This is a guide covering everything you need to know about white balance in photography.
Knowing how to control your white balance as a photographer will allow you to gain better control over your colors before heading into post-production.
With all that being said, let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What is White Balance in Photography?
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 in the form of an odd hue of color, laying over your image, that makes the whole picture looks “off” and unrealistic. You may wonder, what on Earth is going on here?
Typically, cameras are pretty accurate when it comes to reproducing colors.
They have the ability to analyze the real color and the temperature of an environment, then 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 you take the picture in.
Some colors from different light sources can cause some color cast and manipulate the camera to pick up 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 own 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 a little bit 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 of these different lights, we still see the objects stay true to their normal true colors.
This is because our eyes can adjust to the color temperature around us so these objects appear normal to us.
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 what white balance is, we can conclude that the purpose of white balance is to adjust the colors on photographs to match the color of the object in real life, as how our eyes see it.
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.
But 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 not just 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.
And 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.
More problems can occur when you use the wrong preset. 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, it will neutralize the different colors into a neutral, white temperature. This is why it’s called the white balance.
By the way, for it to work, the white balance feature needs an actual white or grey color in the image as a reference point. Many photographer 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?
Probably it’s because the frame is lacking a true white color, that the camera isn’t able to 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 temperature of the object and finding the right setting to balance it out and make 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.
And if you shoot in cool lighting, the white balance will automatically balance it out by adding more orange to the image.
But 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 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 find it 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.
However, you can still use the AWB if you shoot in RAW because you can always edit the result later.
To further explore the subject of using auto-white balance, check out this in-depth video by Nick Carver:
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 white balance presets are incandescent, fluorescents, 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 in using the presets or instead of getting the result you want, you may end up with an image with too much color cast.
For example, the incandescent preset is made to add 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.
To further explore the subject of using white balance presets, check out this in-depth video by Beyond Photography:
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 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, comes with an auto white balance option.
Most of the time, this function won’t give you the result you desire right from the get-go, 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 temperature of the image. 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 way is that you can use the same setting for many images.
To further explore the subject of adjusting white balance in post-production, check out this in-depth video by Jasmin Jade:
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 work mostly okay and will 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
If you’re shooting in RAW, however, you can always turn the AWB on and the results should be fine.
Even if the AWB makes some parts appear too blue or too orange, you can still edit them in the post-production process later.
But you need to remember that the result you see on the preview screen may be different from what you expected.
Types of White Balance
There are two types of white balance most photographers use: in camera and editing software. Below is the explanation for both types of white balances.
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 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 will examine the scene and find the perfect balance for you. If you are shooting under certain lighting, it will automatically neutralize it and make 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 settings are often available on your camera. You just need to adjust the settings by putting in the Kelvin number yourself.
Experience and basic temperature knowledge are needed here.
The presets can work as a quick solution, but you need to be super careful 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.
But the AWB tools on editing software are a good starting point and will help you to edit the photos quicker.
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 keep practicing and experimenting with your camera settings.
With more experience, you will get a better understanding of how when you can use the auto white balance, the presets, and when you need to adjust the white balance setting.
Once you master the white balance setting, you will be able to use the white balance not only to color-correct your pictures but also to use it creatively to get a more unique experimental result.
If you are more of a visual person, here is an infographic:
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Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.