Finding the Right Balance White Balance in Photography

Mike Selander

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This article was originally published in Issue 8 of EuroBerge and has been converted into a post on the site for your enjoyment. It was originally published on July 15th, 2010.

The human eye  is a remarkable tool. It can interpret the difference between 5 stops of light at once, focus on an item as small as several centimeters away, and adjust for any discoloration from light sources that may pop up. Because our eyes compensate so well, we tend to overlook the small changes in the color of light as we go about taking photographs that end up making a huge difference in the end result of our photos. Photographers refer to these adjustments and the overall concept of the color of light as “white balance”. This small yet crucial detail has the potential to make or break the best of photos. White balance is the warmth or coolness of white light as measured in the temperature scale of Kelvin (K). This temperature measurement changes often and needs adjusting when entering into a different light situation. For example, when switching from daylight, to shade, there’s approximately 2000 Kelvin worth of difference. While your eye will automatically adjust for this difference when in person, the camera cannot without a change in the settings. This color contrast may not sound like much, but it will make a notable difference in your end images.

Within the industry, there are approximate temperature values of various types of light. For example, candlelight offers a very warm, and yellow undertone. Tungsten also put off a warm and orange cast while fluorescent lighting put off a warm, green tint. As you approach shade and overcast conditions, the light offers a much cooler blue, and sometimes even purple color cast. To give you an idea of the various temperatures of light in terms of Kelvin, the chart on the following page lays it all out.

To see this difference, go find a white object in your house as a moveable prop. Take several photos of the object outside in direct sunlight andchange the white balance setting on your camera between the camera’s programmed situational settings as you shoot. After shooting, review and observe the color difference in the photos. As in the example photos on the following page, there will be a large difference in the color cast of the photo. Because of the compensation of your settings, you should notice that the lower range settings, incandescent and fluorescent for example, will leave your photo with a particularly cool, bluish tint. As you get into the upper ranges such as your shade or cloudy settings, you’ll see a warmth to the photos to compensate for the cool shade those sit uations offer. So, that’s white balance in a nutshell. Now, how do we fix it?

In the past, photographers would have to use a specially designed film or gel filters to compensate for these differences. Luckily, we have an array of methods and technology at our finger tips these days. The first, and much preferred method is to pay attention to

the light and compensate in-camera using your white-balance settings. You can set this setting to automatic, situational settings, custom, and even pre-set settings with some cameras.

The easiest is the automatic setting; however, using it comes at a cost. While it provides the ease of setting and forgetting, cameras miss the mark and later correction is required. The situational settings are extremely useful and still often offer the set-and-forget ease. These are represented by certain icons on your camera’s setting screen and often include incandescent, fluorescent, daylight, cloudy, shade, flash, etc. These settings are extremely helpful if you know that you will be shooting in a certain light environment. If you need to slightly adjust the temperature from there, switch to your full-manual setting. This allows you to minutely control the temperature that the camera is compensating for degree-by-degree. Most cameras will also have the option of using a pre-set white balance. To use this setting, fill the frame with any white object directly under the light you will be shooting in and take a photograph. Using this test shot, the camera will set the white balance correction to the perfect temperature to compensate for the light shade.

In post-production, you can also easily correct white balance using RAW converter or your hue/saturation tools. Fixing white balance is infinitely easier if you shoot RAW format due to the mass amounts of extra data and information included in the file. Using a RAW converter, fixing the problem is as easy as moving the color cast slider to the desired temperature correction. If you shoot in JPEG however, you can also fix white balance using the hue/saturation tool. If there is an identifiable color cast to your photos, you can de-saturate that color and it will dramatically help remove the shade if used conservatively.

Fixing the white balance in your photos is easy if you understand the concept of what color contrast each situation provides you with. The more time you spend looking at and fixing color cast, the easier it will get and the better you will be able to recognize and fix white balance issues. I challenge you to spend some time purposefully messing up and fixing white balance issues and color cast to get that experience. With very little time invested, you can increase the quality of your photographs by leaps and bounds with white balance.