white balance

White Balance Explained – A Beginner’s Guide

When switching your camera mode to Manual, you’re able to control every aspect of the picture-taking process. Most only focus on the primary settings, such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. However, there are several lesser known options that are also worth tweaking! One of which is White Balance, which will impact how the colors in your photographs turn out. 

What is White Balance? 

To explain what white balance is, we must first define the term Color Temperature. Color Temperature is defined as the characteristic of visible light. What this means is that color temperature determines if colors are cold, warm, or neutral depending on the amount of light present. 

Color temperature is measured in Kelvins (K). Larger Kelvin numbers make colors more blue and lower Kelvin numbers make colors more yellow. Each light source has a different color temperature. 

Digital and mirrorless cameras use their sensors to measure the light emitting from the colors red, green, and blue (RGB). Cameras tend to apply the same color temperature across the entire image, which push colors away from their natural state and into inaccurate colors. 

In layman terms, white balance adjusts colors so that they look more natural, or accurate to the scene. White balance gets rid of something known as a Color Cast. Color Casts are visible tints in an image. For example, a blue color cast makes every color look very cold and blue-ish. In order to reduce color cast, white balance adjusts the temperature to bring colors back to their natural state. 

For many, the easiest way to wrap your head around how white balance works is as such: every color has some white in it. Depending on the type of white you mix in, the color will change. 

For example, if you use a bright stark white, the color will be pretty rich and true. If your white is more of an off-white, like, a blue-ish white- the color will be different and cold. Keep in mind that this isn’t really how white balance in a camera works, but it’s a good way to mentally process it and simplify the understanding. 

What are the Different Types of White Balance? 

Your camera will have some white balance options preset. These are the most common white balance presets that are found universally among camera brands: 

Auto White Balance

This is when the camera attempts to select the proper white balance based on what its internal sensor is reading. Although this does work a lot of the time, it will not be accurate all the time as cameras are not intelligent, they rely on an internal program. 

Daylight/Sunny

This is intended for bright days and adds a bit of a warmer effect on your photographs. 

Cloudy/Overcast

Clouds act as a diffuser over the sun and can cast images to be a bit on the blue side. This preset counteracts the blue by warming images up a bit. 

Shade

Shade causes colors to look even more blue than clouds- so this setting will add even more warmth!

Flash

This white balance is intended for artificial light, it combats any color casts that may arise out of using flashes, strobes, and speedlites. 

Fluorescent

Probably the least liked type of lighting for photographers, fluorescent lights turn your subject green or blue-ish and very sickly colors. This white balance brings back a natural look to your images. 

Tungsten/Incandescent

These lights are fairly common in indoor settings. These lights are very warm, so the white balance setting will counteract by cooling the colors down. 

What About Custom White Balance? 

If none of the presets are working for your present situation, you can always make a custom white balance! This requires a bit more effort than manually changing other settings in a camera. This is because when making a custom white balance, you need a frame of reference. 

First, find something that you would consider pure white. This can be anything from a white square, a piece of paper, or an actual object. Some photographers actually buy white balance cards (a set of cards that feature white and various shades of gray) for this exact reason. 

Then, click on your custom white balance option (this name may change between camera brands). Next, aim your camera at this white reference point. Press the shutter button like you would take a picture. The camera will scan the color temperature of the light that hits the sensor and store this information, adjusting the white balance based on the item you used for reference. 

How Does White Balance Affect Your Editing? 

White balance’s biggest application is saving you time and energy in the editing room. White balance’s core purpose is to ensure that colors are accurate- having the proper white balance applied to your images will reduce the need to adjust the white balance in post processing. 

Although programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom have batch processing available (batch processing is when you apply the same edit to a multitude of image automatically), you may find that the same adjustments may not work for every image. Therefore, you’ll still have to manually sit there and check each photograph (counteracting the purpose of batch processing). 

Another problem is that a severely improper white balance may make recovering the colors close to impossible. The damage may be irreversible! 

What White Balance Should You Use and When? 

What white balance you use depends on the lighting at your photo shoot. 

For certain lighting situations, such as fluorescents, you already know that you need to change to this preset. 

For those more complicated, it’s a good idea to take a photograph with your camera and then look at it. Based on what you see, you can determine if your white balance needs adjustment or if it is just right! 

For lighting situations that feature different kinds of light, such as a nightscape, prioritize what part of the image you want colored in what way. Do you want the main lighting to be more blue? More yellow? Warmer? Colder? Adjust based on your aesthetic.

Conclusion

The goal as a photographer is to get the image to look as close to finished as possible directly in the camera so that you don’t need to hassle yourself with excessive editing. Understanding white balance helps reduce your editing time because your colors will be accurate!