White balance is your camera’s way of interpreting color. It needs to consider the “color temperature” of a light source, meaning where a given scene falls on the ROYGBIV (that’s Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet) scale. All color in the world falls somewhere on that line. Our eyes are very good at “interpreting” what is white under different light sources, but digital cameras do not have the same capacity and for too long it has been the job of the digital sensor to translate those color with a function called Auto White Balance (AWB) — meaning that we are essentially allowing the camera to do the work for us, and this can often lead to unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts. No photographer should ever let a camera do the work that rightly belongs in his or her hands.
The reason to adjust white balance is to get the colors in photographs as accurate as possible. You don’t notice the difference in color temperature you because your eyes adjust automatically for it. So unless the temperature of the light is very extreme a white sheet of paper will generally look white to us. A digital camera doesn’t have the eye’s ability to make these adjustments automatically and needs the skilled photographer to tell it how to treat different light.
Different sources of light have a different ‘color’ (or temperature) to them. Fluorescent lighting adds a greenish or bluish cast to photos whereas tungsten (incandescent/bulbs) lights add a yellowish tinge to photos. And there are going to be times when you will be shooting under two or more light sources and your camera’s auto white balance will go crazy, and so will you when you try to fix it in post-production. Color balance is the single most difficult part of a photograph to completely correct in post-production.
Most of us do not have to deal with color temperature on a highly critical basis, but there are some rules (suggestions really) that must be followed to advance one’s ability to see and seeing is what it’s all about in photography
1. Wean yourself off Auto White Balance: learn to judge color temperature with your eye. It is not difficult.
2. Eliminate Auto Exposure. Take the time to judge exposure for yourself. Trust your histograms.
3. Always shoot RAW for the most digital information available.
Each of these three factors work inter-dependently, and have an impact on each other. For instance, a shift in color is going to necessitate a change in exposure, and a RAW file is going to have significantly more color range than a JPG and you’ll be able to see the difference.
The number of preset white balances on a digital camera are different for every brand, but they are usually listed in order of increasing color temperature, and are just estimates for the actual lighting conditions you might be facing. You may actually prefer a cooler (more blue) or warmer (more red) tone to your photos. One hidden item in your menu is that of saturation. That can be manipulated to render the color of an object to a great degree. Use it carefully in combination with white balance to fine tune images. One thing is certain, don’t just use Auto White Balance and think you’ll fix it in post-production. Get it right in the camera and you’ll spend less time in front of the computer, or worse, paying someone to rescue your mistakes. Take the time to do it right on the spot.
Here are some of the basic White Balance settings you’ll find on cameras:
- Auto – this is where the camera does all the work for you and it is invariably compromised guesswork.
- Tungsten – this mode is usually symbolized with a little bulb and is for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten (incandescent) lighting
- Fluorescent – this compensates for the ‘cool’ light of fluorescent light and will warm up your shots.
- Daylight/Sunny – most cameras have this setting because it acts as an “auto” white balance on bright sunny days
- Cloudy – this setting generally warms things when your shooting on a cloudy day or even in the shade on a bright sunny day
- Flash – the flash of a camera can often add a slight bluish touch so in Flash mode will add some red or orange to the scene. In certain situations this will work better than the Cloudy setting.
- Shade – the light in shade is generally cooler bluer than shooting in direct sunlight so this mode will warm things up a little.
When your working with color-critical projects, or for situations where you anticipate auto white balance or even specific color balances problems, creating a specific reference to nail down the color temperature of a lighted object can be easily accomplished by using the K (for Kelvin) temperature feature on more advanced pro and prosumer digital cameras. It will require shooting a target (usually a white card) and adjusting your camera’s color temperature to that image until you find a clean, neutral white to work from. Every camera brand is different, so check with your manufacturer’s manual for detail on how it’s done.
White Balance is an aspect of photography that many digital camera owners don’t take the time to experiment with – they let the camera do the work for them – don’t be one of them. Taking the time to learn about color temperature and white balance can well worth learning about as it will not only have a real impact on your photographs, but having a deeper understanding of how your DSLR works will invariably get you thinking more and more. It may prove difficult at first, but in the long run it will make you a better and more knowledgeable photographer.
Different digital cameras have different ways of adjusting white balance so ultimately you’ll need to get out your camera’s manual to understand the specifics of how to make changes. Many digital cameras have several pre-set modes to help you make the adjustments. About this part of your work you’ll need to remember one important acronym: RTM (Read the Manual!!)