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General Stuff, Theory n Technique

White Balance: What’s it all about


First of all, apologies for being away for a while! I’ve been working on a side project the last couple of weeks (my awesome subscribers will be the first to hear the news when I have more to tell) but here I am back with another tutorial of sorts, this time talking about white balance. Similar to ISO sensitivity (see my previous, similar post!), white balance is something that some people don’t fully understand, and because of this they often set their cameras to Auto WB and forget this control is even there. This is a real shame – as white balance isn’t really that complicated. Once you figure it out and learn to use it properly it can have a wonderfully positive effect on your pictures. Keep reading and you’ll be on less person stuck on the Auto WB mode!

White Balance

Also known as color balance, white balance is simply a way of trying to reproduce colors as accurately as possible in your photograph. The term ‘white balance’ comes from the fact that your camera attempts to correctly reproduce the colors in the scene by making sure the white parts of the subject actually looks white in the picture

It’s hard to imagine this being a very difficult and complex procedure – this is because humans are used to seeing colors in all forms of light, and are able to accurately decipher these colors regardless of the light, so in the end we don’t really realize how different lighting can affect how colors look. But this camera, of course, isn’t this smart. In some conditions it can get fooled by the available light and captures images where the colors are represented rather inaccurately. In these instances, a simple white balance correction is all that’s necessary!

Looking at the following photographs I took as examples to show you the effect that different white balance settings can have on the same scene. Which one looks best? The most natural?

White Balance Comparison

Well, for me, it’s the third one (Example C) – the white object in the center looks white, the background (which is also white) looks pretty white, and the rest of the colors look natural. So that’s the correct white balance for this particular environment! The first one has a pretty severe yellow color to the entire image, the second one has a blueish  color cast – the fourth one looks alright, but it’s got a slight purplish tinge to it if you look closely. I’d definitely go for the third one if I had to choose, wouldn’t you?

White Balance Errors

If your camera gets the white balance wrong, it usually screws up one of two things: color temperature or color tint

I’ll explain more about light and color temperature in another post, but to understand color temperature for the purpose of using white balance, let me put it simply: color temperature is basically the color of light. That’s it – quite simple. I’m not going through the proper definition of color temperature and all that as it’s not really necessary – but let me expand on this ‘color of light’. Color temperature ranges from ‘warm’ to ‘cool’ colored light. Warm temperature refers to light that has a yellow-to-orange hue about it, while cool temperatures refer to colors that are more white-to-pale blue. In images that are illuminated by warm light, a yellow tinge is cast over the image, while cooler light tends to cast a pale blue tinge to the image. This is how color temperature looks in your photograph. For example, the dark yellow/orange/red glow of a setting sun is considered warm light, while the pale blue light emitted by a fluorescent light bulb is cool light. Daylight is pretty neutral

One more thing – color temperature is assigned values, in the temperature unit, Kelvin. Warmer temperatures are given lower Kelvin values, and cooler temperatures are given higher Kelvin values. No, I didn’t get that mixed up – that’s just how it is. Warm candlelight or the setting sun would be given a color temperature of maybe 2000-3000K while a cool fluorescent light would be around 6000K – neutral daylight is approximately rated at around 5500K

Depending on the temperature of the available light, you might see a color cast across the picture. But of course the idea is to avoid these color casts, and get the colors looking as natural as can be – so if the image looks too yellow, too ‘warm’, adjust the white balance to a cooler color temperature. Naturally if it appears too blue, adjust to a warmer temperature. Easy!

To give you an idea of what extreme color temperatures look like, I purposely got these shots wrong to show this to you. Cool on the left, warm on the right

Color tints also come in two forms: green and magenta (or purple!) If your shot has a green tint about it, adjust the WB to a more magenta/purple setting – if it’s purple already, make it greener!  This usually isn’t really anything to do with the actual light, but instead an error made by your camera. But you will definitely notice this sort of tint, in a milder form, of course, in trying lighting conditions. So be aware of what it looks like so you know how to fix it!

And here’s a couple of extreme examples of color tint gone horribly wrong – worst case examples of green (left) and magenta (right)

 

Training your eye to see these errors will make it easy for you to see what is wrong with the picture, instead of simply knowing that something is wrong. Compare shots of correct and incorrect white balance, analyze them closely and learn to see the difference between different color temperatures, the difference between green or magenta tints, and learn what really is a neutral and CORRECT color balance – once you’re able to see incorrect white balance and you’re able to say what exactly is wrong, fixing these issues will be super easy. I wrote more about fixing color balance in Photoshop Lightroom in my posts on Basic Photo Editing, so check that out as well. JPEG files can be corrected to a certain extent, so make sure your colors are not completely wrong if you shoot JPEGs – RAW files are much more flexible, and even the most horrible color errors can usually be fixed. Either way, I suggest getting it as accurate as you can in-camera. Here’s how


Correcting White Balance

Adjusting white balance can be done via presets, and via manual white balance. Manual white balance is a feature available on all advanced cameras and now appearing on many high-end compacts as well – check if your camera has it (read the manual). If not, presets will be your only option

White Balance Presets

All cameras have white balance presets, for conditions such as daylight, fluorescent light, flash, shade, etc. as well as the famous Auto WB setting. Unfortunately, many of you end up using the Auto WB setting as it usually does a pretty good job most of the time. However, in the situations where it gets it wrong, it really gets it wrong. A strong yellow cast, a ghastly blue pall, a nasty green tinge. See my extreme examples to understand how awful this can look. Then look at how easy it is to correct these – and then, stop using Auto WB!

It’s alright if you use Auto WB when it works, but at least know when to use the presets so in the event that the automatic setting fails, you know what to do. The following presets are available on my RX100, so they should be available on most other cameras too, although the exact effect it gives might differ based on your particular camera

  • Auto: Auto WB attempts to detect the colors of the scene, the light in the scene, as well as the ‘whites’, and attempts to set the white balance automatically. Does a good job most of the time
  • Daylight: This preset adjusts the white balance for daylight conditions. As daylight is fairly neutral, so is this setting – it doesn’t really make any strong change in color temperature – and it’s obviously great for shooting in daylight
  • Shade: ‘Shade’ adjusts white balance for a shady environment, away from direct light. Light under shade tends to be a bit cool, therefore this preset tends to warm the shot a bit
  • Cloudy: This preset adjusts the white balance for cloudy conditions – it’s getting a bit obvious, isn’t it? In cloudy conditions, like shade, the light tends to be a bit cool – therefore this preset warms the shot too. It’s a bit of a cross between the daylight and shade presets
  • Incandescent: This preset sets the white balance for incandescent lighting – as this form of lighting looks rather yellow and warm, this preset compensates with a cooler cast
  • Fluorescent: Fluorescent lighting is usually quite white, and generally considered ‘cool’, so this preset compensates by giving a noticeably warm tone to the shot
  • Flash: This preset should be used when using a flash, as it balances  the cool light of a flash unit with a warm correction – Auto WB works well for flash too, so this preset is not really that important

And that’s usually it for presets. You can let the name of the preset guide you as to when you should use which i.e. use the cloudy setting in cloudy conditions; or you can experiment and note which presets look warmer, and which look cooler – this way, when you find the Auto setting not giving you what you want, you can correct it by using a preset that you are sure will be able to fix the issue

Presets on most cameras cannot really fix color tint errors, so if you notice a magenta or green tint to your shot, you’d best use the manual settings (described next) or shoot RAW and fix in Photoshop later. Then again, some cameras, like the RX100 I’m using now, allow you to adjust the temperature AND the tint of each preset – this is extremely useful, and I wish all cameras had this feature. Maybe yours does – check the manual and find out!

Manual White Balance

Custom WB: Yes, using a custom white balance setting allows you to customize the white balance for the exact lighting conditions in which you’re shooting – but how? Elementary! All you need is a camera with this feature, and some object that is pure white. This pure white thing can be a professional white card, it can be a sheet of blank paper, it can be a white wall in the location you’re shooting – anything, as long as it’s pure white

Ok, so let’s get a custom WB preset then. You have the blank sheet of paper? Your camera supports custom WB? Good. Now, read your manual, and find out how to set the custom white balance on your camera. On my camera, you get into the white balance menu and select Custom White Balance Setup, which will then ask you to take a picture of the white object. Ok, point the camera at the paper and fill the viewfinder with it, making sure it’s under the lighting conditions you’re shooting in – and take a picture. This tells the camera that this object should look white – and the camera does the rest! All you need to do then is select the custom white balance option from the WB menu, and shoot!

First shot, using Auto WB – horrible. I can’t believe my Sony got the colors this wrong. Severe green tint – and this isn’t an exaggerated example – this is truly what I got straight ouf the camera using Auto WB

 

A few seconds later, using a custom WB setting – tell me what you think!

My living room at night is a bit of a nightmare to shoot, especially at night. I have warm light bulbs, my curtains are a dark maroon and give off this overly warm orange reflective glow, and well, I have no idea why it’s this hard to get right – but it is. Just look at the first picture! I’ve tried with many different cameras– Auto AND presets – and they all get it wrong, some worse than others. The only way I can fix it is by using a white card or paper to create a custom WB setting. The result using the custom setting is much more natural, don’t you agree?

Color Temperature Selection: This is another manual WB setting, and is faster to use than custom WB , but obviously can only control color temperature – if there’s a green or magenta tint, this is not the mode you need!

This setting allows you to set the exact color temperature you want. In Kelvin. As I mentioned before, color temperature is measured in this unit – and warmer/yellow temperatures are given low values i.e. 2000K and cooler/bluer temperatures are given higher values of maybe 6000K

Using this manual color temperature WB setting is fairly straightforward: if the image looks too warm, increase the color temperature to a higher value, and if its too cool, reduce the value! Easy

Like the presets, using this color temperature mode cannot fix errors in color tint, but it can make it very easy to adjust color temperature issues very quickly – it’s much faster than having to do the full custom WB process. So if your camera has this feature it can really come in handy – again, check the manual! Check out this last set of examples to see how this mode can be useful

Using my DSLR in the same living room, Auto WB didn’t get it THAT wrong – it just got it far too warm, a severe yellow cast

 

sing the same custom WB preset, I got this shot – which looks a bit too white, a bit flat – rather like daylight, I think. Good, but could be better? I think so!

 

This shot adds a bit of warmness to the image while maintaing fairly natural colors, and it feels like a shot taken at night, unlike the previous one. I used the color temperature selection mode to adjust the color temperature to something that I felt was more suitable

 

Ok, that’s about it for this post! To summarize, don’t always stick to Auto WB! That’s all I was trying to say! But if I had just said that in the beginning, few would listen. After all this, I hope you will listen!

Auto WB can work in some cases. In some cases it might not. If it screws up, don’t blame the camera. Just fix it. Use a preset, use the manual settings, or as a last resort, shoot RAW and fix later

Fixing color temperature is pretty easy – on any camera, presets are created based on various color temperatures – so nine times out of ten you will be able to fix these issues with a preset change. You can also use both manual WB modes (Custom and Color Temp Selection) to fix these issues, of course

Fixing color tint is not quite so simple, I think. Then again, color tint errors are not as common as color temperature errors, so you may not need to fix too often – but in case you do, presets would not help, nor would Color Temp Selection – the best way to fix color tint errors would be to use Custom WB. Or shoot RAW and fix afterwards. Some cameras like the Sony RX100 lets you adjust both the temperature and the tint of WB presets too, so if your camera can do this too, try it out!

Of course, there are times when you don’t really the perfect white balance, times when you feel a warm yellow tinge or a nice cool blue cast to the shot works perfectly. Simple, again – simply adjust the color temperature! However, I feel that it’d be pretty hard to get the exact color cast you want in-camera – so I suggest you avoid trying to get this color by using presets of custom modes – instead, get the color as accurately as you can, shoot RAW, and adjust it using Photoshop afterwards, to get the exact temperature and tint you want!


But the whole point of my post today was to talk about fixing white balance. And to do this, the biggest thing I think you could learn is to see the differences in color temperature and tint. Train yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to use Photoshop Lightroom – just load a shot into Lightroom, and mess with the sliders, carefully watching how the temperature and tint changes look while you adjust them. This is the best way to learn, in my opinion. See my post on Basic Photo Editing for more details. And that’s it! Until next time

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By Heshan Jayakody
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Discussion

20 Responses to “White Balance: What’s it all about”

  1. terrific post! very helpful indeed, thank you 🙂

    Posted by Allen | October 15, 2012, 15:10
  2. very useful information for any new photographer starting out! I wish i had something this easy and comprehensive to read back when i young!

    Posted by Shane | October 15, 2012, 15:14
    • Thats very kind, thank you. Young photographers are the exact target audience i’m going for with this series of posts. I hope it reached some of them, at least. if you guys know anyone who’s benefit more from these posts, please share it with them! Cheers

      Posted by pixelogist | October 15, 2012, 15:19
  3. Nice post! White balance is a huge part of digital photography, isn’t it? Very important to get right? Reading this, i’m sure many new guys will figure it out faster than i did!

    Posted by Nadia K. | November 21, 2012, 08:17
    • Indeed it is, Nadia 🙂 so important, and so easy to get right, yet many amateurs don’t even realize this aspect of photography exists. I really do hope people read about it and learn faster!

      Posted by pixelogist | November 21, 2012, 09:29
  4. great post. i love your stuff on photography theory, you really break it down and make it easy to grasp. i’ve been using a lot of custom white balance after reading about it. thanks!

    Posted by Erin Sanders | February 19, 2013, 07:48
  5. excellent post! nicely broken down into easily digested bits! haha. cheers!

    Posted by Kane | March 28, 2013, 08:36
  6. Oh wow, I never really understood what white balance was and how I could correct it from my camera, or from my computer. It really seems very easy now and I like what you said about training the eye to see the white balance. Thanks!

    Posted by David | June 30, 2013, 06:56
    • Indeed, David – it’s extremely simple. It’s a shame people rely so much on Auto WB and get wrong color balance just because they don’t bother understanding this! Haha

      Posted by pixelogist | June 30, 2013, 07:16

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