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White balance

You're standing in a beautiful park on a sunny day, capturing the vibrant colors of blooming flowers with your camera. But when you review the photos later, something seems off. The colors appear different from what you remember.

What went wrong? The answer might lie in understanding the concept of white balance, a crucial aspect of photography or videography that can make or break the color accuracy in your images...


What is white balance?

White balance is the camera setting that adjusts how colors are rendered in an image.

Have you ever struggled with getting your picture to have a balanced color? It could be an odd hue of color laying over your image that makes the whole picture look “off” and unrealistic. You may wonder, what is going on here on Earth?

Typically, cameras are pretty accurate when it comes to reproducing colors. They can analyze an environment's real color and temperature and reproduce it by creating a similar color and temperature. But, just like us, our cameras can get confused sometimes.

Under certain lighting, such as fluorescent light, incandescent bulbs, and in the shade, some colors can appear “wrong” and falsely represent the scene in which you take the picture.

Some colors from different light sources can cause some color cast and manipulate the camera to pick the wrong color. For example, under candlelight, white paper may look reddish and warm, while in a cold area such as a snowy mountain, the white snow may appear a little blue.

All of these phenomena are related to your camera's white balance setting.

To understand the white balance better, we need to understand the color temperature first. Color temperature describes how warm or how cool the color in an image is. Every source of light has its temperature.

In photography, the sunlight during the day is determined as the neutral temperature. This is because, under the sunlight, every object appears realistic in its true colors.

Sunlight in the morning and evening may appear redder and warmer, while the sunlight on a cloudy day may appear slightly blue. Artificial light, such as fluorescent lights and incandescent bulbs, also possess different color temperatures.

When we see objects in front of us under all these different lights, we still see them stay true to their normal colors. This is because our eyes can adjust to the color temperature around us, so these objects appear normal.

But the camera sensors are not as sophisticated as our eyes. They can’t automatically adjust the color they capture. This is why color casts often appear in photographs. The camera picks the color as it “sees” it.


What is the purpose of white balance?

Based on the explanation above about white balance, we can conclude that the purpose of white balance is to adjust the colors on photographs to match the colors of the object in real life, as our eyes see them.

Because the camera can’t adjust the color itself, white balance is a necessary setting mode to save the day. The white balance function on your camera will fix the color and neutralize imbalanced hues. It will ultimately make the photograph appear more natural and closer to reality.


How does white balance affect a photo?

White balance is the balancing of colors in an image.

However, this can be tricky if the white balance isn’t being used correctly because the white balance affects all of the colors appearing on an image and does not just consist of select colors. For example, if you use the white balance in warm lighting, some aspects of the image may appear too cool or even look blue.

If you try using the white balance in cool lighting, it may make some parts of the image appear too orange. If this happens, then you will need to perform more tweaks in the post-production process.

When you use the wrong preset, more problems can occur. It may create unwanted color casts, such as blue, green, or orange, all over the image.


Why is it called white balance?

The main purpose of the white balance is to ensure that the colors in an image stay as close to reality as possible. To achieve the goal, the different colors will be neutralized to a neutral white temperature. This is why it’s called the white balance.

By the way, for the white balance feature to work, the image needs an actual white or grey color as a reference point. Many photographers purchase "grey cards."

Have you ever experienced taking a picture in perfect daylight, but for some reason, the white balance still doesn’t work properly? It’s probably because the frame lacks a true white color that the camera can’t get the right reference. You can fix this simply by adding more white to the frame.


How can I use white balance?

You have a few options when it comes to using the white balance:

1. Use auto white balance

This is the easiest way to do it.

Most modern cameras are equipped with the auto white balance function. You can turn this function on to benefit from the automatic white balance feature.

Auto white balance works by examining the object's temperature, finding the right setting to balance it out, and making the light as close as possible to white. For example, if you shoot with warm lighting, the white balance will automatically cool it down by adding more blue so the light becomes white.

If you shoot in cool lighting, the white balance will automatically balance the image by adding more orange. However, the camera may get confused if there is not enough white in the frame because it cannot determine the neutral color as a reference.

You can fix this by adding a white color to the frame. For example, by tweaking the angle a little bit or by changing the background.

Auto white balance will mostly work fine in daylight or uniform lighting situations. However, it may be difficult to find the perfect balance when facing a scene with mixed lighting, and you will likely need to do more work during the post-production process.

You also need to understand that different cameras have different white balance settings and capabilities, so you may need to perform several experiments to get the perfect setting.

Auto white balance does not always work for every photo shoot. For example, if you want to take pictures during the golden hour and blue hour, the AWB will automatically correct the temperature, so you will lose the actual mood produced by the lighting.

However, you can still use the AWB if you shoot in RAW because you can always edit the result later.

2. Choose a white balance preset

Every camera usually comes with white balance presets.

Different cameras may have different white balance preset options, but the most common are incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, and shade. These presets can be helpful if you want a quick fix.

But you also need to be very careful when using the presets. Otherwise, instead of getting the result you want, you may end up with an image with too much color cast. For example, the incandescent preset adds cool tones to the picture and is supposed to be used under very warm tungsten light.

If you use this preset on a picture that’s not too warm, it may result in the image appearing too cool or too blue.

3. Use the manual white balance

Some cameras also come with a manual white balance setting. You can always set the white balance manually by inputting the Kelvin value that you think will work best on a scene.

You may need to adjust and readjust the Kelvin value several times before you get the perfect value, but this is the most reliable way to set your camera's white balance. But it will cost you more time and may not be ideal if you need to work fast.

4. Use white balance in post-processing software

Some soft processing software, such as Adobe Lightroom, has an auto white balance option.

This function will not usually give you the desired result right from the start, though it is a good starting point when you are just starting to edit your pictures.

The auto-white balance option will balance out the overall image. You may still find some parts that are not perfect and require further tweaking. You’ll need to fix these parts manually.

In post-processing software, there are some tools you can use aside from the auto white balance option.

You can use a specific color to tint your image. For example, if you want to neutralize a picture that looks too warm, you can add a more excellent tint, such as blue or green, to the picture.

You can adjust it manually to get a perfect balance and make your picture perfect. You can also adjust the image's temperature. This is probably the most reasonable way to correct your image since the color cast is directly affected by the color temperature.

The plus point in doing this is that you can use the same setting for many images.


Should you use auto white balance?

It depends on the scene and the lighting situation. In normal daylight and under uniform lighting, the white balance will mostly work okay and give you the desired result.

Photographing in JPEG

But if you’re shooting under different lights with different temperatures, then you may need to set the white balance manually. This is especially true if you are shooting in JPEG.

Photographing in RAW

However, if you’re shooting in RAW, you can always turn the AWB on, and the results should be fine. Even if the AWB makes some parts appear too blue or orange, you can still edit them later in the post-production process.

But you must remember that the result you see on the preview screen may differ from what you expected.


Types of white balance

Most photographers use two types of white balance: in-camera and in editing software. Below is an explanation for both types of white balance.

1. Camera modes changing

In-camera white balance is a white balance setting that comes with the camera. As mentioned above, there are different modes of in-camera white balance. They are auto white balance, manual white balance, and presets.

Auto white balance

Auto white balance will automatically balance out the color temperature. The good thing about using this mode is that you don’t have to input the Kelvin number manually.

The camera examines the scene and finds the perfect balance. If you are shooting under certain lighting, it automatically neutralizes it and makes the light as close as possible to a neutral temperature. This mode is especially safe to use if you shoot in RAW.

Manual white balance

Your camera often has manual white balance settings. You can adjust the settings by entering the Kelvin number yourself. Experience and basic temperature knowledge are needed here.

Presets

The presets can be a quick solution, but you need to be very careful when using them. Otherwise, you will end up with even more problems.

2. Post-processing software white balance

Some editing software comes with an auto white balance tool. This also can work as a quick fix. However, the result may not be as good as you desire, so you still need to do some editing, such as adjusting the color temperature as an addition to that.

However, the AWB tools in editing software are a good starting point and will help you edit the photos quicker.


In conclusion, if you want to be able to use the white balance correctly, you need to understand the basics of color temperature and different light types. This is a basic skill every photographer should know.

If you are new to photography, then there is no better way than to keep practicing and experimenting with your camera settings. With more experience, you will better understand when you can use the auto white balance and presets and when you need to adjust the white balance setting.

Once you master the white balance setting, you will be able to use it not only to color-correct your pictures but also to use it creatively to get a more unique experimental result.

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