- What is the best white balance to use?
What is white balance?
In simple terms, white balance is the adjustment of the colors you make so that white objects appear white under different lighting conditions. (Say lit by a candle, or by a fluorescent light). Having the correct white balance ensures that the colors look natural in your photographs.
Different light sources emit light at different frequencies, resulting in different color temperatures. All light looks balanced to the naked human eye because our brains adjust automatically. When you take a photograph, however, the camera cannot make the same adjustments that our brain can. If you don’t set the correct white balance, the colors in the photo can appear incorrect. (Usually too blue or too red).
The camera essentially removes any color casts (usually blue/orange, and magenta/green), making the white areas of the image appear pure white. If the camera doesn’t “know” what are the lighting conditions, it may make the wrong adjustments.
In the old days of film photography, the only way to achieve a true white balance was through the use of colored filters or specific film stocks. But you could also do quite a bit when developing and printing the film to correct for any errors. However, the subject of white balance rose to fame in the age of digital photography. Mostly because it made selecting the right white balance easy. But it also made it crucial to the image quality.
Why is white balance important?
Choosing the correct white balance is important because using the right white balance tells the camera how to save the colors in the image. When the camera has the wrong white balance setting, it will save the wrong information. A white paper may appear yellow, or a person’s skin will have greenish color casts.
A few years ago, there was an internet sensation where a woman’s dress went viral. Some people saw it as ivory and gold, others as blue and black. The actual dress was, in fact, blue and black. However, poor lighting and the wrong white balance created an optical illusion that completely changed the color of the dress.
By now, you know that setting the correct white balance is important to gain color accuracy. This is especially true if you work in a field where color accuracy is crucial, like product photography or beauty. The first for true representation of the product, the second for true-to-life skin tones.
How is white balance measured?
Color temperature is measured in Kelvins (K). That includes light from stars and our sun. Have you ever wondered why stars are called red dwarfs or blue supernovas? That’s because they give out colored light. In fact, Kelvin is just a scale measuring the ratio between the amount of blue light and the amount of red light.
Warmer and cooler
A light with a higher color temperature (higher Kelvins) is closer to the blue end of the scale. While the temperature is warmer, the look of the image is cooler (more blue). A lower color temperature (fewer Kelvins) is closer to the red end of the scale. The temperature of the light is cooler while the look and feel of the image is warmer (more red or orange).
You’ve probably noticed that household light bulbs have a color temperature number on them, which tells you how warm or cool the light is. Usually 5,600k or 3,200k. Those are Kelvins. Generally, you want all the bulbs in a single room to have the same color temperature. You might choose different color temperatures for different tasks, for example, daylight in workspaces and warmer light in more relaxed zones. This is to mimic the colour temperatures of sunlight at different times of the day.
The color temperature of sunlight actually varies throughout the day. This is why you need to change the white balance setting even if you are shooting in the same location. Daylight balance is around 5,500-6,500K, whereas golden hour is 3,500K, much closer to the warmer redder end of the spectrum.
Additionally, artificial lights all have their own color casts. Tungsten light is very warm, giving around 3,000K of light temperature.
Does white balance affect exposure?
The official answer is no. White balance has zero effect on the exposure of an image. The easiest way to test this is to shoot in black and white, where color has little impact. However, if you take a photo with the wrong white balance, the relative brightness of the colors will be off. And re-adjusting those colors in post, will have a negative impact on your photo.
This is true if you shoot JPG, shooting RAW is a different story.
How do you adjust white balance?
You can adjust the white balance in your camera through the menu, touchscreen, or a dedicated button labeled WB. From there, you can either choose auto white balance (AWB), or you can choose from a range of presets or select your own Kelvin value.
If you used a RAW format, you can tweak the white balance in post, and refine or fix it. If you shot in JPEG, then you are largely stuck with the white balance setting you had in your camera.
White balance presets
With most cameras, you can select from different white balance settings, or presets. Those are often quite accurate, and if you’re not sure which white balance you should use, they are a good starting point. On most cameras, you can choose between daylight, cloudy, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, or flash. I generally keep my white balance set to either daylight or flash since those are the most frequent conditions in which I’m taking photos.
Should you use Auto white balance?
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You might be tempted to use auto white balance, which is an automatic setting. Essentially you are letting the camera decide which white balance it thinks you should be using for the scene. I would not recommend using auto white balance mode as a rule because you won’t get a consistent white balance across all of your images in a set.
Consistency is very important if you’re taking a series of images and want them all to look the same in terms of color and exposure. If you use auto white balance, you could end up with wildly different results in each photo which will slow down your post-processing considerably.
This is particularly important if you’re shooting video because the camera in auto mode could change the white balance in the middle of a take. This is something that would be nearly impossible to correct in post and is an easy fix in camera.
How do you set white balance manually?
There is yet another way to ensure that your white balance is as accurate as possible. This is really useful if you’re shooting products or fashion for commercial purposes and you need the colors to be as close to real life as you can get. You can choose the expensive but professional method or the poor man’s method! Both work; however, the pro option is a little easier to use.
The pro method is to buy a device such as a Color Checker Passport. This works by taking a photo of the color checker in the first image in front of what you are going to shoot. Keep the exact same settings, and then you can use the first photo of the color checker to accurately adjust the white balance in your RAW processor using the eye dropper tool. You can then apply those settings to all the images in the batch. It works incredibly well, though they aren’t cheap.
The second method is to use an 18% grey card. Once again, you’re going to take a photo with the grey card in front of the product using the same lighting. It’s the same method as the color checker, and in most cases, the color checker contains a grey card, so it’s no different, just more convenient to fit in your bag.
The third and cheapest method is to use a plain white sheet of paper. You want to cover the entire frame with the paper, if possible. Once again, you can either then adjust the white balance in camera or leave it until post-processing like the above methods. It’s useful in a pinch; however, most white pieces of paper come in several different shades of white, so it won’t be the most accurate.
How to set a custom white balance
Once you’ve done any of the above three methods, you can choose to create a Custom White Balance in-camera if this is a set-up that you shoot regularly. The advantage to doing it this way is that all the photos will have the same white balance in-camera rather than leaving it to post-processing. However, there isn’t a huge difference, in my opinion, and I would usually adjust it in a batch in post, having chosen either a preset or a Kelvin setting in-camera.
Once you have taken the image of the grey card, you can then set that as the white balance, which your camera will then apply to all subsequent images. Every camera model will vary in how to set a custom white balance, so I would advise looking at your camera manual.
Should you adjust white balance for every shot?
Once again, the answer to this question is it depends! Obviously, it depends on what you are shooting, where you are shooting it, and what the lighting conditions are. If you are shooting in a studio where the lighting is consistent, then yes, you should keep the white balance the same for the entire shoot or at least the batch of images taken in the same setting.
However, if you start the shoot indoors and then move outside, then, of course, you need to readjust the white balance. For speed, this is where your camera’s presets are useful.
Similarly, if you are shooting all afternoon outside and moving from a shaded area to a bright sunny area, or you are shooting in golden hour at the end of the day, then yes, you may want to change your settings to reflect this.
Should I change white balance in-camera or in post-processing?
I almost always shoot RAW, so I have the ability to change the white balance using editing software should I need to. If you’re shooting JPEG, then the white balance gets ‘baked’ into the image, leaving you little ability to change it in post. Therefore if you’re shooting JPEG, it is imperative to set the correct white balance in camera.
My rule of thumb is to get it as close as possible in-camera, regardless of whether you are shooting RAW or not. Mainly because getting things right in-camera is a great practice to get into. It’s easy to be lazy and over-rely on what we can do in Photoshop.
However, that being said, we all make mistakes from time to time, and it’s extremely useful to have the option to change the white balance in post. Of course, it’s ok to change it later if you want to. There’s really no right or wrong here!
What is the difference between white balance and color grading?
White balance and color grading are somewhat similar concepts in that they both adjust the color of an image. However, they are two different things and serve different purposes. It’s important to understand the difference to create a good workflow when editing your images.
White balance should be one of the first things applied to an image that affects the colour. It should either be done in-camera or be one of the first things that you adjust in post-processing. The idea is to get the image to look as natural as possible in terms of color so that you have a clean image to begin working from.
After this is sorted, you can begin to think about the creative options for where you want to take your photograph. Many times you may choose not to go any further, and that is fine.
Color grading is part of the process of taking your images further down the creative path. By manipulating different colours and tones, you can highlight or darken different parts of the image, change the overall appearance of colors, and you can evoke a different mood or emotion from the original.
You will be most familiar with color grading from the movie industry. Almost every modern film has some sort of color grade applied, both for consistency and for creating the intended emotion. A color grade can be extremely subtle and only affect the shadow areas, for example, or it can be highly impactful and use the psychology of color to manipulate the viewers’ emotions.
What is the best white balance to use?
As with everything in photography, the answer to this is very subjective: there is not one correct answer. However, the general answer would be ‘the correct white balance is the one that most closely matches the lighting in the scene in front of the camera’. It doesn’t really matter which method you use to reach that point. However, the wrong white balance can absolutely detract from the impact of an impact.
Middle of the day, on the beach
Most photographers shy away from shooting at all at midday, but sometimes you’ve just got to! For this scene, it’s pretty obvious that you would choose the daylight balance, or around 5,500K.
Sunset in the mountains
Don’t let the time of day fool you here! For this, I would still have my camera set to daylight or cloudy in the presets. You essentially want those gorgeous warm tones to appear from the low angle of the sun, and you don’t usually want to neutralise them. If you do want to neutralise it, then the Kelvin setting is 2800 to 3000.
If you want to enhance the colors further, you could always try the cloudy setting. However, that may be too much. Tweaking in post is usually necessary to bring out the full colours of a sunset.
An interview in an office setting
Most offices have fluorescent or LED lighting. You will have to hope that all of the lights have the same color temperature, or it will be very difficult to balance in post. Additionally, fluorescent lighting complicates matters further because it can sometimes involve a green or magenta color cast in addition to the blue and yellow. This is why you have both the hue and the tint sliders in your RAW processor.
Your best bet here is to use the fluorescent preset on your camera. Alternatively, you could switch off all the lights and use your own artificial lighting, which is color temperature balanced. If shooting video, I would highly recommend this approach since there is far less you can do in post-production generally to fix this sort of problem.
A romantic dinner over candlelight
Engagement and wedding photographers may come across this scenario. In fact, event photographers have to be very agile with shooting in challenging and less-than-ideal lighting scenarios. You can’t very well be a fly on the wall whilst sticking a huge daylight-balanced flash in the bride’s face.
Candlelight is on the very orange end of the scale at 1800. But once again, the whole point is to evoke an atmosphere, and shooting under candlelight should probably look like candlelight, in my opinion. So ask yourself, should you be neutralizing the white balance in this instance? Perhaps you merely want to enhance the effect.
A night sky at midsummer
For astrophotography, you have a choice. Shoot the sky accurately, which would be daylight balanced (5500K). Or you can create some beautiful blue night skies and minimise the effect of light pollution by choosing to shoot around 3000K. It’s up to you, but generally, I really like those strong royal blues of the night sky as opposed to a darker navy blue or almost black/dark grey. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Do what you prefer!
Understanding white balance is an integral part of understanding digital photography. It’s easily controlled, and choosing the correct white balance for the scene will quickly take your images from ‘meh’ to ‘yeah’!
White balance is measured by the Kelvin scale, which corresponds to the color temperature of the light from red to blue. Different sources of light, including the sun, have different color temperatures. Additionally, the color of sunlight changes throughout the day.
There are several different methods of selecting and changing the white balance, both in-camera and in post-production, in your RAW processing software. White balance is different from color grading in that it is more of a technical part of producing a ‘good’ image rather than making creative enhancements. If you want the ability and flexibility to adjust the white balance in post, always shoot RAW.
Different types of light have different temperatures, which means that they can look more blue or more red. White balance is about ensuring that things look white in these different types of light.
You set your white balance according to the temperature of the light when you are shooting. Your camera will let you choose a white balance setting for daylight, cloudy conditions, shade, tungsten / incandescent bulbs, fluorescent lights, and flash. You can also use a grey card to set the color temperature manually.
Light temperature is measured in Kelvins. Hotter light (midday sun) looks bluer while cooler light (candle flame) is redder or more orange.
Look for something in your scene that is white. Does it look white? Or does it have a blue or a red tinge to it? If it’s white, the white balance is correct! If it is a bit blue or red, you need to adjust your white balance.
If you’re shooting at sunset and you want to keep the lovely soft orange and pink tones, then use daylight white balance settings. If you shoot with an accurate white balance, you will neutralize them.