White Balance Tutorial | Introduction and Basic Explanation

October 2012 4:01 PM 4 Comments

The concept of white balance (WB) in photography can be difficult to understand at first, but it is an important part of photography that helps you take better photos with more accurate colors.

Our eyes are remarkable because they can adapt to changing light conditions and allow us to determine neutral colors and white color fairly quickly and without conscious effort. Our cameras, however, are not as sophisticated, and although there is an auto mode for white balance adjustment (Auto WB), there are a good number of situations where you want to use one of the WB presets or dial it in yourself.

The idea with correcting for white balance is to remove false color casts, where the wrong white balance may result in an orange, blue, or even green color cast.

White Balance and Color Temperature

Color temperature, measured in Kelvins (K), describes the light’s color radiation emitted from an ideal “blackbody” radiator at a specific surface temperature. So if you imagine the light filament of a light bulb, the color temperature is essentially the temperature of that filament. If that doesn’t make sense to you then don’t worry about it. For photographers, the important thing is to understand how it works rather than the physics behind the concept.

[Rewind: Understanding White Balance & Color Temperatures in 8 Steps]
Color Temperature Light Source
1700-2000K Candlelight
2500-3500K Tungsten Bulb
3000-4000K Sunrise/Sunset
4000-5000K Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5600K Electronic Flash
5500-6500K Daylight (Clear Sky)
6500-8000K Daylight (Light to Medium Overcast)
9000-10000K Shade or Heavy Overcast Daylight

Different lighting conditions exhibit different color temperature, and generally a lower color temperature below 5,000K shifts towards yellow, while a higher color temperature over 5,000K shifts the light towards blue. This yellow to blue shift is what is known as color temperature.

Some artificial lighting may introduce a hue shift. The typical fluorescent light actually has a green hue shift. Our eyes do a great job of correcting this shift automatically, but for your camera, you do have to tell it that you are shooting in fluorescent lighting and that your camera needs to add some magenta to correct this greenish cast. This green to magenta shift is referred to as “tint” in Lightroom and Camera Raw.

You may notice that if you are out in the middle of the day and you change your WB to tungsten, all of a sudden the photo turns bluish. At first, this may seem confusing, because we just learned that tungsten emits a very warm color. What is actually happening is that you are telling your camera that you are shooting in an area lit by incandescent tungsten light and that your camera needs to cool down the color temperature.

So in effect, your White Balance settings on your camera is counter-balancing the color temperature, not replicating the actual color temperature. Conversely, if you are shooting in the shade, which is a very relatively bluish color temperature, your camera will try to balance it out by warming the color.

The goal of any white balance setting is to render colors like black, white, and grey, as neutral colors without any warming shift, cooling shift, or hue shift.

The photo below was shot in overcast on the beach. While the Cloudy WB preset depicts the color correctly, using Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Daylight WB settings create the wrong color cast.

White-Balance-Comparison

Note that the sun’s color temperature is different throughout the day. The color is warmer during sunrise and sunset, and is cooler during midday.

White Balance Preset Settings

White-Balance-Settings

Auto – In this mode, your camera will calculate what is considered the correct color temperature based on what it sees.

Daylight – Use this mode when you are shooting in under the midday sun during a clear sunny day.

Cloudy – A cloudy day produces a slightly cooler color than typical sunlight, so the Cloudy WB warms up the tone. This WB is also a good way to add a bit of warmth to your image or to emulate a late afternoon sun.

Shade – Just like a cloudy day, a shady area cools the colors in the environment, so the Shade WB settings will add back the warmth

Tungsten – Use this mode when your primary lighting source is your standard incandescent light bulb. This light source is pretty warm, so the WB setting will cool down your colors.

Fluorescent – When you are shooting under fluorescent lighting, use this WB to warm up the color slightly and correct the greenish hue caused by this type of lighting. Because nowadays there are several variations of fluorescent lights, including a daylight-adjusted version, some cameras have several fluorescent WB options to compensate for those variations.

Flash – When you are using a speedlight to fill in area, use this mode to warm up the flash a bit. Just remember to not use this mode for large strobes because they are usually daylight balanced already.

Manual White Balance

You can also manually dial in your white balance. This is helpful when you are faced with challenging lighting conditions or when you want more control in your white balance.
Kelvin – In this setting, you are simply entering the color temperature in Kelvins (ie. 4500 K). Some cameras also let you fine tune your setting by adjusting the yellow-to-blue axis and green-to-magenta axis.

Custom – In Custom WB, you can use a neutral color as a reference for the camera. Each camera has a different way to operate the custom white balance metering procedure, so be sure to read your manual. There are two ways you can use a neutral color reference for custom white balancing. The first is to shoot it in the scene itself. If it is possible, you can use a pre-made gray card that is readily available in camera stores. I like using the X-Rite Color Checker Passport’s gray card as reference. In a pinch, you can also take a photo of an object that has a large solid neutral color, like a grey wall or a white dinner plate. Be sure to fill up as much of the camera frame with the neutral color reference.

Custom-WB

Another way to use Custom WB is use a shoot-through WB cap like the BRNO Balens or Expodisc. The idea with both is that you make all the light coming to the cap into neutral grey. If there is a color cast from improper WB, the camera will simply adjust it to make that snapshot neutral grey. I love using the Balens because it’s also a lens cap and I can take a quick Custom WB before taking off the cap.

RAW File and White Balance

One last suggestion when it comes to dialing in your white balance is to shoot in RAW. The great thing about shooting in RAW is that you can change the color temperature in exact Kelvin in Lightroom or other post-processing software. You can also use take the photo of a grey card or another large patch of neutral color and use an white balance eye dropper tool to tell the software that that color is neutral. When you shoot in RAW, you have a lot more flexibility in fine-tuning your images’ white balance in post.

But of course, whenever it is possible, it is usually better to try to dial in your white balance in camera. By using one of the presets or the two manual white balance options, you can get more accurate colors and minimize unrealistic color shifts from your images.

About

Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at www.fotosiamo.com and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    This was very helpful to me. Thank you!

  2. Micah Proffer

    “…generally a lower color temperature below 5,000K shifts towards yellow, while a higher color temperature over 5,000K shifts the light towards blue”

    You typed that backwards, might want to correct that. below 5,000K shifts toward blue and vice versa. :]

  3. Micah Proffer

    Nevermind scratch that last comment, lol

  4. Kurk Rouse

    I either use auto white balance or a the grey card in the colour checker passport. I’ve yet to play around with white balance creatively in terms of portraits. It’s a very thin line between making a photo look great or totally ruining it with white balance, lucky for me i always shoot in raw.

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