4 Steps To Understanding White Balance

Why White Balance is important for you

If you’ve ever taken photos indoors without a flash and wondered why everyone looks so orange, this post will definitely help you.

White balance can be hard to master at first but, with just a little understanding, can become quite intuitive – understanding white balance is absolutely key to making your photos look good.

Section 1 – What is White Balance?

The White Balance (WB) determines how accurately the colors in your photos come out, specifically, it determines how ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ an image feels.

Setting your WB accurately will prevent against nasty color cast which will make your images look unnatural. Different color casts come from white not being truewhite in different lighting situations. This post will teach you how to deal with that.

Section 2 – How do I deal with White Balance?

Modern digital cameras give you the option to change the WB manually as well as the auto white balance (AWB) option.

AWB is often suitable for daylight situations but, in most other situations, it’s just guessing as to what the balance should be. The most common example for this is when shooting indoors in tungsten light. Canon in particular are notoriously bad at getting the color right on Auto mode and the color can often come out far too warm.

In a typical digital SLR (and some advanced compacts) you will typically have this kind of scale of white balance to choose from:

Auto: Good if you don’t know what you’re doing and it works well in sunlight but in most situations is unsuitable.
Daylight: Auto mode can been good in daylight but not perfect. I would typically use this balance in daylight but most people tend to stick to auto because they’re worried about forgetting to change the WB when they go back indoors.
Shade: Auto mode makes photos look a little cold in the shade so using this preset will be a lot more accurate.
Cloudy: Again, this is pretty self explanatory as to when you’d use it.
Tungsten: This light comes from incandescent bulbs found in your home – left on auto, your photos will come out very warm with an almost orange color cast in this environment.
Fluorescent: This comes from tube lighting found in offices and hospitals. It’s a very cold light and can make your photos appear blue. This is also why offices have that nasty sterile feel.
Flash: This compensates for the somewhat cool light of the camera’s flash.
Custom: This is used for setting the white balance accurately using a grey card – more about this in section 3.
Temperature: This is for experienced professional photographers – more about this in section 3.

All of these modes simply tell your camera how much it should adjust the colour of the photo it’s taking.

To demonstrate how these modes affect the temperature of an image, I’ve taken a photo of a model with the sun setting behind her and no sun shining directly onto her face. You’ll see that the ‘Shade’ setting is most accurate for that situation.

Auto – Photo comes out quite cool looking.

Cloud – Very good but still a little colder then the environment actually was.

Daylight – Not bad, but the camera is trying to compensate for a much brighter environment so it’s overcompensating.

Flash – Worked surprisingly well, it’s a more accurate than auto mode for this sort of lighting.

Fluorescent – Far too cold looking, this setting is used for much warmer light and has cooled the photo accordingly.

Shade – Very accurate, it captures the spring evening perfectly.

Tungsten – Again, this setting is used to much warmer light.

Section 3 – How to get Perfect Colour Reproduction

The last 2 settings listed above (custom and temperature) are used to create the most accurate white balance. Firstly though, you need to learn about grey cards.

Grey cards are used to determine which white balance should be used by your camera; they are a made from 18% grey which is a neutral hue.

To use grey cards, take a photo of the card so that it fills the whole frame of your camera, then set this as the white balance inside your camera. The camera sees the difference between the result and the neutral hue and determines the balance from that.

The reason a grey card is used over white is because, if you overexpose any color enough, it’ll eventually come out as white; WB is about color, not brightness. As the grey photo was taken in the same lighting environment as the rest of your photos will be, the camera knows exactly how much to adjust the balance.

Custom: This is where you would take the photo of the grey card and set it as your white balance. All cameras are different so I recommend looking in your manual as to how to do this. This is the most accurate way possible to capture color on the cheap and I fully recommend it.

Color Temperature / Kelvin: This is for professional photographers who are used to using expensive color temperature meters in studio conditions and setting the WB value manually. The value is set in Kelvin (K) – named after the man who created the scale.

For example, sunlight is approximately 5200K and tungsten is approximately 3200K. If you’re really experienced with WB, after time you’ll be able to judge it for yourself.

Section 4 – Which Setting is Best for me?

You basically have 5 options:

1: Spend all your time shooting on auto mode and hope for the best. This is alright if you’re still trying to get to grips with exposure but after that I recommend you move on.

2: Try to produce accurate results using the preset modes inside of your camera. This is certainly a step in the right direction but they’re still just ballpark figures and won’t always produce 100% correct results.

3: Shoot in custom mode. This is the most popular choice by professional photographers but takes some time to get used to and requires carrying around a grey card.

4: Use a light temperature meter. This is very accurate but can cost a lot of money so is not a realistic option for most.

5: Shoot in RAW. For those of you who don’t know, RAW is an uncompressed file format that allows you to change things on a computer after the photo has been taken. One of these things is the white balance.

With the information above you should be well on your way to capturing the perfect colours every time.