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Why White Balance is Important for You

If you’ve ever taken photos indoors without a flash and wondered why everyone looks so orange, this post is for you.

White balance can be hard to master at first. But you only need a little understanding for it to become quite intuitive. And understanding white balance is absolutely key to making your photos look good.


Section 1 – What is White Balance?

White Balance (WB) determines how accurately the colours in your photos come out. Specifically, it determines how ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ an image feels.

Setting your WB accurately will prevent against nasty colour cast that will make your images look unnatural. Different colour casts come from white not being true white in different lighting situations. This post will teach you how to deal with that.

Section 2 – How do I deal with White Balance?

Modern digital cameras give you the option to change the WB manually. You also have the auto white balance (AWB) option.

AWB is often suitable for daylight situations. In most other situations, it’s just guessing as to what the balance should be. The most common example for this is when shooting indoors in tungsten light. Canon in particular are notoriously bad at getting the colour right on Auto mode. It can often come out far too warm.

In a typical digital SLR (and some advanced compacts) you will have this white balance scale to choose from:

Auto: Good if you don’t know what you’re doing. It works well in sunlight but is unsuitable for most situations.

Daylight: Auto mode can be good in daylight but not perfect. I would typically use this balance in daylight. Most people tend to stick to auto because they’re worried about forgetting to change the WB when they go back indoors.

Shade: Auto mode makes photos look a little cold in the shade. Using this preset will be a lot more accurate.

Cloudy: Again, this is pretty self explanatory as to when you’d use it.

Tungsten: This light comes from incandescent bulbs found in your home. Left on auto, your photos will come out very warm with an almost orange colour cast in this environment.

Fluorescent: This comes from tube lighting found in offices and hospitals. It’s a very cold light and can make your photos appear blue. This is also why offices have that nasty sterile feel.

Flash: This compensates for the somewhat cool light of the camera’s flash.

Custom: This is used for setting the white balance accurately using a grey card – more about this in section 3.

Temperature: This is for experienced professional photographers – more about this in section 3.

All of these modes simply tell your camera how much it should adjust the colour of the photo it’s taking.

To demonstrate how these modes affect the temperature of an image, I’ve taken a photo of a model with the sun setting behind her and no sun shining directly onto her face. You’ll see that the ‘Shade’ setting is most accurate for that situation.

Auto – Photo comes out quite cold.

Cloud – Very good but still a little colder then the environment actually was.

Daylight – Not bad, but the camera is trying to compensate for a much brighter environment. It’s overcompensating.

Flash – Worked surprisingly well. It’s more accurate than auto mode for this sort of lighting.

Fluorescent – Far too cold. This setting is used for much warmer light and cooled the photo accordingly.

Shade – Very accurate, it captures the spring evening perfectly.

Tungsten – Again, this setting is used for much warmer light.

Section 3 – How to Get Perfect Colour Reproduction

The last 2 settings listed above (custom and temperature) create the most accurate white balance. Firstly though, you need to learn about grey cards.

Grey cards are used to determine which white balance should be used by your camera. They are made from 18% grey, which is a neutral hue.

To use grey cards, take a photo of the card so that it fills the whole frame of your camera. Then set this as the white balance inside your camera. The camera sees the difference between the result and the neutral hue and determines the balance from that.

The reason you’d use a grey card and not a white one is because, if you overexpose any colour enough, it’ll eventually come out as white. WB is about colour, not brightness.

Since you took the grey photo in the same lighting environment as the rest of your photos, the camera knows exactly how much to adjust the balance.

Custom: This is where you would take the photo of the grey card and set it as your white balance. All cameras are different so I recommend looking in your manual as to how to do this. This is the most accurate way possible to capture colour on the cheap and I fully recommend it.

Colour Temperature / Kelvin: This is for professional photographers used to having expensive colour temperature meters in studio conditions and setting the WB value manually. The value is in Kelvin (K) – named after the man who created the scale.

For example, sunlight is approximately 5200K and tungsten is approximately 3200K. If you’re really experienced with WB, after some time you’ll be able to judge it for yourself.

Section 4 – Which Setting is Best for Me?

You basically have 5 options:

1: Spend all your time shooting on auto mode and hope for the best. This is alright if you’re still trying to get to grips with exposure but after that I recommend you move on.

2: Try to produce accurate results using the preset modes inside of your camera. This is certainly a step in the right direction but they’re still just ballpark figures and won’t always produce 100% correct results.

3: Shoot in custom mode. This is the most popular choice by professional photographers. It can have a learning curve and requires carrying around a grey card.

4: Use a light temperature meter. This is a very accurate solution but can cost a lot of money. It’s not a realistic option for most.

5: Shoot in RAW. For those of you who don’t know, RAW is an uncompressed file format that allows you to change things on a computer after you’ve taken a photo. One of these things is the white balance.

With the information above you should be well on your way to capturing the perfect colours every time.

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
  • At-A-Glace Images that will explain how each exposure works
  • And much, much more…

Your Free Quick-Start

Photography Cheatsheet

This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

Steps To Understanding White Balance

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)