For beginner photographers, it’s often a mystery how we see colors one way in person, yet they look so different in the frame. Shooting landscapes, you probably noticed that the snow seems whiter than it looks in the photo, the sunset is brighter, and the skies have that glowing shade of pink that seems to be faded.
As it turns out, the art and craft of capturing color lies in understanding one question — how does white balance work? This post is a full guide on what white balance (WB) is, why it is crucial in photography, and how to adjust it on any camera.
- What Is White Balance?
- What is Color Temperature?
- How to Make the Wrong White Balance
- How to Fix Poor White Balance Settings
- Changing White Balance During Post-Processing
What Is White Balance?
Depending on whether you use film or digital cameras, the white balance is influenced by different factors. In the first case, it would be determined by the film you have. For DSLRs, WB changes as a user tweaks the white balance settings.
In a nutshell, the white balance is the way the camera perceives colors, which is different from a human eye. Before going through a white balance tutorial, a photographer needs to get a good command of color temperature. Depending on its value, camera manufacturers built-in the following white balance modes into the gear:
- Daylight white balance — the most common mode, used for daytime shoots outdoors.
- Cloudy — it will add warmer undertones to the picture to ensure the colors are vivid during a cloudy day.
- Shade — in pictures, shaded objects have a blue undertone. With the ‘Shade’ mode on, you will warm up the surroundings.
- Incandescent — used to cool down the tone under a source of warm light.
- Fluorescent — allows you to get warmer shots under cold fluorescent lighting.
- Custom — set white balance as a custom color temperature value in Kelvins.
To be proficient in managing white balance, make sure you are familiar with the concept of color temperature and know how to apply it during photoshoots.
What is Color Temperature?
The concept of color temperature is driven by the fact that every source produces a different beam of light. Thinking of a candle, you’ll imagine a reddish shade, whereas a fluorescent bulb will evoke the association with a blue glow.
To classify and manage the differences in light colors, scientists and artists created a color temperature scale. Measured in Kelvins, it assigns a numeric value to the most common sources of light.
Take a look at the most common go-to color temperature values in our manual. Try to memorize it to improve your white balance management skills:
- Candle flame — 1,800K
- Household lighting — 2,500-2,900K
- Sunrise/sunset — 2,000-3,000K
- Sunlight — 5,000-5,400K
- Clear sky — 5,500-6,500K
- Cloudy sky — 6,000-7,500K
- Heavy overcast — 8,000-10,000K
The lower the color temperature value is, the warmer the shade will be. Similarly, if the number of Kelvins increases, all the surroundings will have a bluer tint. Keep in mind that color temperature is higher outside — outdoor shots will, most of the time, have ‘colder’ tones than the indoor ones.
How to Make the Wrong White Balance
‘I always screw the white balance up’ is a common complaint of any photographer. However, very few can get to the root reason for the issue and understand what caused the imbalance in the frame.
Here are the most common reasons for the expectations vs. reality mismatch in managing the white balance in photography:
1. Not adjusting the white balance before every picture
The most apparent blunder photographers often make forgetting to readjust the WB throughout the shooting day. While there’s no set-in-stone rule as to how often a photographer should re-zero the white balance, the rule of thumb is to adjust the color temperature as the sun moves closer to the horizon.
Most beginners don’t know how to set the white balance. Until you are skilled enough to determine color temperature, use the Auto WB mode, and fix bleakness or excessive brightness in post.
2. Different types of fluorescent bulbs that don’t match the filter
Even if a photographer chooses the fluorescent mode, there’s no guarantee the Kelvin value will perfectly match the source of lighting. There are more than a few types of fluorescent bulbs — Warm White, Cool White, Daylight, and more.
For one, basic DSLRs don’t offer a variety of fluorescent white balance presets. Also, photographers have a limited way of knowing what type a given bulb falls into.
To find out the type of fluorescent lighting at your scene, pay attention to the Color Rendering Index Rating. This way, you will know which colors of the spectrum a bulb can reproduce better and worse.
3. Auto WB shortcomings
Although amateur photographers tend to rely heavily on auto white balance, it’s worth keeping in mind that a computer chip can’t always determine the color temperature precisely.
There are multiple ways for auto WB to hinder a promising picture:
- Neutralizing the colors a photographer wanted to capture — a shade or a colder tone.
- When filming a big homochromous object, Auto WB will mistake the object’s color for lighting and neutralize it — a common error in plant photography.
When the camera can’t determine the white balance on its own, try focusing on a white object to fix the issue. Some cameras have a preset feature — you will be able to use one of your pictures as a white balance reference point.
4. An intense shade cast by incandescent bulbs
Other than the fact that incandescent bulbs vary in types, there are modifications that don’t have a full spectrum of colors or cast a strong shadow. The good news is that some gear (think Nikon or Canon cameras) has an Incandescent or Tungsten white balance mode to balance out the shade issue when shooting indoors under a warmer light.
How to Fix Poor White Balance Settings
A color imbalance can get in the way of a well-composed shot, making it either too warm or too cold to look at. The good news, there are a lot of in-camera and post-production ways to fix white balance. Here are the go-to white balance tips for the most common photo editing tools:
- Choose the white balance mode from the drop-down list — there are Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Custom white balance, and Auto modes.
- Move the temperature slider to the right to add a colder shade to the image and to the left to warm the picture.
- Use the Tint slider to achieve the right balance of green.
- Use a ‘White Balance Selector’ tool.
- Use Curves to correct white balance. Go to Images->Adjustment->Curves to activate the tool.
- Set the whitest part of the frame as the White Point.
- Choose the Black Point.
- To find out how to change the white balance, move around the curve.
- Use the Tuning tab to adjust WB in Picasa.
- If you have a lot of white in the picture, use the Neutral Color Picker.
- Moving the Color Temperature slider to the left (to get a colder color) or to the right (a warmer tone) is the easiest and most universal way to adjust the white balance.
4. Premiere Pro
Fixing the white balance in a video has its challenges. While there are nuances and contradictions, adjusting WB in Premiere Pro is a straightforward process. Here are the tools you need:
- Use the Lumetri Color Panel if you want to know how to adjust the white balance of the video.
- Use Temperature and Tint options in the White Balance tab to fine-tune the color and the saturation of the image.
- Choose the White Balance tab while holding Ctrl to correct the color temperature in a specific area of the frame.
5. Affinity Photo
Affinity Photo has a range of WB adjustment features. The toolkit is not as robust as that of Illustrator, but it does an excellent job of fine-tuning pictures.
- Use the White Balance slider to change the color temperature. Dragging the cursor to the right makes the image warmer, moving it to the left will add colder overtones.
- The ‘Tint’ tab helps remove color casts in images taken using artificial lighting.
- The Picker helps calculate the white balance of the precise point of the image.
Changing White Balance During Post-Processing
It’s a common technique among photographers to adjust the color temperature purely by using editing software. However, if you want to follow the same path, take the time to check the pros and cons of post-processing WB adjustment.
- A wide range of editing tools. A camera sensor will not allow you to adjust the color temperature of the frame pixel by pixel. Software, on the other hand, allows for experimenting with different WB modes and Kelvin values, fine-tuning the tint of the picture, and retouching smaller elements without affecting the entire frame.
- An option to focus on other aspects of photography during the shoot. At times, photographers need to move fast to capture the right shot. If it’s not a staged pose, a cinematic moment passes you by while you were adjusting WB, there might be no way to recreate it. For dynamic shots, it’s better to leave color temperature adjustments for when there’s no rush.
- One-click white balance editing. Basic editing tools have a range of ready-to-deploy presets that instantly improve the quality of the frame.
- Having to invest in tools. Professional editing software is expensive and will not run on low-end hardware. The investment only makes sense if you’re committed to becoming a professional photographer.
- Quality loss. Unless you have a RAW-capturing camera, changing the color temperature while post-processing will result in losing the sharpness of the photo on the pixel level.
Ignoring white balance leads to the loss of brightness and artistic value in pictures. By managing to capture the picture the way your eyes saw it, you will be able to transmit the emotion and vibe of the shot on a new level.
Photographers are not natural in getting the hang of color temperature. Learning the contradictions of white balance takes time and experience.
If you want to speed up the process, use editing tools to tweak the white balance. With enough time and perseverance, you will be able to determine the right color temperature for the shot in the blink of an eye!