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Photography Basics

What is White Balance | The Ultimate Guide To Creative Use of White Balance

By Matthew Saville on November 13th 2018

After the exposure triangle, (Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO) a photographer’s choice of White Balance is the fourth most important camera setting that must be decided. White Balance significantly influences the look of any image, by setting a “neutral” (or, white) point from which all colors are determined.

For example, if a photo is captured outdoors in daylight and the camera’s White Balance (WB) is set to daylight, a plain image of a grey card would, in fact, look grey.

Simple, right? Just match your camera’s WB setting to the WB of the most dominant light source in the scene, and all colors in that scene will be accurately (or “correctly”) captured!

 

Of course, the beauty of photography is often in the creative interpretation of a scene. Also, unfortunately, if you don’t understand how WB works you may frequently be frustrated when colors just don’t look the way you want them to.

So, what is “warm”, or “cool”, and how do you know which WB setting to use for the right effect? Read on to find out!

This article is intended to be the ultimate guide to understanding White Balance, (WB) and comes from our full-length course Photography 101. However, keep in mind that this guide, like all of the education on SLR Lounge, is not designed to be a technical manual, but rather a field reference tool. We create real-world field guides designed to get you out and shooting as quickly as possible!

White Balance Made Simple

Every type of light has a color.  In the example below, you can see all the different types of light and where they fall on the White Balance color scale. From “warm” to “cool”, all types of light fall somewhere on this scale.

The warmer, reddish colors include indoor lights such as tungsten lamps, but also things such as fire, or even a “warm” sunrise/sunset. (That’s why they call it “golden hour”!)

To capture an image with neutral colors in such scenes, either set one of the corresponding WB presets for Tungsten or Fluorescent, …or set Kelvin WB to 3000-4000K.

 

When light is white or bluish, it’s considered “cool”. Daylight, shade, and strobe flash are all quite similar and “white”, while really “blue” colors can be found in a blue sky itself, and at dawn/dusk, or before sunrise or after sunset. (Indeed, photographers know of this as “blue hour”!)

To capture an image with neutral colors in such scenes, either set one of the corresponding WB presets for overcast or shade, …or set Kelvin WB to 6000-8000K.

What Is Correct White Balance

As you have hopefully already thought to yourself, in photography there is always room to bend the rules when it comes to the “correct” way to do something. Creatively speaking, there is no “perfect” way to set your White Balance. Keep this in mind as we continue!

Having said that, there is indeed such a thing as ACCURATE White Balance. Colors that appear to correctly represent what the human eye thinks it is seeing. In the above animation, you can see it very clearly: the “warm” image appears overly warm, the skin tones appear unnatural and the whole image has an orange-yellow color. Meanwhile, the correct, more neutral image shows some blue colors in the background, and other neutral (relatively grey/white) color temperatures throughout the rest of the image, …yet the skin tones of the dancers do still appear to have a warm color. Thus, the bluer image could be considered “perfect”.

…But, creatively speaking? It’s totally up to you, the artist. And, as we mention in this Photography 101 workshop video, it’s probably best to find your own middle ground somewhere in between these two extremes… Personally? I like to go to “neutral”, and then warm up the scene by just 200-400 Kelvin on the WB temperature slider in Lightroom. Your personal preference and style may vary!

Sony RX10 mk2 | “Neutral” White Balance, ~5000K
Shadowy areas appear blue, sunset-lit areas appear orange

In short- on the one hand, yes there is such a thing as “correct” White Balance, and yet, on the other hand, things are subjective from a creative standpoint.

Should You Use Auto White Balance?

One of the most common questions that beginner (and even intermediate, or aspiring pro) photographers ask is, “should I use Auto WB, or manual/custom?”

Many photographers will argue that if you’re shooting still photos in raw format, your WB does not matter at all because it’s one of the few settings that is entirely non-destructive and can be readjusted in post-production.

However, practically speaking, each adjustment or correction that you have to make in post-production is another few seconds out of your life! So, if you constantly find yourself having to “fix” your WB, and if it’s taking up more than a few seconds here and there, it would be very smart to master your WB setting and try to get it as close to perfect every time.

Also, keep in mind that any time you switch from raw format to either video or JPG, your White Balance is no longer non-destructive, it becomes a permanent setting that you’ll have a terrible time correcting if you don’t get it right in-camera.

So, yes AWB isn’t always a bad idea, however, it’s always smarter to at least have a mastery of every manual setting on your camera, even if you only use it part of the time.

Kelvin White Balance | The Ultimate Manual White Balance Control

Yes, cameras have preset White Balance settings you can use. The user-friendly ones are usually Sunny, Cloudy, Shade, Flash, …and then those light bulb icons that you can never seem to remember which is which! Is it really worth your while to constantly switch between all those different WB settings? Or, should you get super-accurate and get one of those WB tools for custom measurement.

In our opinion, the correct answer is almost always, none of the above! The best way to achieve the right color in almost every situation is actually the WB setting that may seem the most intimidating and yet is actually the most simple: Kelvin White Balance.

Yes, it’s a big scary number at first glance, but don’t worry! For now, the easiest way to learn Kelvin WB is to just dive in and try it.

If you have a DSLR, turn on its Live View function, and if you have a mirrorless camera, you’ll be able to see this in either the electronic viewfinder or the rear LCD:

Set your camera to Kelvin WB, and find which button, command dial, or sub-command dial allows you to dial the number itself up and down. You’ll immediately see your image get warmer or cooler, depending on which direction you dial the numbers.

Take your camera inside and outside, and practice dialing the Kelvin up and down until the image looks right. (of course, if you want to cheat, you can check the chart we’ve provided!) In no time at all, you’ll start to remember which numbers correspond to which shooting conditions. A lot if indoor light is somewhere around 3000-4000K. Daylight is around 5000-6000K. Deep shade, or after-sunset light, is 7000K+. In no time at all, this will become second nature!

The beauty of it, of course, is that you never have to switch between actual WB settings; you’re always just thinking in terms of “warmer” or “cooler”.

Plus, as we’ll get into next, at any time you can switch from “correct” WB, and start getting totally creative! This is where Kelvin WB is by far the fastest, most versatile way to set your WB.

Creative Use Of White Balance

As we already mentioned when discussing “correct” white balance, (and similar to overexposure and underexposure, which create high key and low key images, respectively) …White Balance can be adjusted in a creative direction to intentionally cause either a warm or cool effect.

“Warm” and “Cool” imagery can make for some of the most beautiful, emotionally powerful photography! As you might imagine, though, certain scenes lend themselves better to warmth, while other scenes lend themselves to a cooler, cold tone. So, let’s look at a few examples!

Creative Warm White Balance

Warm sunlit portraits are one of the sure-fire opportunities for intentionally leaving all the tones in an image a very warm hue. Why? Because the scene begs it, of course! When you think of warm, “golden hour” light, you simply don’t usually want to see perfectly neutral, “correct” tones. You want to see warmth!

For the best results, leave your camera in daylight WB, or Cloudy/Shade for even more warmth. Or, of course, 5000-7000 Kelvin WB.

In low light conditions, the decision to go warm or cool can absolutely be much more subjective. It really depends on the mood you are going for as an artist, and the context of the scene. As you can see above, a warm night image has a very moody, romantic, vibe to it.

Creative Cool White Balance

Oppositely, cool tones can be just as beautiful, as long as you set the scene to match it!

In the above image, since stars are visible in the night sky, a cooler image seems to lend itself more to the moment, and a more elegant pose works in portraiture.

For the best results, set your camera to fluorescent WB, or, better yet, 3000-3000 Kelvin WB.

 

Of course, landscape imagery can also look beautiful with an intentional color cast, too. In the above image of a solar eclipse, the sky and shadowy earth are left a very blue hue, because it represents the mood of the scene very well.

Mixed White Balance | Warm and Cool In One Image

Finally, what about creatively using BOTH cool and warm colors, in a single image? Of course, this can be an amazing creative tool for anyone who has mastered the art of white balance and color temperature.

So, let’s use what we’ve learned about white balance to determine how to create an image such as the one above.

First, to create the cool, blue tones in the natural surroundings, (in this case the water) we would set a relatively neutral or slightly low Kelvin white balance, (3500-4500 Kelvin) …or something like the Fluorescent preset WB.

The key here is to make sure you’re shooting in conditions where the natural light is “blue”, such as shade, or at twilight. (6000-10,000 Kelvin) This is what makes the ambient light look extra blue in the image.

Next, add your own light to the scene, either using flash or a flashlight (torch), which is intentionally “gelled” (has a warm filter on the light) to be a much warmer color temperature. (Or, use a light source made specifically for video etc, which has a color temperature knob that you can simply dial down to ~3000 K)

What you wind up with is an image that has a white balance setting of about 4000 Kelvin, and yet ambient light which is 5000-6000K, and added light which is ~3000K. It’s that easy! Give it a try, and share your images with us on our Critique Page, or in our Facebook Group.

Additional Technical Insight About White Balance

Temperature Versus Tint

White balance is more than just one single, simple setting, unfortunately. Color itself is not merely a single 1-dimensional slider, from “warm” to “cool”. This one scale of “warm-to-cool” is known as TEMPERATURE, (hence the reference to Kelvin, even though the degrees don’t actually correspond to real heat; more on that soon) …while the second scale, known as TINT, controls the 2nd dimension on the color scale- that is, a green-to-magenta adjustment. You can see what this fine-tuning adjustment looks like on Canon in the image above, and on Nikon in the image below.

Just remember, the next time you find yourself shooting in difficult lighting and your image looks too pink or too green, you’re not going to be able to fix it by merely dialing your Kelvin temperature, you’re going to have to correct it using the tint adjustment of your WB fine-tuning.

Is Kelvin White Balance Related To Kelvin Temperature?

As we just hinted at, the actual temperature scale (as in, Celsius, Fahrenheit, etc.) of Kelvin is vastly different from the Kelvin white balance scale. In real Kelvin temperature, the coldest, known as “absolute zero”, is (a hypothetical) zero kelvin. This is the point at which physical matter itself is so totally frozen, that even atoms themselves stop moving! That’s really cold.

A more reasonable level of “cold”, or freezing, (the point at which water melts or freezes) is a mere 273 Kelvin, also known as 0 degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water boils at 373 Kelvin, or 100 Celsius, or 212 Fahrenheit.

So, when you’re thinking about your camera’s white balance, don’t think about heat itself.

Why Do The Kelvin Temperature Numbers Seem Backwards?

One of the most confusing things about using manual, Kelvin WB is the fact that the numbers go from low to high, and yet the corresponding color scale goes from “warm” (red, orange, yellow) to “cool”. (blue-ish)

Why do we call it a “warm” color, if the Kelvin temperature is lower?

…Just remember this one memory trick- blue flame is the hottest!

Just think of the reddish heat of a candle, and the bluish heat of a welding torch, and what temperatures they actually correspond to. The heat of a candle or other reddish flame is relatively low, while the white-hot flame of a welding torch is extremely high.

Or, for you astronomy photographers out there- of a red giant and a blue dwarf star, …which is hotter and which is cooler? You guessed it! A red giant star is “colder” than a blue (or white) dwarf star.

Of course, this practical knowledge is almost entirely trivial when it comes to photography. Because whenever anyone says “you should warm up this image”, or “you should cool off your white balance”, they are ALWAYS speaking in terms of making your image redder (warmer) or bluer (colder).

So, even though you’re now smart enough to know better, (you’re welcome!) …don’t worry about it. Just memorize which direction on the Kelvin WB scale has which effect on your images, and go take some pictures!

Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR. “Neutral” WB, ~5000K
“Blue Hour”, 
~30 mins after sunset when ambient light is 7000-8000K
Note: Car headlights are 3000-4000K; car brake lights are below 2500K!

Raw, JPG, and Video White Balance

Just to reiterate, White Balance is only a non-destructive camera setting if you’re shooting with your camera set to RAW. If you’re shooting video, or if you’re shooting JPG, then your white balance is “baked” into all your imagery, and is much more difficult to correct in post-production.

For this reason, and also simply for the purpose of making your post-production workflow go just a little bit quicker even when you’re shooting raw, it’s best to try and always nail (correctly or creatively) your white balance, period.

Summary

At this point, you should be able to find your way to “perfect” color white balance, whether you rely on AWB, or a specific preset, or direct Kelvin WB. Of course, what is “perfect” is up to you, creatively, so feel free to experiment and see where “warm” and “cool” imagery can take you!

Practice, experiment with new techniques, and then share your photos with our community!  SLR Lounge’s  Critique Page and Facebook Group are both excellent places to share the latest creative imagery you’ve made.

Written by Pye Jirsa and Matthew Saville

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

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