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What You Need to Know about White Balance In Your Photos

Editor’s Note: A special thanks to our partner Datacolor for helping us to bring more information about color calibration to you. 

White Balance is one of the most critical settings that we have to get our colors right, it is a core concept for every photographer to learn.  Right up there with Exposure Theory and how to get swamp smell out of your truck upholstery (that might just be a “me” issue…).  But, it is an often misunderstood concept, used incorrectly it can make your colors look strange, dull, or unreal. Fortunately, it is a setting we can easily adjust in camera and in the digital darkroom.

If you are unfamiliar with the White Balance setting on your camera, now is a good time to grab it and its manual.  Make sure you know how to change this setting, it’s usually indicated by a WB button.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to get back…

So, What is White Balance in Photography?

The short answer is: “the white balance setting helps get the colors in your images as accurate as possible by removing color casts in your photos”.  

Photographers take photos at all times of day, in all types of light. In different lighting and conditions, white light can seem more  reddish/yellowish or  sometimes more bluish/greenish.  This is called  “color cast”.  In bright unfiltered daylight, white looks white to your eyes and in your photos.  But, depending on what is creating the light and what that light has interacted with before it hits your subject, these color casts will skew the colors in your photos.

Normally, we don’t really notice these color casts, as our eyes and brain are constantly adjusting to them.  When we see something that is white, we don’t notice if the white is a little yellowish or a little bluish in different lighting.  We just think, “Hey, that’s white”.  But, our camera’s sensor doesn’t have the same capabilities that our eyes do to compensate for shifts in color.  It is just capturing information from its sensor, recording the proportions of red, blue, and green of the light that strikes each pixel.  We really don’t notice the warmth or coolness of light unless we train our eyes to do so. However, these color shifts become pretty obvious when viewed later in our images.  

When you change the white balance setting, you are telling the camera or processing software to remove a color cast by shifting your colors either towards more yellow or more blue, and adjust for any green or magenta tint.  For example, in this waterfall scene the light was heavily filtered by trees and the valley walls.  This causes the available (aka, ambient) light to have a very blue tone, as a great deal of the reds/yellows are lost in these conditions.  If I choose a white balance setting of “Shade”, I am telling the camera the available light is very blue.  So, it shifts all the colors towards yellow to offset the “bluishness” of the light.   

It also looks at the tint, if there is too much green or magenta present, and makes adjustments.  In the waterfall example, the leaves are not completely blocking the light, rather some light is passing through them, giving it a green tint.  Using the “Shade” preset adds too much magenta, in this case the preset actually creates a color cast by adjusting too much.  This is where being able to control the white balance comes in, as I did in the screenshot of my settings, to the right, by using a custom white balance.

Custom White Balance – 6950K +7 Tint, calculated from a reference shot made with the Datacolor SpyderCube

 

White Balance, the “Hot Horseshoe” Explanation

To understand what is happening, we have to delve into the science of light and color.  The White Balance setting is based on the color temperature of the light you are shooting in.  “Color temperature” is measured on the Kelvin scale, and helps describe the color of light emitted from a hypothetical “black body” as it is being heated.  The color of the light will change as the temperature of the black body changes.

Imagine you heat up a chunk of steel, say a horseshoe. Normally a horseshoe doesn’t emit any light (unless you pay extra for the deluxe model).  It is the “black body” in our definition above.

But, if you heat it up, it begins to glow. At first we see a dim red, as it grows hotter it becomes more blue.  This is color temperature, changes to the temperature of the horseshoe changes the color of light it emits.  

The temperature in this model is measured in Kelvin, anyone out there remember this from high school chemistry? Don’t worry, the Kelvin scale is just a temperature scale.  What is important for us to know as photographers is any light below about 4000 Kelvin starts to appear yellowish/reddish to our eyes, anything above 6000 Kelvin or so starts to appear bluish (your mileage may vary as we all perceive colors a little differently).  

Color Temperature Ranges for Common Lighting Situations

  • 1000-2000K   Candlelight
  • 2500-3500K   Typical Incandescent (Tungsten) Household Bulb  
  • 3000-4000K   Sunrise or Sunset with a clear sky
  • 4000-5000K   Most Fluorescent Lights
  • 5000-5500K   Flash
  • 5000-6500K   Daylight at Midday with a Clear Sky
  • 6500-8000K   Overcast Sky
  • 9000-10000K Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky

But, What about Warm Colors vs. Cool Colors?

Like many things in photography, with color we talk about things a bit backwards.  We use terms like “warmer” to refer to reddish or yellowish light in an image, and “cooler” to refer to bluish or overcast light.  We think about blue tones being cool like ice and yellows being warm like the sun.  Color temperature is the opposite, red light indicates a cooler temperature than blue.  Just think back to our fire example, an orange flame from a candle is much cooler than the blue flame from a cutting torch.

Don’t worry about changing the way you think and talk about light.  It is fine to talk in those terms, just remember when it comes to white balance the lower the number in Kelvin the redder the light. The higher the number, the bluer the light.  

Color can dramatically change our perceptions of a moment, invoking emotions and memories. All three of these images were made within the same stretch of woods, within about an hour of each other. Looking at each, how do they make you feel? Which is your favorite? What words would you use to describe the mood of each?

Photography is Our Interpretation of Reality

In addition to “color accuracy” let’s look at using the white balance as a creative tool.  In reality what we want as photographers is to be able to control the colors in our images.  We aren’t always looking for accuracy, sometimes we want to know what the color should be so we can exaggerate or transform it.  The white balance can be used to add “warmth” or “coolness” to your images, or even more drastic color effects to create a particular mood and enhance your composition.

By controlling your white balance, you can render your colors to the ideal you have in your head, which may be a departure from reality (most things in my head are). That is all okay, we are creating art with our photography.  

How does your perception of the scene and subject change as the white balance changes?  Does the water seem more tranquil in some images?  Does the gator seem more peaceful or alert ?  Which in the series do you like best?

 

Some of the photos just have a sense of wrongness about them (blue gator?!), they seem artificial and unpleasing.  For me, the bluer tones seem to give the ‘gator a sleepy look, I feel like it seems more alive in the warmer photos.  Just this simple change in white balance can have subtle impact on our interpretation of the scene.

Taking it a step further, what happens to your attitude towards the image and subject when all color is removed?  Something to think about!

Next Steps

So, having gotten this far, I’m guessing that the big questions remaining are; Should I mess with this, can’t the camera just take care of this, and can’t I just do this in Lightroom/Photoshop?

And the answers, are, Yes, Yes, and Yes… with some big asterisks!

As for whether to mess with it at all, think of it this way.  Much like your exposures, it is good to know when to take control away from your camera.  This is why cameras come with an Exposure Compensation setting and a Manual Mode, to give you the ability to override what the camera is telling you for your exposure. Remember, your camera is programmed with some pretty advanced algorithms, but ultimately it is a computer running a program. Most of the time the program works pretty well, but sometimes it doesn’t.  The important thing to understand is when to take control away from the camera.  In certain lighting conditions the assumptions your camera makes just are not right.

As for just fixing it in post, yes, you can change your white balance after the fact, especially if you shoot in the RAW format.  Part of my workflow is to check the White Balance on each shot I process.  However, getting it right in the field can save you time in post processing.  I strongly recommend you set a custom white balance in the field, or shoot reference shots for use in post processing.  This will be more accurate than all the presets as it is specifically for the given lighting conditions at the moment your image is captured.  It eliminates some of the guess work of picking a white balance for the image, ultimately making your colors more accurate and saving you time.

To Summarize…

The color of light is shifted from reddish/yellowish to bluish (with a pinch of magenta or green, as well) by the type of light source, and what it has been affected by, before it illuminates our subjects.  Adjusting white balance helps us render our colors more closely to what our eyes see, or to what the colors would be in a specific temperature of light.  With the White Balance Setting we are removing, or exaggerating, these “color casts”.

 

Changing it can have a dramatic impact on your images, when colors are “off” you know it!  But,  Remember, when it comes to creating your art, photography is your interpretation of reality, and composing with color is an important part of our creative process.

Adjusting white balance walks a fine line between livening up colors, and producing inaccurate ones. For wall art, the brighter, warmer colors on the right may be more appealing. But for a field guide used to identify this butterfly, the cool tones are more accurate to its true colors.

Links

If you want the most accurate colors possible from camera to print, check out my series “The Color Calibrated Workflow”

These are the tools I use to make sure my colors are right:

 

Like this article?  Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques.  Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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