Today we’re going to be talking about white balance. White balance is what allows cameras to compensate for the various colors that are present in “white” light. Unless these colors are very intense, we don’t normally notice them. This is because our eyes are very good at adjusting to color variations. Cameras on the other hand are very bad at adjusting to these variations in light and generally need guidance to compensate.
Before I get into setting your white balance I’m going to talk a little about light color. Light color is made up of two components, temperature and tint. Light temperature is what makes a photo appear warm (yellow/orange) or cool (blue) and is measured in Kelvins. Kelvins are a unit of measurement for temperature much like Celsius or Fahrenheit. They are used for light color because if you heat up a perfect black body to a specific surface temperature in kelvins it will radiate light from a constant spectrum. Higher Kelvin values have a cooler temperature and lower kelvin values have a warmer temperature. Tint is a secondary characteristic of light color that ranges from green to magenta.
All of the images in this post were shot under normal household incandescent lights. The shots below have the incorrect white balance. The one on the left is what would be considered cool, and the one on the right would be considered warm.
The image below has been correctly white balanced. You can tell because the white paper near the bottom right of the camera looks white.
Setting your White Balance
You can usually quickly set your white balance by pressing the white balance button and spinning one of the selection dials. As usual, check your manual for specific instructions. Below I’ve outlined the options that are available on my camera. These are fairly common settings, so most if not all will be available on your cameras as well.
Auto, as you might expect, lets your camera set white balance automatically. As you can see in the image above it mostly does a good job. The biggest issue here is that since it re-samples white balance for each image, it can change from shot to shot. Auto white balance can also have issues if two or more different colored lights are in the same scene.
The incandescent setting is meant to match standard incandescent lights that are normally in homes or other domestic settings.
The Fluorescent mode is meant to be used when fluorescents are your primary light source. This mode can be tricky, many cameras have sub versions of this mode. These options include Sodium-Vapor lamps, Warm-white fluorescent, white-fluorescent, cool-white fluorescent, day-white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, and high temp mercury-vapor. Usually you can select these specific fluorescent options from the shooting menu in your camera, but check your manual for specific instructions.
This is a rather self explanatory option. it’s best for getting the correct colors from midday sun.
Flash is slightly cooler than normal sunlight so this will give you better color if you’re using your flash.
Light is cooler when the sky is cloudy as opposed to direct sunlight, so this mode is for those overcast days.
This mode works best when you’re in shade under a blue sky.
Choose Color Temp
This mode allows you to set white balance by choosing the kelvin value of the current light source on your own. The kelvin reading is usually selected the same way that additional fluorescent options are chosen. In this shot I kept the default 5000K setting.
Sometimes predicting the color of light can be impossible, especially when you have multiple light sources of varying colors. The preset mode allows you to deal with this by measuring the light that falls on a neutral surface like a gray or white card and use that reading for the scene you are shooting.
You can usually shoot your preset by changing your camera to the PRE white balance mode, then holding down the white balance button until PRE starts to flash. While it is flashing point your camera at your grey or white card under the same lighting conditions as your subject and press the shutter release. Check you manual for specific instructions.
The Power of RAW
As I mentioned in my first post, shooting in RAW mode has a number of advantages. One big one is that RAW files unlike JPEGs save a lot of color data. This makes it possible to change your white balance in post-processing. I normally use Photoshop for post-processing. I still have the standalone CS6 and not the currently offered subscription version. For any of you that are serious about photography, a subscription of $9.99 a month for Photoshop and Lightroom is not a bad deal. If you do not want to pay for Photoshop, Gimp is a great free alternative.
I normally like to leave my white balance set to auto, because it does a decent enough job and any photos I like enough to post will go through some basic post-processing anyways. I also tend to do a lot of shooting on photo walks where the lighting is different for almost every shot, unlike a standard photo shoot where you would be under similar lighting conditions for the entire shoot.
That’s a wrap for today. For any new readers, if you like this check out my other posts about learning photography. If you have questions that I haven’t covered yet, feel free to reach out and I’ll make sure to cover it in the future.