Edited by Jason Parnell-Brookes
January 15, 2020
What Is White Balance in Photography?
Digital cameras have less sophisticated tonal and color processing techniques than we do. In fact, we see a much wider color range (gamut) than the camera. So it falls upon the photographer to adjust the white balance on the camera in order to accurately render colors.
So what is white balance? Where do you place the color temperature on the white balance chart and what do we change for different light sources such as sunset, astrophotography and under tungsten or incandescent light? To get a good understanding, we’ll show you how to adjust the white balance for best results.
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What Is White Balance?
White balance is a system devised for eliminating unrealistic color casts in photographs. That is, a color adjustment in-camera, or in editing software, to display white subjects in the frame as white in the photo. This is especially important when shooting scenes with snow.
The amount of correction required depends on the color cast of the light source. These are usually either warm (red, yellow and orange) or cool, (blue, purple or green). Some examples of warm color temperatures are: candles, fires, and sunsets. Whereas cool color temperatures might be found at twilight, when it’s cloudy or in shade.
Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K) and on a white balance chart is shown as going from 1000-15000K. Daylight (sunlight) is considered neutrally balanced, containing neither a warm nor cool color cast and as such it sits in the middle of the chart at around 5000-5500K.
How to Adjust White Balance
Digital cameras have several preset white balance settings which do a great job and are helpful for a variety of shooting situations.
- Auto: This automatic mode automatically adjusts depending on what’s in the frame. If the camera can see lots of warm, yellow tones, it’ll likely change the white balance to cool them down. Great if you’re shooting under light bulbs and want realistic colors, not so great if you want a roaring red sunset.
- Tungsten: Use this preset when shooting inside under standard light bulbs. The bulbs give off a naturally warm color and although they differ slightly between brands and bulb sizes, this will get you 90% of the way to an accurate white balance.
- Fluorescent: Perfect for strip lights that contain more cool tones. The color cast is generally less harsh than tungsten light bulbs and is therefore easier to manage.
- Daylight/sunny/sunshine: Sunlight sits right in the middle at around 5000-5500K and is considered to be pure white, containing no color cast at all. Use this when shooting subjects outside in direct sunlight.
- Cloudy/Shade: Under heavy cloud, or in shade when outside, the light turns slightly more blue and as such requires a different white balance than if shooting in direct sunlight. Be sure to change this, or use the auto white balance preset if moving between shaded and directly-lit areas.
- Flash: Flash light color temperature changes depending on the brand of flash gun, but generally it’s ever-so-slightly warmer than daylight. Use this when shooting with flash guns/studio strobes as the main light source.
It’s simple to get perfect custom white balance every time. Just follow these simple steps.
- Take a grey card out with you and use it to calculate the color temperature.
- Hold the grey card in front of or next to your subject. Good grey cards typically have white and black and multiple sides to account for color temperature differences from direct light and shadows.
- Choose the custom white balance setting (sometimes abbreviated to ‘K’) and adjust the white balance until the greys, whites and blacks look realistic.
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How to Fix White Balance in Software
Sometimes no matter how much you try, you’ll occasionally have to resign to fixing the white balance in post-production software later. Ensure you’re shooting in RAW format though, as color balance of JPEG and TIFF image files cannot be changed after shooting. At least, not easily! Here’s how to do it.
- Take images in RAW format.
- Load them into your editing software. In Adobe Photoshop this will open a separate RAW handling window called Adobe Camera RAW.
- Pick a spot in the photograph that you’d expect to have naturally pure white, or pure grey. For example, the underside of a cloud or a white wedding dress.
- Use the eye-dropper tool from the white balance menu to select the neutral white/grey.
- Fine-tune the color balance if it’s not perfect. There are normally two sliders: temperature and tint. Temperature sliders control large temperature changes between blue and yellow. Whereas, Tint handles smaller increments leaning between green and magenta.
- Ensure the images are taken in RAW format. Color balance of JPEG and TIFF image files cannot be changed after shooting.
Now, you can go ahead and try some white balance photography correction on your own. We have emphasized the need for a good picture editor tool for a post-production white balancing effect; Movavi Photo Editor is a great tool to help you work this out.
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