White balance in photography

Understanding White Balance In Photography

Do you often see or here people talking about white balance in photography and get confused?

We have teamed up with the British Academy of Photography to give you all the information you will ever need to know about white balance.

Our eyes can often be tricked by the colour of light. However, your camera will read the light exactly as it sees it or is told to see it. This is what your cameras white balance is in place for.

white balance

What is White Balance in Photography?

The ability of our brain to interpret what our eyes see is truly amazing. When we see a white wall, our brain makes it look white whether it’s lit by sunlight, a bulb or a fluorescent lamp. If we are not concentrating we most probably don’t notice that the incandescent tungsten bulb is giving off warm orange/yellow light, or that fluorescent tubes glow a cool shade of green/blue. Neither do we fully appreciate the extent to which all this effects our surroundings. Just like our brains need to focus on the colours to interpret them properly, so to does our camera.

For example, if you photograph a person surrounded by green trees, they will acquire a faint green tint. Likewise, shoot a portrait of somebody in a brilliant neon pink t-shirt, and their face will take on a faint pink glow from the reflected light off the shirt.

Different light sources radiate light in different parts of the spectrum. We call this the “colour temperature” of the light. Our brains are constantly shifting these colour temperatures back to the equivalent of neutral sunlight. To make an image pleasing we usually want to try to get the whites as neutral white as possible.

We say ‘usually’ because sometimes it’s also great to abuse colour and light in an image. Like any photography, it is all subjective and up to the photographer.

white balance
Photo credit: DJ Robinson Photography

The yellow cast of a tungsten bulb shows clearly next to balanced natural sunlight.

How Does a Camera See What’s White?

Unlike the human brain, your camera sensor faithfully records the light hitting it. It can’t cross-reference against a lifetime of experience to correct the colours it sees.

Auto White Balance Modes

Software within the camera, often just called “White Balance”, can correct common colour casts. The camera does this by applying digital filters to change the colour temperature. It usually breaks these into handy ‘go to’ settings for you so you can quickly react based on your surroundings. The camera knows the approximate colour temperature for each situation and tries to correct it to standard neutral sunlight. Obviously with this being automatic it is not always perfect but often is better than leaving the image with no white balance.

Auto 

The Auto setting helps in adjusting the white balance automatically according to the different lighting conditions. Think of this as a very quick fix if you are stuck for time. We recommend trying to avoid full auto as much as possible.

Cloudy 

This mode is ideal while shooting on a cloudy day. This is because it warms up the subject and surroundings and allows you to capture better shots. You will find that this works particularly well around sunrise and sunset.

Tungsten 

This mode is used for light under a little bulb, and it is often used while shooting indoors. The tungsten setting of the digital camera cools down the colour temperature in photos. Usually a bulb will give off a very warm yellow colour so this setting will add some blue to those yellows to try to produce a true white.

Fluorescent 

This mode is used for getting brighter and warmer shots while compensating for the cool shade of fluorescent light. Think of this as basically an opposite to the Tungsten.

Daylight 

This mode is for the normal daylight setting while shooting outdoors. Many cameras do not have the Daylight mode and this is maybe where you would think about using auto.

Flash 

The flash mode is required when there is inadequate lighting available. This mode helps pick the right White Balance in photography under low light conditions. A flash will pull colour from anything it bounces off so this setting may be an absolute life saver especially if you are on a very professional headshot shoot.

Professional Headshots

Shade

A shaded location generally produces cooler or bluer pictures, hence you need to warm up the surroundings while shooting shaded objects. Similar idea to the fluorescent setting but slightly more capabilities.

Manual White Balance in Photography

Most modern DSLR’s will have a fully customisable white balance method. This will take some knowledge and probably a lot of trial and error to get right but when you do your results will be unbelievable. Usually your manual white balance mode will be found under ‘K’ alongside your other more automatic modes we mentioned above. The ‘K’ refers to the Kelvin scale and this is what you need to understand to take this mode further.

Kelvin Scale

Adjusting the white balance on the Kelvin scale is the equivalent of manual mode for exposure – it gives photographers complete control over the white balance.

Shade is often set at 7500K, while daylight is about 5500K and sunset 2500K.

Remember the aim is to correct the colour to look for a true white. So the 2500K will add blue to what will be a very yellow image. A 7500K white balance in photography will add yellow to what is likely to be a very blue hue. This is often where a lot of people get confused.

This image below is a brilliant scale identifier.

white balance

Once you understand this you can start to manipulate

An accurate white balance means that objects that are white in real life are also white in the image. As photographers though we know that accurate isn’t always what’s right for the photograph. Using the Kelvin scale to skew the white balance to be more orange creates a warm feeling in an image, creating a look similar to shooting near sunset. On the other side, adjusting the white balance towards the blue end creates a cooler look, often used to create a somber mood in a photograph. Film photographers often used warming and cooling filters to create these effects. Digital photography makes it easy to simply adjust the white balance in camera or in post.

Why is White Balance in Photography Important?

There are times when a colour cast produces a pleasant result, and of course, there are times when photographers intentionally make use of a coloured cast and don’t correct the white balance. For example, an image looks warmer with an orange cast, so you probably wouldn’t correct it in a city at night landscape. The same logic applies to frozen landscapes. To make them look colder, shoot at midday when there is a slight blue cast to the light. It’s amazing how many pictures of snow are actually slightly blue because the white balance has been left skewed to the blue end of the spectrum to emphasise the coldness.

white balance in photography
Photo credit: DJ Robinson Photography

Original with a natural blue cast, white balance corrected, white balance intentionally skewed towards warmer colours.

Of course, sometimes the white balance must be corrected because a colour cast would be a problem. This is particularly so in advertising and real estate work, in which reproducing the correct colours is essential, so you have an honest reproduction of the scene.


Photo credit: DJ Robinson Photography

Original shot with orange colour cast from tungsten bulbs and a blue cast in the corridor from a fluorescent light in the bathroom, and processed shot with corrected white balance.

Conclusion

The rules for using white balance aren’t set in stone. You can correct it to faithfully reproduce the colours of a scene or leave it alone because it adds atmosphere to it. You can even intentionally shift the white balance away from neutral, creating a colour cast to enhance an image. Think of it as a subjective element of your photography to use according to your needs. Using your camera’s built-in white balance feature allows you to take photos with much more accurate colours!

If you only ever stick to Auto white balance, take a look at this white balance presets cheat sheet so you can try and understand all the other options and white balance settings. 

white balance
Big thanks to Digital Camera World for supplying this to us

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