What is white balance in photography? And how will it enhance your images?
In this article, I’m going to share everything you ever desired to know about white balance , including:
- The white balance digital camera settings you should use for regularly good results
- How white balance can instantly improve your shots
- How you can use white balance for gorgeous creative results in your photos
I’m also likely to explain key related terms, such as colour temperature , white balance presets , and more.
Thankfully, while white balance may appear like a difficult topic, it is actually pretty darn easy to understand. Therefore i promise you: by the time you have finished this article, you’ll be an absolute WB expert!
Let’s get started.
What is white balance in photography?
White balance refers to the process of removing or neutralizing colour casts in your images.
It’s about taking an image like this, full of distorted, too-blue colors:
And adding warm colors until you balance out the color cast, so that you get a final result like this:
You see, most light sources produce a color cast. And while our eyes are pretty good at correcting for this in real time, a camera captures the subject as it looks in life: sometimes neutral, yes, but sometimes very blue (as in the pear photo above) and sometimes very yellow (as in the pear photo below). In both the blue and the yellow cases, white balancing is necessary to create a neutral image.
Here’s a too-yellow pear photo, which requires significant white balancing:
Note that, during the white balancing process, you’re technically adjusting the colors along two spectrums:
- The blue-yellow spectrum, also known as the color temperature
- The green-magenta spectrum, also known as the color tint
In general, day light only requires correction along the blue-yellow spectrum, but certain types of artificial lighting may produce a noticeable color tint, in which case you’ll need to correct for that, too.
Color temperature, explained
The bulk of white balancing in photography contains color temperature correction. You’re correcting for a cast produced by the color temperature of the light, which lies along the blue-yellow spectrum.
Photographers refer to different color temperatures using the Kelvin scale. Warmer color temperatures, such as those produced by a candle flame or a setting sun, have a low Kelvin value, such as 3000 K. Neutral color temperatures, such as for example midday sunlight, have a medium Kelvin value – around 5000 K. And cooler color temperatures, created by clouds or shade, have a high Kelvin value of 6000 K and beyond.
Cooler light has a high Kelvin value? Warmer light includes a low Kelvin value?
Yes, you read that right, and it can be confusing, particularly if you’ve never encountered along with temperature scale before. But you’ll get used to it with time (and it can help to think of the colour temperatures as simply the opposite of what you’d expect).
Why is white balance important?
Color casts cause a couple of problems in photography.
First, they prevent you from capturing accurate , true colors in a scene. If you want to photograph a beautiful red sunset exactly as it appears to your eye, you’ll have to neutralize any color casts; otherwise, your image won’t match the real-life conditions you experienced.
This can also be a concern if you’re doing product photography or real-estate photography, where the goal is to portray the subject as true to life as possible.
Second, color casts tend to look bad . They are able to mess with portrait skin tones, they can create muddy shadows and sickly highlights, and so they can create unwanted moods in your photos.
As I explain later in this specific article, you can use a color cast for creative effect – but it’s important that you try this carefully and deliberately , rather than as a failure to properly white balance a scene. Sound right?
The two white balancing methods
You can adjust the white balance of your images in two broad ways:
- In camera, before taking a shot
- Afterward, in post-processing
Both approaches can work, but there are a few important caveats to keep in mind:
In-camera white balancing
Most cameras allow you to adjust your white balance settings before ever taking a photo.
For instance, you can pick a white balance preset (such as Tungsten, Flash, Cloudy, etc . ), which allows your camera to roughly understand and compensate for the lighting conditions.
Some cameras also enable a custom white balance. Here, you simply dial in a Kelvin value (remember the color temperature scale I shared above? ). A top Kelvin value will balance out cooler light and the lowest Kelvin value will stabilize warmer light.
Your camera might even be capable of white balancing off a gray card . Put the gray card in front of your camera, select the right function in the menu, take a picture, and – voila! – your camera will create a precise color temperature profile of the scene.
But while these white balance options allow you to handle color casts in the field, they come with some drawbacks:
- Unless you’re in an enclosed environment, the light will likely change over the course of your shoot. You’ll need to periodically update your white balance preset or redo the gray card process as the sun goes behind clouds, because it sets, etc .
- White balance presets, while easy to use, are only approximate. They often times won’t produce a perfect result.
- If you’re shooting action from a distance, taking a gray card reading is impossible.
That’s why some photographers prefer a different method of white balancing:
White balancing while editing
White balancing in post-processing is pretty simple:
Just set your camera to its Auto White Balance function when out shooting.
Then, whenever you get back home, open your photos in your editing program of choice.
Most editors offer a similar process, which involves utilising the white balance eyedropper to identify a neutral tone and fine tuning via the Temperature and Tint sliders. (Below, I give a detail by detail process for
You can white balance each photo individually, or you can create a white balance adjustment for one (or a handful) of photos, then sync the adjustment throughout the entire set.
After-the-fact white balancing is nice, but like in-camera white balancing, there are a few points you need to keep in mind.
- You’ll need to set aside extra time in post-processing to do your white balancing. And while you can save time with batch processing and presets, if you’re capturing lots of images under different lighting conditions, you may prefer the relative ease of in-camera white balancing.
- Unless you take photos with a gray card in the frame, you may struggle to get a perfect white balance result with editing. In many cases, that’s fine – the color cast may be barely perceptible – but if you’re photographing products, your client may require literally perfect colors.
- For complete white balancing flexibility in editing, you have to shoot in
RAW . While JPEGs allow for some white balance adjustments, you’ll be limited an often-unacceptable amount – whereas RAW files enable you to completely set and reset the white balance.
So while post-processing and in-camera white balancing are both serviceable, you’ll ultimately need to select the option that works best for you .
How to white balance using presets
While white balance presets aren’t the most accurate way to color correct, they’re an easy way to get started (and if you’re simply capturing photos to share on social media, they might be all you require).
Simply pull up your in-camera white balance menu. You should see several presets, such as:
- Sunny, which works for mid-morning and mid-afternoon sun
- Shade, which works for scenarios with heavy shade (e. g., portraits under a tree)
- Cloudy, which works for outdoor scenes featuring overcast lighting
- Flash, which works for scenes lit by standard off-camera speedlights and pop-up flashes
- Incandescent, which works for indoor scenes lit by standard warm bulbs
- Fluorescent, which works for indoor scenes lit by fluorescent bulbs
Then find the preset that most closely matches the lighting conditions you’re experiencing and start taking photos! You will need to pay close attention to the light as you continue shooting; if it changes significantly, you ought to switch presets to reflect the new conditions.
How to white balance your photos in Lightroom
Lightroom color correction is a quick and painless process.
First, open an image in the Develop module, then find the WB section on the right-hand side:
Next, choose the Eyedropper icon:
Then click on part of your image that should look a neutral gray or white. (Don’t be afraid to click in a few different places, especially if you’re unsure what counts as “neutral. ”)
If you can’t find a neutral area to sample, or you don’t like the results, it is possible to always head over to the Temp and Tint sliders:
You probably won’t need to adjust the Tint slider much, but feel free to drag the Temp slider back and forth until you get a neutral image.
How to creatively use white balance for different effects
While it’s always important to start by color correcting your photos, you can sometimes enhance images by deliberately pushing the white balance in the wrong direction. This broadly speaking works best when applied in a post-processing program, not in camera (though it is possible to technically do it either way).
The idea here is simple:
By applying a too-cold white balance to your photos, you can create a somber, moody effect.
And by applying a too-warm white balance to your photos, you can create a welcoming, inviting, even nostalgic effect.
I don’t recommend you push the white balance too far – sooner or later, your photos may look unnatural – but some cool or warm color is often nice when added carefully.
Observe that you can also use an “incorrect” white balance to exaggerate the conditions of the scene. Adding cool hues will give images a shady or night effect, while adding warm hues will give images a sunrise or sunset effect. Again, make use of this technique with care. It’s simple to go overboard and end up with garish, unpleasant results.
White balance in photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this informative article, you’re ready to start adjusting the white balance in your photos – and you may even push the white balance for artistic results.
So day your camera. Practice working together with white balance. And make your images shine!