Anyone who has a camera knows that your images don’t always turn out like you thought they would. Have you ever had a photo with a yellow, blue or orange color cast that just didn’t look right? The reason it has that awful color cast is because of the white balance.
We’ve talked before about how a camera sees the world differently than our eyes. White balance is all about the color temperature of light. Different light sources produce different temperatures of lighting. Take the sun for example. In the early morning and and the late evening the sun produces a much more golden orange light than it does in the middle of the day. Similarly, fluorescent light bulbs produce a bluish color and tungsten lights produce a very yellowish color. Depending on the color temperature of the light, a photo can turn out very different than what you see with your eyes.
The side-by-side images above has a troublesome mixture of lighting. The lighting in the back room is much cooler than the light in the main room. When I set the white balance for the front room, the staircase became exceptionally blue. On the right, I increased the white balance (color temperature) for the stairway. This caused the much warmer light in the front room to turn a yellow-orange color.
Our eyes are constantly adjusting to the changes in temperature and over time we don’t even notice the differences. Our cameras, however, aren’t quite as good at adjusting for the differences in color. Sometimes it’s necessary to program the white balance in-camera for the image to come out right.
Color temperatures are measured in Kelvin (K). A warm light has a low Kelvin value and cool light has a higher Kelvin value. To better understand color temperature and the Kelvin scale, take a look at the chart below. It has light sources mapped out with their approximate temperatures in Kelvin.
The main point is to remember that the scale is backwards from what you might expect. Higher numbers mean cooler temperature, and lower number means warmer color temperature.
Adjusting the white balance
Whenever programming white balance settings in-camera, you want to set opposite of the current lighting. For cool blue/green lighting, a warm yellow/orange white balance will produce even white light. For warm colors use a cool white balance setting to compensate.
Automatic white balance
Most cameras have automatic white balance presets that make the process very simple. These are the most common:
- Auto – The camera automatically adjusts to compensate for available light. For most basic lighting situations, auto will do a good job. More complex or multiple types of lighting may require another preset or manual settings.
- Fluorescent – The camera compensates for the cool blue color of fluorescent lights and warms up the image.
- Tungsten – Compensates for the warm yellow color of tungsten or household type incandescent bulbs by cooling down the color temperature.
- Sunny/Daylight – Not all cameras have this mode. If your camera does, it’s a fairly balanced setting as daylight is already close to a balanced color temperature.
- Cloudy – As the name implies, this setting is for cloudy and overcast days. It will warm the image up slightly to compensate for the cooler diffuse light.
- Shade – Shaded areas are even cooler than cloudy light. This setting warms up the shot slightly more than the cloudy setting.
- Flash – Balances your image for flash lighting. Typically, flashes produce a light slightly cooler than daylight, so it will warm up the image just a little.
Manual white balance
Most of the time you should be able to get a good white balance using the presets above. If you are having problems or want to save your own custom settings, most higher end cameras and DSLRs have the option available.
Every camera is a little different, so you will need to read your manual to figure out the specific settings. An easy and cheap way to set custom white balances is to use a white or grey card. You can pick up a set of for under $10.
Fixing white balance
It’s always best to try and get the white balance right in-camera. If things don’t work out that way, the white balance can usually be fixed later on.
Some photographers may tell you that the white balance can’t be fixed on JPEG images. That is not correct. I have had lots of success fixing JPEG images using software, it’s just a little more tricky than with RAW files.
If you shoot RAW, white balance is very easy to fix no matter what type of software you’re using. I still attempt to get it close in camera, but if it’s not perfect I don’t worry too much about it.
Lightroom has very simple and intuitive controls for white balance and is my preferred method of processing for most images. The white balance slider has Kelvin color temperatures or you can select from a variety of presets similar to the ones your camera has. My favorite method is probably the color picker tool. If you have a neutral grey area in an image or you used one of the grey cards we mentioned earlier, just click on that spot in the photo and the white balance will automatically adjust. This is probably the easiest and most precise method.