WHITE BALANCE IN PHOTOGRAPHY: WHAT IS IT, WHAT IS IT FOR AND HOW TO USE IT?

white balance

Maybe every time you’ve seen the concept “white balance” you’ve jumped with a startled face straight to the next setting, to the next article, to the next chapter in the book.

I totally understand 😉 . It’s a concept that creates stupor even before you’ve gotten to the “s” of white. Allow me, before going on and if you want to go deeper into the subject of lighting in photography, to recommend you to read this mega guide that we have prepared for you, so that you don’t miss any important concept.

Returning to our topic, if you Google about the definition of White Balance you can find terms like:

Spectral energy distribution
Light energy
RGB level scaling
Compensated gamma

“Is it just me or do I get the feeling that you have to study Semantic-photonic-graphic Engineering to understand these concepts?”
The worst thing is that explaining things in this complex and hermetic way only manages to scare away the amateur photographer giving him the false sensation that photography is something very complex. Nothing further from the truth, fortunately 🙂 .

The truth is that it is so easy to use it, so easy to understand it and use it to your advantage when taking photographs, that passing over it is almost sacrilege, because white balance is nothing more than the color dominance of an image. I’m sure you’ve looked with surprise at a photo that has turned out blue or orange. Strange, isn’t it, if when you looked through the viewfinder you saw a perfectly white light (or normal, come on…).

That’s because our eye is able to perfectly process different color temperatures (or dominants) without flinching, but the truth is that the sensors for the moment are not up to it, come on as usual, the human being, for the moment, beats the machine 😉 .

That said, let’s see in depth and in a simple way, what is white balance, what is it used for and, above all, how it can help you improve your photos.

WHAT IS WHITE BALANCE?

White balance (White balance or WB) is the way we balance an image in terms of color dominance. Ideally, this color cast should be neutral, i.e. white, which in real life is roughly equivalent to daylight in the middle of the day or flash light, which is also considered neutral.

Every type of light and every time of day, although it is not always obvious at first glance, has a color cast, also known as color temperature. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin, and is classified into warmer temperatures (sunsets, for example), cooler temperatures (cloudy days) or neutral (we have already mentioned that these are the intermediate hours of the day).

fotografía fría de un hombre mirando las olas

For practical purposes, what we are talking about is that all those tones that are not neutral, end up being neutral 😉 .

HOW DO YOU ADJUST THE WHITE BALANCE?

And you’ll say, “Okay. Very good, but how do you do it?” Well, it’s very simple, by compensating one and the other. That is to say, if you have a scene that is too warm, you will have to add a little bit of cold to it, and if you have an image that is too cold, you will have to add some warmth to it. It’s as simple as that. And this is what your camera’s automatic white balance does.

Now you may ask me, “And how do I know which tone is going to be predominant so I can correct it?” The answer is easy: You can let the camera itself take care of detecting that a certain color is dominating the photo excessively and it will take care of counteracting it itself. If you want the camera to handle this task for you, go into the White Balance setting and choose the “Auto White Balance” (also known as “AWB”) option.

Since machines are not perfect, sometimes the camera is not able to detect a certain excess of tones and therefore cannot correct it. That’s where you come in (you’re the photographer, did you forget?) 😉 Basically you’re going to do the following: you’re going to shoot a test shot and look at it carefully, if you find it correct and neutral great, but if you see a certain excess towards one side in blue tones or towards the other in red tones, you’ll have to manually select one of the different semi-automatic White Balance modes that your camera puts at your disposal. Below is a small chart explaining which White Balance to choose depending on the excessive tone you want to remedy:

The above graphic shows more or less all the options that cameras offer us to adjust the white balance in a semi-automatic way (also called presets). From left to right we would have the tungsten lights (the indoor ones), the next symbol corresponds to fluorescent light, the next to flash, the sun to midday light, the cloud to a cloudy day and finally the shadow emoticon. These are ideal for scenes where one type of light clearly dominates.

As you can see there is not much complexity. If you perceive that the photo comes out too “cold” use one of the white settings you see on the right of the graph, if on the other hand the photo comes out “warmer” and orange, use one of the white settings on the left of the graph.

Let’s go with an example, which always looks better. In the following photos, the flowers are illuminated with a lamp with the typical bulb that offers a warm light. The result, evidently, is an image with a clear orange dominance (left image). In the photo on the right, the white balance has been adjusted with the Tungsten mode, which has succeeded in neutralizing the tone.


WHICH SEMI-AUTOMATIC WHITE BALANCE MODE TO USE AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT?

Let’s be a little more specific. These are the semi-automatic modes that usually appear on cameras, they may not all appear on yours, don’t be overwhelmed that the main ones are even on your smartphone 😉

Auto (A): the camera automatically adjusts the white balance according to ambient light and flash usage (if any). Below I tell you when to use auto mode but as long as you shoot in RAW format, use it without fear. In this case we have AWB which is automatic with ambient light priority, and AWBW which is white priority and reduces the warm hue of an ambient light). But in most cameras it will be AWB only.

Daylight (sun): Useful when shooting outdoors with the sun shining.

Shade (shaded house): Slightly warmer than cloudy, adding orange colors to the photograph. Suitable for sunsets and sunrises and shaded areas.

Cloudy (cloud): Advisable on cloudy days or in shadows. Produces somewhat warmer images than sunlight.

Incandescent or tungsten (bulb): Use only with light from tungsten bulbs or the image will look very blue.

Fluorescent (incandescent tube): Turn it on if pictures look too green or when under fluorescent lights (typical office lights).

Flash (beam): Use when using the camera’s flash.

Preset or custom (PRE) or the last icon in the image above: Set for a specific lighting, usually a card or gray card is used. But you can also use a white sheet.

Some cameras have a Choose color temperature (K) option, which allows you to manually change the Kelvin value (usually from 2500 to 10000).

AND HOW DO I KNOW WHICH LIGHT IS COOL OR WARM IF I SEE THEM ALL THE SAME?

If you learn that indoor lights are warm (in general), that flash and midday lights are neutral, and that shadows or cloudy days are cool, you have more than enough. But you’ll see that, knowing all this already, you’ll notice more and you’ll end up training your eye. Knowledge is power 😉

Although if you want to dig a little deeper and be introduced to the Kelvin friend in the chart above, here’s the list of the most common lights with their respective color temperatures. The lower values (e.g. 1700) correspond to the warmer lights, and the higher values to the cooler ones. The K stands for Kelvin, yes 😉

1700 K: Light from a match
1850 K: Candlelight
2700-3300 K: incandescent or tungsten light (conventional household lighting)
3000 K: tungsten (with halogen lamp)
4000-4500 K: Mercury vapor lamp
5000 K: Fluorescent light (approximate)
5500-6000 K: Daylight, electronic flash (approx.)
5780 K: Color temperature of pure sunlight
6200 K: Xenon Lamp
6500 K: Daylight, overcast
6500-10500 K: Television screen (LCD or CRT)*.
*Source: Wikipedia.

Before we continue, one quick thing that might interest you: we have just launched PHOTOGRAPHY WITHOUT LEAVING HOME, a new digital format with which we provide you with 101 photography exercises that you can practice from the comfort of your own home. Now that we are in confinement and with this situation a bit weird, you might want to take a look at it (available here).

That said, back to business….

Another way to look at it is based on the time of day. At dawn and dusk, the color temperature is warmer (2000K), midday is more neutral (5500K), mid-morning or mid-afternoon about 3500K, cloudy or shaded skies are cooler (6000-7500K).

MANUAL OR AUTOMATIC MODE?

Automatic mode usually works quite well on most occasions, for example with neutral and homogeneous lights. However, when mixing different lights with different color temperature, or the color temperature is at the lower or higher extremes, it is usually not the most suitable.

You can also use the automatic mode when shooting in RAW mode, we will see why later. However, if you are shooting in JPG format, I strongly recommend that you keep an eye on the white balance. In this case, it will be very difficult to correct it.

Keep in mind that cameras process white balance differently. Some newer or more advanced camera models are more finely tuned than older or more basic models. It is important to know how your camera works. That’s not to say that yours, if it’s an amateur, won’t do it right, the difference probably won’t be obvious unless you’re a highly trained eye or professional. Just keep this in mind if you change cameras often, so you won’t be disappointed if you notice differences.

When there are varied lights or you see that the automatic doesn’t work as it should, you can use the semi-automatic modes or presets that I told you about before.

You also have the option I told you about of using the custom mode on some cameras. It’s a way of telling the camera what is white in a particular light.


THE MAGIC OF RAW

If you love RAW format you will be happy to know that not only is it the format in which you get more information for processing (and, therefore, higher quality), but it is also the format that allows you to correct the white balance of the image in processing without loss of quality with a single click.

That is, if you are working in RAW, don’t even worry about white balance until you get to processing. There you can easily adjust it as you see fit and with just one click or move a cursor. Here’s how to do it in Lightroom, although in other editors it’s very similar.

HOW TO CORRECT WHITE BALANCE IN LIGHTROOM
In this example we have an orange cast because of the warm highlights. Let’s look at three (very simple) ways, having shot in RAW, to correct the white balance from Ligthroom’s Basics panel.

One way is to select the white balance from the drop-down menu (see right image) which is activated by clicking on the purple arrow (left image).

The drop-down menu opens and you choose
In this case the best option to cool the warm lights is Tungsten, you can see below the before and after. It looks clear, doesn’t it?

Cursor Temperature
Another more customized option is with the Temperature slider (see right image). To the left you cool the image, if you move to the right, you warm it up. You can also click on the number on the right and enter the number you want, i.e. the exact temperature you want it to be.

As a curious fact, you can see how the cursor moves when you modify the white balance with the first option in the drop-down menu.

Finally, we have the White Balance Selector. If you select the drop-counter that I surround you in the right image and move it with the mouse to an area of the image that is (or should be) white, when you click on it, it adjusts automatically. If you don’t like the result you can always refine it with the Temperature cursor until you find the result that suits you best because…

MUST AN IMAGE ALWAYS BE NEUTRAL?

No, it doesn’t 🙂 . In most images the point is that the colors are as faithful as possible to the reality you want to capture. For example, does it make sense to eliminate the warmth of a sunset? If the attractiveness is precisely in the warmth of its light, right?

But white balance is also a realm of personal experimentation that can help you craft your own expressive and creative approach to the image. Adding warmth or coldness to your images is a way like any other to give free rein to your creativity, to enhance your message, in short, to find your photographic discourse.

Color temperature is not always a mistake, sometimes it is the key to an image.

What did you think, did you already know about white balance? If not, I hope I have introduced you to it in the most enjoyable way possible 🙂 . And remember, if you liked it, share it so that someone else can benefit from it. Thank you very much and see you next time.