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Mastering White Balance: Your Key to Vibrant Photo Colours

View of a cozy reader's corner with a table lamp spending warm light
Image: White balance can adjust warm coloured lights to something more neutral or cooler

Have you ever taken a photo and wondered why the colours didn’t turn out quite right? Maybe the scene looked warm and cosy in real life, but your photo turned out with an unnatural blue tint. This may likely be down to the white balance setting of your camera.

The answer to achieving accurate and vibrant colours in your photos lies in understanding and mastering white balance which I’ll explain in this perfect guide for photographers.

What Is White Balance?

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, let’s start with the basics. White balance is essentially your camera’s way of ensuring that the colours in your photos look true to life, just as your eyes perceive them.

Our eyes are incredibly adaptive, allowing us to see objects as having consistent colours regardless of the lighting conditions. But cameras, well, they need a little help to get it just right.

picture of a beach with different color balances, such as tungsten, fluorescent, flash, cloudy, shade or daylight
Image: There is a range of white balance options which can transform the colours of your photo

Why White Balance Matters

Why should you care about white balance? Because getting it right can make or break your photos. When you get white balance wrong, your photos can appear too warm (yellow or orange), too cool (blue or green), or even entirely out of whack. Accurate white balance helps your photos look more realistic, appealing, and professional.

The Science Behind White Balance

Colour Temperature

In photography, we measure the colour of light in units called Kelvin (K). The colour temperature scale ranges from cool (bluish) to warm (reddish). At the cool end of the spectrum, you have higher Kelvin values (e.g., 10,000K), which represent blue light, like the light from an overcast sky. On the warm end, you’ll find lower Kelvin values (e.g., 2,700K), resembling the warm, orange glow of a sunset.

 

The Kelvin Scale in Action

Imagine you’re taking a photo indoors under fluorescent lighting, which tends to be cooler in colour temperature. If your camera is set to a daylight white balance (around 5,500K), your photo might come out with a bluish hue because the camera expects the light to be warmer than it actually is. To correct this, you need to adjust the white balance to match the light source’s colour temperature.

Vector thermometer with color temperature – Kelvin scale chart with appropriate sources isolated on a white background. Candle, bulb, daylight, sky, etc. Blackbody radiation icon isolated on white.
Image: The Kelvin scale rates the temperature of emitted light from warm to cool.
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Auto White Balance (AWB)

Most cameras have an “Auto White Balance” mode that tries to guess the correct white balance setting based on the scene’s lighting conditions. While AWB can be pretty reliable in many situations, it’s not always foolproof, especially in challenging or mixed lighting environments. That’s where manual control of white balance becomes crucial.

Image: There are normally a range of white balance presets in your camera's menu

Setting White Balance Manually

To gain full control over your white balance, switch your camera to a manual mode or a white balance preset.

You’ll typically find white balance presets for common lighting situations like daylight, cloudy, tungsten (indoor), fluorescent, and flash. Choosing the right preset will help your camera adjust to the scene’s colour temperature.

The Impact of Incorrect White Balance

Now that you have a basic grasp of white balance, let’s talk about what can go wrong when you get it wrong.

 

1. Unnatural Colour Casts

When your white balance setting doesn’t match the lighting conditions, it can result in unnatural colour casts. For example, if you shoot indoors with a daylight white balance setting, your photos may look overly blue. Conversely, using a tungsten white balance setting in daylight can make your pictures appear too warm or yellow.

 

2. Loss of Mood and Atmosphere

Getting white balance wrong can also lead to a loss of mood and atmosphere in your photos. Think about a beautiful sunset on a tropical beach. If you don’t adjust your white balance to capture the warm, golden hues of the sun, your photo might lose that breathtaking ambiance and appear dull.

 

3. Inconsistent Colours

Inconsistent white balance can cause colour variations in your photos. This is particularly noticeable in portrait photography, where different skin tones can appear dramatically different if not captured with the correct white balance. Your subject might end up looking sickly or unnatural.

Image: When the wrong white balance preset is selected it can make colours look inaccurate.

How to Correct White Balance in Camera

Now that you understand the importance of white balance and the problems it can solve, let’s explore how to adjust it in your camera settings.

 

White Balance Presets

As mentioned earlier, most cameras offer a range of white balance presets. These presets are designed to match common lighting conditions, making it easy to get accurate colours in your photos. Here’s a quick rundown of some common presets:

  • Daylight: Use this setting when shooting outdoors in natural sunlight.
  • Cloudy: Ideal for overcast or cloudy days to warm up the colours.
  • Tungsten (Incandescent): Suitable for indoor lighting from traditional light bulbs.
  • Fluorescent: Use when shooting under fluorescent lighting to neutralise the greenish tint.
  • Flash: Designed for use with camera flash to balance the light’s colour temperature.
  • Shade: Great for shooting in the shade, which tends to have cooler colours.
  • Custom White Balance

How to Create a Custom White Balance

In addition to presets, many cameras allow you to set a custom white balance. To do this, you’ll need a neutral white or grey reference, such as a white card or even a white piece of paper.

  1. Set your camera to manual mode or custom white balance mode.
  2. Place the white or grey reference in the same lighting conditions as your subject.
  3. Fill the frame with the reference and take a photo.
  4. Go to your camera’s menu and find the custom white balance option.
  5. Select the photo you just took as the reference.
  6. Voilà! Your camera will now adjust the white balance based on the reference photo.
Image: You can create your own custom white balance in-camera

Mastering White Balance Techniques

Now that you know how to adjust white balance settings in your camera, it’s time to master some techniques that will help you make the most out of this essential photography skill.

 

Bracketing White Balance

Bracketing isn’t just for exposure; you can also use it for white balance. This technique involves taking multiple shots of the same scene with different white balance settings. It’s especially useful when you’re unsure which setting will give you the best results. Later, during post-processing, you can choose the shot with the most accurate colours.

 

Use of Grey Cards and Colour Checkers

Professional photographers often carry a grey card or a colour checker with them to ensure precise white balance. These tools provide a consistent reference for white balance adjustments, ensuring that colours are true to life. Using them can be a bit more advanced, but they are invaluable for demanding photo shoots.

 

Shoot in RAW Format

If your camera allows it, consider shooting in RAW format. Unlike JPEG, RAW files contain all the data captured by your camera’s sensor, including white balance information. This means you can adjust white balance during post-processing without any loss of image quality. It provides incredible flexibility and can salvage photos that might have otherwise been ruined by incorrect white balance settings.

Image: Chart for accurate colour replication

Post-Processing for White Balance

While getting the white balance right in-camera is ideal, there are times when you may need to tweak it during post-processing. Whether you’re shooting in RAW format or working with JPEGs, photo editing software provides powerful tools for fine-tuning white balance.

 

White Balance Adjustment Sliders

Firstly, most photo editing software, like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, offers white balance adjustment sliders. These sliders allow you to fine-tune the colour temperature and tint of your image. You can experiment with them to achieve the desired look and correct any colour issues that may have arisen during shooting.

 

Eyedropper Tool

Secondly, some editing software includes an eyedropper tool that allows you to select a neutral or grey area in your photo. The software will then adjust the white balance based on that selection, helping you correct any colour casts.

 

Preset Filters

Lastly, many photo editing apps and software also come with preset filters or profiles designed to fix common white balance issues. These can be a quick and convenient way to correct white balance without diving deep into manual adjustments.

Image: To correct white balance in editing, use the eyedropper tool (1) (Camera RAW in Photoshop, or in Lightroom) and select an area that should be white (2). The colours will be automatically readjusted (3)

Your Guide to White Balance: Summary

Finally, you’ve now unlocked the secrets of white balance, an essential skill for capturing accurate and vibrant colours in your photos. From understanding the science behind it to mastering various techniques, you’re well on your way to becoming a pro.

Remember, practice makes perfect, and don’t be discouraged by occasional mistakes. Photography is all about learning and growing, and now that you have a solid grasp of white balance, you’re ready to embark on a colourful journey through the world of photography.  

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