Modern cameras have spoiled us with their automatic modes, making it easy to ignore white balance settings (along with all other parameters). You will realize white balance is a crucial part of photography as you advance in the art. Getting familiarized with color temperature and tint is crucial, and today we are here to help you with that!
What is white balance?
White balance refers to the effects color temperature and tint have in photographs. Different light sources emit varying color temperatures, ranging in a spectrum between orange and blue. Likewise, light comes with tint, which ranges between green and magenta. Changing the white balance settings will help you balance these colors and achieve a more natural effect.
Why do cameras need help with white balance?
When a human sees an object, the eyes and brain work together to correct colors automatically, making white look white under most natural circumstances. Regardless of whether you are out during a sunny day or indoors under tungsten light, colors will look natural after your eyes get used to the environment, which doesn’t take long.
A camera needs some help figuring out how to make things look natural. Modern cameras try to emulate our brains, and do a pretty good job figuring out the white balance in auto, but they can get things wrong. Not to mention there’s also creative freedom, and sometimes you might want to have the white balance off to create an effect.
Understanding color temperature
Color temperature is measured in kelvins (K), which is a base unit of temperature. Understanding how kelvins work requires much more than this article, but we will try to explain in a brief, simple way. Kelvins are based off the color radiated from a “black body” when exposed to that specific temperature. A high kelvin color temperature will make colors appear bluer, while a low one will make them appear more orange.
In photography, we have certain white balance options to help figure out the correct kelvin levels one should use under different circumstances.
- Candlelight: 1,000-2,000K
- Tungsten bulb: 2,500-3,500K
- Sunrise/sunset: 3,000-4,000K
- Fluorescent light: 4,000-5,000K
- Flash/direct sunlight: 5,000-6,500K
- Cloudy sky: 6,500-8,000K
- Heavy clouds: 9,000-10,000K
The tint is as important to keep in mind when shooting under artificial lighting and uncommon lighting situations (like sunsets, sunrises, and other natural phenomena). Light can have a tint to it, which ranges between green and magenta. You can add more of either colors to correct an image’s unnatural color.
Adjusting white balance: in-camera vs post-processing
This is a personal preference. I am one of those photographers who prefer having as much done in-camera as possible, so I tend to set the white balance in camera and make slight adjustments during editing.
Shooting RAW has its advantages in this case, as the image file keeps all data, and white balance is used as a point of reference. A RAW image file will allow you to manipulate color temperature without losing quality. This is why modern photographers tend to trust cameras more. One can easily leave the settings in auto and correct images in post-processing only when the camera happens to mess up.
Shooting RAW has its advantages when working with white balance.
This is not the case with a JPEG file, which has a set white balance. The image will lose quality if you try to alter its color temperature and tint too much. In such cases, you can use the temperature options listed above.
Alternatively, you can use the custom or preset mode (PRE). This option measures color temperature and tint by measuring color in a white balance card. This is done by taking a picture of it under your desired conditions. The downside to this method is that you have to go through the process every time you switch lighting conditions.
How to adjust white balance in camera
The process is simple, but every camera has its menu set up differently, so we can’t give you a step-by-step guide. The white balance settings should be somewhere in your menu, though. Once in there, you should see most of the options listed in our color temperature section (likely worded a bit differently).
Select your option based on lighting conditions. There is also an option for picking kelvin temperatures manually, as well as the preset mode for using a white balance card. Some cameras have physical buttons for white balance controls, which can save you the time of going through the menu.
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How to adjust white balance in post-processing
Photo editing programs and apps handle their options differently, but the general gist of the process should be very similar across the board. Find the “white balance” or “color” section in your editing software of choice. This area should have a list or drop-down menu with all the options listed in our color temperature section. Alternatively, you should be able to modify color temperature and tint manually, as well as things like vibrance, saturation, and more.
A handy option I recommend is the white balance waterdrop tool. You can select this option and then pick a white or neutral (gray) color within your image. The software will read the color you picked and bring it to its ideal levels.
For a more detailed tutorial: How to edit images using Adobe Lightroom
Breaking the rules
Photography is an art and creative expression, so we can’t tell you to stick by the rules. We have been telling you this whole time that the right white balance emulates your scene’s natural colors. That is a good rule of thumb to go by when learning the concept, but there are times when you might want to get creative with colors.
A “cooler” (more blue) color temperature makes a scene feel gloomy. Likewise, a more orange hue can also give images a warm, soothing effect. Color theory is a whole science of its own, and you can make amazing photographs if you learn to manipulate it. Here are some samples of images I recently shot, in which I played with temperatures and tints to achieve special effects.