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White Balance in Photography

Introduction

White balance is one of the most important yet less considered settings when it comes to producing compelling images. A slight change towards a warmer or a colder color temperature can make the difference between a dull image and an impressive one.
The main problem is that many photographers never put much effort into learning how to deal with the white balance and its settings, so when they find themselves with some weird colors in their images they don’t really know how to fix the problem, even if it’s much easier than everyone might think.
In this article we’ll see step by step how to master the white balance, both on the field and in post production, starting with acknowledging what white balance actually is and ending with studying the various presets available on all digital cameras and how to change the color temperature on your pictures.

focus stacked picture of the dolomites

1. What is White Balance?

In the simplest possible words, white balance is the setting that allows you to choose the most accurate colors for that scene. Your next question could be: why we need to choose the colors? Isn’t the camera doing its job and select the best colors for our pictures?
Our eyes, together with our brain, have already incorporated a complex system of white balance, and that’s why we are able to see the correct colors in pretty much every situation. On the opposite side, cameras don’t implement the same complex system of white balance, but they have to settle with electronic sensors and try to understand which one is the correct color temperature for every specific situation.
This means they are not infallible: sometimes the camera will read the informations coming from outside incorrectly and consequently capture the wrong colors. That’s why you need white balance, so that you are able to change those colors as you prefer in order to make the scene appear as you wish.

Cinque Terre at blue hour in Italy
Color temperature differences and white balance

2. Color Temperature and Measurement

Now that you know what the white balance is, it’s time to understand how it works: first of all, in order to measure the color temperature of a picture we have to use Kelvin degrees.
Photography wise, the range we are most interested in is between 2000 and 10000 Kelvin degrees. The lower the temperature, the warmer it will be. But what does that mean? If you are shooting in presence of a strong warm light, you might want to balance the colors of the picture by selecting a white balance between 2500K and 4500K, otherwise everything will look red/orange-ish. On the opposite, if you are shooting in a cold-lighten environment (like overcast skies, blue hours, twilights, etc) you should select a white balance between 6500K and 9000K in order to avoid filling up the whole shot with blue-ish tones.
When shooting outside during the day, without any strong color cast, you can opt for a temperature around 5000/6000K.
Basically each camera on the market has an automatic white balance mode, where the camera will try to select the best one all by itself, and a bunch of pre-programmed modes, with fixed Kelvin temperatures; we’ll explore all of those modes later!

3. How does Light affect Colors?

While for many of you it may seem a weird question, you should know that light comes with different colors. Well, actually that is incorrect. Pure light is white, period. The point is that most of the light sources you’ll be using when shooting (sun, lamps, flashes, etc) don’t emit pure white light, but they comes with different color casts. That’s how the source of light is affecting the colors of the scene, even if sometimes you won’t notice it. With a bit of experience you’ll quickly learn which sources of light are emanating warmer colors and which cooler ones instead and so to set up your camera consequently!

The best softwares for editing.

Check out this guide about the best softwares for editing your pictures!

4. Why You Should Adjust the White Balance

As many use to say, sometimes an example is worth more than a thousand words. Check out the splitted image above: on the right side you see the picture as it came out from the camera, while on the left side you see the picture with the right white balance, changed in post production by me.
I would gladly have a chat with “purists” about the fact that post production is evil and camera shots are the only ones that are showing reality, but this is not the right place nor the right time, so let’s just skip that. As you can see, the base file is presenting a warm color cast spreaded all over the image, because the camera was reading the tones of the image as cold and tried to correct them with a warm white balance; in post production then, I changed it in favor of a more natural, colder color cast to recreate a similar atmosphere to the one I witnessed while I was shooting. As you can see, sometimes just by changing the white balance you can enormously improve the look of your pictures!

5. White Balance in-Camera or Post Processing

In the previous chapter I’ve been very specific about the fact that I changed the white balance of the picture not on the field but later in post production. You may wonder why, right? After all, it’s much more satisfying to see the correct colors right after you took the shot and not having to wait till you post process it. I’m supporting that opinion, really. Problem is that sometimes you don’t have enough time to regulate and change the white balance for each shot you take, and that’s where it become tricky. Specially because everytime that you change composition or source of light, you have to find the right white balance again and that will take a bit of time and tests. So, how should you proceed? It mainly depends on what image format are you using. Let me explain:
- Raw Format: if you are using the raw format it means that you’ll post process your images anyway, so you might as well leave your white balance setting to “auto” and let the camera deal with the color temperature. If the camera gets it wrong, you’ll correct it with a slider in Adobe Lightroom/Camera Raw or any other Raw development software you use. It’s easy as that, really. Raw files are just showing the white balance the camera has chosen, but all the informations are still there. That means that if you’ll change it to a warmer/cooler one during the editing, no information or detail will be lost. It won’t affect the image at all (except for the colors obviously).
- Jpeg Format: with the use of jpeg things are a bit more tricky. Since you won’t edit your images, you need to get the best white balance at the moment of the shot. Sometimes the “auto” setting will get you the best result, while sometimes you’ll have to manually select the Kelvin degrees (if your camera has that feature) otherwise to choose one of the presets available. To regulate the white balance, you can also use white cards, like many photographers were doing back in the analogue days: in that case you’ll have to put the white card in front of the lens. By doing this, you’ll “help” the camera understand which one is the white color and then figure out what is the best color temperature for the rest of the scene.
Whether you choose to regulate the white balance with white cards or manually from the camera, it will take you way more time to get it right than shooting in raw format and easily fix it in post production.

6. Auto White Balance and Camera Presets

Some of you may have noticed that along the article I mentioned several times that there are on pretty much all of the camera models a bunch of white balance presets that you can use, obviously in addition to the automatic one. Let’s explore together each one of those presets and try to understand when they should be used.

6.1 Automatic Mode

Let’s start with the easiest one. The automatic mode will basically try to guess what is the right white balance for the scene in your place. You won’t have to do nothing here, just select the auto white balance and you are set to go!
After you took the shot, there are two possible outcomes:
1) the white balance is perfect, in that case you can keep shooting;
2) the white balance is off, in that case you should go into the settings and try some of the other presets.

Real examples.

In all our photography workshops we’ll widely discuss how to handle all these different white balances.

6.2 Tungsten

The tungsten mode will set your white balance generally around 3000K degrees, which means you have to use it only in cases where there are some really warm sources of light, like tungsten light bulbs (hence the name), candles, etc.

6.3 Fluorescent

A slightly less extreme preset than the tungsten one, the fluorescent mode will set your white balance to 4200K degrees. It can be used to contrast strong warm lights if the scene gets too orange-ish.

6.4 Daylight/Sunny

As I mentioned before, when shooting outside during the day with direct sunlight hitting the scene/subject, the daylight mode will obviously be the best one for the occasion, which will set the white balance around 5000K degrees.

6.5 Flash

Unsurprisingly, the flash preset is the best one when you are using some type of flashlight on your subject. By choosing this mode, the camera will set the white balance at 5500K degrees.

6.6 Cloudy

When shooting during cloudy days you’ll need a slightly different white balance than when shooting during sunny days. The cloudy preset will set the color temperature of your camera to 6000K to give it an extra pop of warmth.

6.7 Shade

The shade preset, by setting your camera’s white balance at 8000K, is basically the opposite of the tungsten one: if you’ll see some strong cold color casts in your images, typical of blue hours or shaded areas, this mode will help you to take out those unwanted blue tones and to give a more natural look to your pictures.

7. How to Set Custom White Balance

If you tried all of the presets above but you still haven’t found the perfect white balance for your shot, don’t give up, as there is still one option available: the so-called “K” mode. When selecting this mode, you’ll be able to manually set the color temperature of your picture by changing the Kelvin degrees to the amount that you need.
It will seem a bit complex at first, as you may not know much about which one is the best amount to set for each situation, but after you’ll have used it a few times you’ll get the hang of it and you won’t have to do many test shots before to get the perfect white balance.

Tuscany hills at dusk during photo tour
Tellaro with waves at golden hour

8. Creative Uses of White Balance

White balance is not only a powerful tool to give the images a more natural look, but also for giving drama or particular atmospheres to your pictures.
Here you can find an example: in the picture you can clearly see that, in order to give the picture a more dramatic look, I went for an overall warm white balance, since the sun was just peaking out from the clouds and the light was hitting the walls of the town.

What about HDR?

Discover all the secrets of a good HDR photograph with this guide!

Conclusion

The aim of this article was to show you some proofs about the importance of white balance; it doesn’t matter what type of photography you prefer to practice, regulating the color temperature of your images will be crucial if you want to improve the quality of your pictures.
If I managed to convince you, read it again, this time slowly, and try to learn step by step how to master the white balance in every situation.
As for everything, it will take you a bit of experience to fully understand how it works, but you’ll achieve outstanding results with time!

Leonardo Papèra

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