The Basics of White Balance

January 13, 2017

The Basics of White Balance

White balance is a subject that can confuse a lot of beginning photographers. And I think that's because it's easy to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty, technical details of this particular subject. I'm sure you've heard people talk about color balance in terms of color temperature in Kelvin. And that all sounds pretty complex.

But understanding white balance doesn't have to include understanding Kelvin temperature and black body radiation. It really doesn't have to be that complicated at all. In fact, at its heart, white balance is actually a pretty simple concept.

Some Background

The idea behind white balance comes from the fact that different light sources give off different colors of light. This is called color temperature.

A candle gives off red light; household tungsten (incandescent) bulbs produce orange light; the sun at sunrise and sunset gives off orangish-yellow light; fluorescent lights can give off light that's almost green; the midday sun produces light that has a hint of blue in it; the sun on an overcast day produces a light that's really blue.

On top of that, keep in mind that white objects take on the color of the light around them. That means that a white piece of paper looks orangey in candlelight and bluish outside on an overcast day.

Now you may have never actually noticed these different colors. That's because the human brain and eye combine to make adjustments for the different colors of light. We see white as white, regardless of the color of the light hitting it.

But cameras can't do that on their own. A camera records light just as it is. That means that a scene can look too orange or too blue in a photograph even if it looks fine to our eyes. That's why you may have noticed that when you take photos inside, they sometimes turn out looking orange.

The Basics of White Balance

So Then What is White Balance?

White balance is the setting in your camera that tells it how to interpret and adjust the color of the incoming light. It really is that simple. White Balance is just an adjustment to make the light in a scene look the way you want it to.

When the white balance is set to match the incoming light, the colors in the scene will appear in your images as they appear to you visually. But if the white balance is set to a different color temperature than the lighting in the scene, your images can show an orange or blue color cast.

That said, when it comes to white balance, there isn't necessarily a right or wrong setting. It's a matter of preference. You may want to set the white balance to a setting that doesn't match your scene lighting for creative purposes or to give your images a warm or cool tone. It's all up to you.

Setting Your Camera's White Balance

All modern digital cameras allow you to adjust the white balance setting. You will need to check your camera's manual for the specifics of how this is done on your model.

In general, though, the white balance adjustments can be accessed either through a button on the body of the camera….

The Basics of White Balance

…. or through the camera's menu system.

The Basics of White Balance

Some cameras allow you to adjust white balance both ways, with a button on the camera exterior and through the camera's menu.

Once you've accessed the controls, you'll be presented with a number of choices for the white balance setting.

The Basics of White Balance

Here you can either choose a setting that seems to match the lighting in your scene or not. Play around and see what looks good to you. Keep in mind that, generally speaking, the outdoor options–Day;right, Cloudy and Shade–tend to make your image warmer and more orange. The indoor settings such as Incandescent and Tungsten make your images cooler by adding blue.

My Approach to White Balance

I tend to take a fairly casual approach to white balance because I shoot in raw and that gives me the ability to adjust WB after the fact, in post production, using Lightroom or Photoshop's Camera Raw filter.

For that reason, I only really use a few of the settings:

  • I find myself leaving my camera on AUTO (also called AWB) a fair amount of the time because I find that it works okay in a variety of situations. And, by the way, most cameras will automatically switch the white balance setting to flash when the flash is on.
  • If I'm shooting in open sunlight, I prefer the Cloudy WB setting to the Daylight setting because I like a little warmth in my photos and I find that the Daylight setting makes things a bit too blue.
  • I use the Shade setting when I'm shooting in shade, when it's partly cloudy or when my subject is backlit.
  • And when things need to be perfect, I use a custom white balance settings using a gray card for reference. The video below, by Phil Steele of Steeletraining shows us how this is done.

That's it. That's all there is to white balance. Not so complicated after all, is it?

For some additional information on white balance, this video from Mike Browne is really helpful.

For Further Reading…

What is White Balance?

Introduction to White Balance

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