What is White Balance?

The more you spend time around photographers and start learning about photography, the more you'll hear about and encounter the concept of white balance.  So, what is it?  Well, let me see if I can help explain it, because it's an aspect of photography that many people don't understand or make the most of, but it's something that can really impact the shots you take, so let's spend some time of the subject.

First thing to know is there's no balancing.  Well there is, but not in the typical sense. You don't want equal parts of light and shadows to balance the light.  At its simplest form – the reason we adjust white balance is to get the colors in your images as accurate as possible. You might have noticed when examining shots after taking them that at times images can come out with an orange, blue, or more often yellow look to them – despite the fact that to your eye the scene looked quite normal. The reason for this is that images that have different sources of light have a different ‘color’ (or temperature) to them. Fluorescent lighting adds a bluish cast to photos whereas tungsten (incandescent/bulbs) lights add a yellowish tinge to photos. After reading this statement you're probably going "oooooohhhh, that's why the family pics I took at Christmas all looked yellow," or "those beautiful photos I just took at the local Home Depot all look too blue!"  As you might know, or have heard at some geeky photography party, light temperature is measured in Kelvins (K), where artificial light such as tungsten bulbs have lower light temperatures, around 3000 K, and natural light in the shade has a higher temperature, around 9500 K. 

Here is a quick rundown of some different lighting conditions, and their approximate measurements in Kelvins:

  • Tungsten: 2500-3500 
  • Sunrise/Sunset/Golden Hour: 3000-4000
  • Fluorescent: 4000-5000
  • Flash: 5000-5500 (flashes are made to reproduce, as accurately as possible, natural daylight, which is around 5500 K)
  • Clear Daylight: 5000-6500
  • Cloudy: 6500-8000
  • Shade: 9000-10,000

We don’t generally notice this difference in temperature because our eyes adjust automatically for it. So unless the temperature of the light is very extreme a white sheet of paper will generally look white to us. Although, of course, a white sheet of paper that you pee'd on might look yellow.  However a digital camera doesn’t have the smarts to make these adjustments automatically and sometimes will need us to tell it how to treat different light. So for cooler (blue or green) light you’ll tell the camera to warm things up and in warm light you’ll tell it to cool down.

Preset White Balance Settings

Here are some of the basic White Balance settings you’ll probably find on your camera:

  • Auto – this is where the camera makes a best guess. You’ll find it works in many situations but it’s worth venturing out of it for trickier lighting.
  • Tungsten – this mode is usually symbolized with a little bulb and is for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten (incandescent) lighting (such as bulb lighting). It generally cools down the colors in photos.
  • Fluorescent – this compensates for the ‘cool’ light of fluorescent light and will warm up your shots.
  • Daylight/Sunny – It sets things as fairly ‘normal’ white balance settings.
  • Cloudy – this setting generally warms things up a touch more than ‘daylight’ mode.
  • Flash – the flash of a camera can be quite a cool light so in Flash WB mode you’ll find it warms up your shots a touch.
  • Shade – the light in shade is generally cooler (bluer) than shooting in direct sunlight so this mode will warm things up a little.

Some people, who like warmer looking shots, will shoot almost all their photos outdoors with the white balance set to cloudy or shade no matter how sunny it is, as it really warms things up.

Want to know what an image looks like that's too cool and needs to be warmed up?  Notice the blue tinge on the photo?  It's way too blue and needs some yellow to balance it out.

And going in the other direction, here's the photo with too much yellow so it's too warm.  We need to adjust down the yellow and add some blue.

Here is the same shot with what I'd call a "proper" white balance.  You can click on the image to view it full size.

Sometimes, you can’t always get the perfect white balance in camera, especially if you are shooting in a hurry, or in lighting conditions that keep changing. That's what editing software is for!  Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture and plenty of others, all make adjusting white balance really easy and fast.

The best practice here is to always shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW preserves more data than a JPEG file, allowing you to make more adjustments in your editing. 

While you are editing, keep in mind the idea that you want your whites to be white – not light blue, not yellow, just white. If you're water looks like pee, you've done something wrong. (Wow, I want points for getting "pee" into this blog entry not once, but twice!)  Unless of course you were going for pee colored water, in which case... way to go!

There are all sorts of tools that can help you obtain proper white balance... targets, expodiscs and software can all help make this process easier and faster.  If you have any questions, please let me know.

See ya next time!