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Colour—it all seems so simple. We take a picture, the colour looks great… if we have the perfect white balance.

How often have you returned home, uploaded images and thought, ‘Hmm I am sure that sunset was more golden’ or ‘this snow was much whiter’?

The way our eyes see colour is very different from the way our digital devices decode it. Add to that the fact that different devices interpret colour in different ways and there is huge potential for your images to look wrong when you get them up on screen.

Fortunately, there is a system photographers use to get colour right, from the camera to the final image.

It’s called colour management and it involves setting your camera correctly, setting the colour setting in your post production software and calibrating your monitor and printer.

We’re going to look at the first stage of that equation, getting the perfect white balance and colour temperature.

What is White Balance?

All light has a colour and that colour is defined as a temperature. The temperature scale used for light is known as degrees Kelvin.

At the lower end of the scale, 2000-4000k, the light is warm, reddish yellows. At around 5500k, the colour is pretty much what we seen at noon on a sunny day. As the scale climbs, the light get’s progressively more blue. At about 10,000k we reach the very blue light of a typical flash gun.White Balance: The Colour Temperature Scale in degrees Kelvin

Our cameras have a sensor that determines what the colour of the light is, and typically we allow that sensor to automatically select the right white balance by using the auto white balance setting (AWB).

For the most part, this sensor is very accurate. But it can be fooled–most commonly by a large block of a single colour; for example, a woman wearing a bright red dress.

In this case, the colour sensor will see the image as being more red than it actually is and over compensate by turning the image more blue.

This is often what happens with those wonderful sunset pictures you take. The over abundance of red light fools the camera sensor into adding more blue, effectively neutralising the scene.

So how can we more accurately control the colour of the light to get a perfect white balance?

Comparision of colour temperature settings

The results you would see by setting your white balance to these specific presets

Use White Balance Presets

All modern digital cameras not only have Auto White Balance but also have a number of presets. Typically these might be Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy and Flash.

If you are shooting on a deep overcast day and are constantly finding the images to be too blue, then setting the Shade or Cloudy preset should warm your image up.

Conversely if you are shooting under tungsten light and AWB is trying to neutralise the redness of the light, switching to the Tungsten setting will remedy that, telling the sensor to expect a reddish light.

You don’t have to use a specific preset for a specific light. A classic way to maintain the saturation of sunsets is to set the Shade or Cloudy preset. This adds extra warmth to the image and keeps that sunset looking real.

Presets are a quick and simple solution to getting a good white balance but they are not always perfect.

Shade Preset comparison

By using the shade preset the saturation is much better in this sunset shot

Set a Manual White Balance

Armed with an understanding of the colour of light and it’s temperature, you can manually set degrees K to get a perfect white balance.

Not all tungsten lights for example give out the same colour temperature. If you are shooting under one that is less red, you can increase the colour temperature from perhaps the preset of 2500K to 2800k to get a more natural look.

You can experiment with different colour temperature to get the best look for your image.

Creating your Own White Balance

Because the colour sensors in our cameras read the light reflected back from our scene, it can, as we mentioned before, get confused by large blocks of colour.

There is a technique however that can give us perfect white balance simply by carrying a piece of white card.

By placing the white card in front of your camera you are reflecting back the pure untainted light. This light can be measured and stored as a preset and as long as the light source does not change dramatically, it will give you correct and consistent white balance.

Shooting RAW

Many of you already shoot RAW and one of the reasons that you do so is because you can manually set white balance in post production.

When you shoot a RAW file, white balance is measured and applied as a reference but this can be changed in Adobe RAW, Lightroom or any other RAW processing software.

There is an issue here though. If you shoot only RAW, you have no real reference how the light was in the original scene, just the camera’s interpretation of it.

A better option is to to use one of the techniques above when shooting RAW, presets, manual white balance or creating your own white balance. The reason for this is that by doing this, you give yourself a more accurate base white balance reading to use in your post production.

RAW

Using RAW gives you full control over white balance but it is still good practice to set the balance yourself

How Do I Change My White Balance?

There is no exact answer to this, hence I have left it to the end. It very much depends on the maker of your camera and the model. However, using the principles in this article, you should now be able to adjust the settings on your camera to achieve the right white balance.

Professional-level cameras often have direct access to white presets and manual white balance directly through buttons and dials on the body itself.

On lower level cameras you may well find that presets can be set direct from the body but manually setting degrees k and creating your own white balance preset will be buried in the menu system, most often in the shooting settings.

My best advice here is to experiment with setting various different white balances on some non-essential shoots. As with many things in photography, the more you expose yourself to their use, the more natural they will become to you.

Setting a perfect white balance and understanding colour temperature should be seen as an important part of the photographic process. I would say that having mastered the exposure triangle, mastering white balance should be your next stop.

It’s about understanding how the colour of light effects the way your image looks and how by dictating the white balance you can create the mood and feel to an image that would not have happened using auto white balance.

 

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

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Jason Row

Jason Row is a British-born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. His images have been licensed to companies such as Cunard, Ethiad and Virgin Atlantic as well as multiple newspapers and magazines. Besides shooting stills he also creates travel stock video in 4K. He maintains a travel stock photography site at Jason Row Photography