When I first switched to digital photography I was initially a bit confused by the concept of what is white balance in photography. However, like many things in photography, it’s actually really easy and quite obvious once you know a bit about it.
What is white balance in photography?
White balance in photography is the color balance in a digital image.
It’s altered using the white balance setting on your camera. You can also use editing software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, to alter white balance in post production.
Why is white balance in photography important?
If you make a point of concentrating on achieving the correct color balance in an image, you will soon be able to see instantly when the white balance in an image is out. It’s really hard not to see it when your eyes are tuned to it.
So, the downside is that you’ll want to go back over old images and fix them, because all you’ll be able to see is that they’re too warm or too cold. On the upside, you’ll be one step ahead in your photography journey!
On a slightly different note that’s also quite important when talking about accurate color in photos, make sure that your monitor is calibrated correctly for color and brightness.
Further reading: Monitor calibration for photography and 3 other fixes for off color
Creative white balance in photography
Not everyone wants a 100% accurate color temperature in their image and that’s fine, if it’s done intentionally.
Some photographers talk about having a warm style or a cool style. They’re talking about the color balance in their images. Once you know how to see color temperature and control white balance, you might want to bring it into your photography style.
Also, it is fun to use white balance creatively when you intentionally set the wrong white balance…but first you need to know how it will affect the image.
So, let’s get familiar with the details of white balance and how to set it.
What does white balance do?
Using the correct white balance setting for the conditions you’re shooting in helps to achieve an accurate white balance. In other words your whites will be white and you’ll avoid color casts that make your image appear unnatural.
Because changing the white balance alters the warm and cool tones of an image, it affects how someone feels when they view the image.
Imagine a gritty film scene that had gentle hues of orange and pink. It wouldn’t work. These scenes are usually quite blue and desaturated in color to emphasize the cold, hard vibe. Think Scandi noir.
The white balance in the first image was set correctly to sun, but in the second to shade and the third to tungsten. Because shade is a blue color temperature, the camera tries to warm up the image. Tungsten light is quite orange, so the camera tries to balance it with blue. Because the second two are the wrong settings for the situation, the color temperature of the images is wrong.
How is white balance in photography measured?
Kelvin is the unit of measurement for the color temperature of light. When you set white balance, you’re setting the Kelvin for the scene and telling the camera that the light is a particular color temperature.
The most used color temperatures range from 2000K (candle light) up to 9000K (dark shade). In between those two ends are:
- House lightbulbs at 3500K
- Daylight at 5500K
- An overcast day is about 6500K
- In the shade it’s roughly 7500K
Fortunately, you don’t have to remember all these measurements if you don’t want to, because your camera’s white balance settings knows. It just helps to understand white balance better.
You can download this cheat sheet if you fill in the form above.
How to set white balance
There are four ways that you can change your white balance settings:
- Auto white balance
- Use the standard white balance settings built into your camera
- Adjust the Kelvin manually for custom white balance
- Use custom white balance presets
Let’s look at each of these.
1. Setting auto white balance
You can set your white balance to A for auto, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as you might end up spending extra time in editing to ensure that all your images have the same color tones.
As I always say, the more control you have over your camera the more you control the end result. Get as much right in camera so that you have less work to do on the computer afterwards.
2. Using the inbuilt white balance settings
These settings are, in order from a blue color temperature to an orange color temperature:
- Fluorescent lighting
- Incandescent lighting
Using the inbuilt white balance settings is the easiest way to set white balance. When adjusting the white balance, the icons for these settings will show up.
All you need to do is assess the lighting conditions and dial in the setting accordingly.
3. Adjusting Kelvin manually for custom white balance settings
You can also set the colour temperature manually on the custom white balance setting by dialling in the Kelvin.
For example, if you’re shooting in candlelight, the colour temperature will be about 2000 Kelvin.
How to set custom white balance
- As you scroll through your inbuilt white balance settings you’ll come across one that is the letter K
- At this point you’ll also see the current Kelvin setting, for example 5000k
- Simply change this number to alter the Kelvin manually
4. Applying custom white balance presets
You can even apply your own custom pre-set.
This is particularly useful if you regularly shoot in the same environment. In my studio, for example, I measured the color temperature and stored the setting in my camera as a custom white balance preset.
If you shoot in several different lighting conditions regularly you can set a custom pre-set for each environment. The number of custom white balance presets you can use depends on your camera. On my Nikon D810 I can set up to 6 custom white balance presets.
How to set custom white balance presets
The exact process will vary slightly from one brand to the next, but the basics are the same:
- Photograph something white or medium gray (preferably a white balance card, also called a gray card) where you’ll be photographing, under the same lighting conditions
- The photo need not be in focus, but mustn’t be overexposed and the white area (or medium gray) should fill the frame
- Go into the custom while balance menu and select preset
- Select the photo you just took
- Set it as your preset and save it
- That’s it! You’re good to go
- Just remember to update your white balance if the lighting or location changes
On my Nikons the custom white balance preset process is…
- Take the photo as detailed above
- Select PRE (Preset Manual) in the white balance menu
- Choose the destination of the preset (d-1, d-2 etc)
- Scroll to Select Image
- Press the SET button to select the photo you just took
- Your preset is now ready for you to use
Further reading for help with exposure metering:
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