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    Understanding White Balance: The Ultimate Guide

    By May 11, 2020 June 8th, 2020 Camera Basics, Photography

    Have you wondered why the colors in your pictures don’t match the scene?

    The reason for this is light; different types of light cast different colors in your image.

    This is called a “color cast.”

    Color casts can be frustrating, but fixing it is easier than you think.

    How?

    By adjusting your white balance.

    In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about white balance to make sure the colors in your image look exactly how you want them to every time.

    What is White Balance? 

    Color cast causes the colors in your image to look inaccurate compared to real life. 

    When looking at a scene, we don’t see the same color cast that the camera does because our brains adjust automatically to eliminate them. 

    For example, if you look at a white sheet of paper in daylight versus inside your home, it will most likely look the same color. That’s because your eyes automatically adjust to different lighting situations.

    Unfortunately, digital cameras are not capable of adjusting to different lighting situations as accurately as our eyes. 

    This is where white balance comes into play.

    White balance allows you to remove unwanted color cast from an image.

    To determine if your scene has a color cast,  take a photo of a white object then review if the object remains white in the picture. 

    If it doesn’t, there is likely a color cast in your scene.

    For this scenario, you can white balance to shift the colors of your image until you reach your desired colors. 

    To fully understand what white balance is, we need to answer two questions: 

    What causes a color cast in an image? 

    How do you determine how much to adjust the colors in an image?

    What is Color Temperature? 

    Light Sources

    Light sources emit different color temperatures. Different color temperatures are what causes color cast in images. 

    Our cameras capture different color temperatures, and as a result, your images experience a color cost. 

    Color temperature is measured in Kelvin. The Kelvin scale goes from 1,000 to 10,000; every light source will fall somewhere on the Kelvin scale. 

    Lower values on the Kelvin scale are characterized by a warm hue. This often results in images with an orange or red color cast over them. 

    On the other hand, higher values on the Kelvin scale are characterized by a cool hue. This results in images with a blue or green color cast over them. 

    Specific light sources typically have a standard color temperature range.

    For example, candles typically measure between 1,000 and 2,000 on the Kelvin scale. As a result, if you are shooting under candlelight, your image will have a warm color cast. 

    Below is a table with the common Kelvin scores for different light sources. This will give you a good idea of the color temperature of common lighting sources. 

    As a general reference, here is a breakdown of the Kelvin Scale. 

    Warm Light: 1,000 K – 4,500 K 

    Neutral Light: 5,000 K 

    Cool Light: 5,500 K – 10,000 K 

    Color Temperature and Conditions 

    It is also important to note that the conditions that you are shooting in can also impact the color temperature. 

    Although you are shooting under the same light source, the color cast can be different. If you are shooting under the sun, clouds can cause the color temperature to reduce significantly. 

    In the table above, direct sunlight is typically between 9,000 and 10,000 Kelvin. If the clouds were to cover the sun on the same day, the light temperature would reduce to a 7,000 Kelvin. 

    As a result, the color cast will be drastically different in each situation. During direct sunlight, the color cast will cooler than when shooting on an overcast day. 

    When you are shooting, it’s important that you make sure nothing is blocking your light source. If objects are covering your light source such as clouds or filters, it will affect the color temperature of your light source. 

    The more coverage a light source has the warmer or more white a light source will become. For example, when clouds cover the sun, the light temperature will become warmer. 

    How Does White Balance Work?

    White balance is the tool that digital cameras use to remove the color cast in an image caused by different light sources. 

    This may sound like a complicated process, but the reality is that it is quite simple. Your camera will adjust the colors of your image in the opposite direction of the light source you are shooting under. 

    For example, if you are shooting in warm light, your camera will make the colors in your image cooler. Likewise, if you’re shooting under a cool light source, your camera will make the colors in your image warmer. 

    In any event, your camera will adjust the colors in your image to be a neutral color temperature. This will make the colors in your image as accurate to the real scene as possible. 

    Have you ever taken a picture and realize that the colors in it don’t match the scene.

    The reason for this is light; different types of light can change the colors in your image.

    The solution? Adjusting your white balance

    In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about white balance to make sure the colors in your image look exactly how you want them to every time.

    What is White Balance? 

    White balance is the act of removing the unwanted color cast from an image. Color cast causes the colors in your image to look inaccurate compared to real life. 

    When looking at a scene, we don’t see the same color cast that the camera does because our brains adjust automatically to eliminate them. 

    To determine if your scene has a color cast,  take a photo of a white object then review if the object remains white in the picture. 

    If it doesn’t, there is likely a color cast in your scene.

    In digital photography, white balance allows you to correct the colors in your image to make them appear more natural and realistic. 

    For example, if you look at a white sheet of paper in daylight versus inside your home, it will most likely look the same color. Our eyes adjust to different lighting situations automatically, and this allows us always to see the same color regardless of the lighting. 

    Unfortunately, digital cameras are not capable of adjusting to different lighting situations as accurately as our eyes. As a result, white balance is the tool that allows digital cameras to adjust for different lighting conditions. 

    Using white balance, you can shift the colors of your image until you reach your desired colors. To fully understand what white balance is, we need to answer two questions: 

    What causes a color cast in an image? 

    How do you determine how much to adjust the colors in an image?

    What is Color Temperature? 

    Light Sources

    Light sources emit different color temperatures. Different color temperatures are what causes color cast in images. 

    Our cameras capture different color temperatures, and as a result, your images experience a color cost. 

    Color temperature is measured in Kelvin. The Kelvin scale goes from 1,000 to 10,000; every light source will fall somewhere on the Kelvin scale. 

    Lower values on the Kelvin scale are characterized by a warm hue. This often results in images with an orange or red color cast over them. 

    On the other hand, higher values on the Kelvin scale are characterized by a cool hue. This results in images with a blue or green color cast over them. 

    Specific light sources typically have a standard color temperature range.

    For example, candles typically measure between 1,000 and 2,000 on the Kelvin scale. As a result, if you are shooting under candlelight, your image will have a warm color cast. 

    Below is a table with the common Kelvin scores for different light sources. This will give you a good idea of the color temperature of common lighting sources. 

    As a general reference, here is a breakdown of the Kelvin Scale. 

    Warm Light: 1,000 K – 4,500 K 

    Neutral Light: 5,000 K 

    Cool Light: 5,500 K – 10,000 K 

    Color Temperature and Conditions 

    It is also important to note that the conditions that you are shooting in can also impact the color temperature. 

    Although you are shooting under the same light source, the color cast can be different. If you are shooting under the sun, clouds can cause the color temperature to reduce significantly. 

    In the table above, direct sunlight is typically between 9,000 and 10,000 Kelvin. If the clouds were to cover the sun on the same day, the light temperature would reduce to a 7,000 Kelvin. 

    As a result, the color cast will be drastically different in each situation. During direct sunlight, the color cast will cooler than when shooting on an overcast day. 

    When you are shooting, it’s important that you make sure nothing is blocking your light source. If objects are covering your light source such as clouds or filters, it will affect the color temperature of your light source. 

    The more coverage a light source has the warmer or more white a light source will become. For example, when clouds cover the sun, the light temperature will become warmer. 

    How Does White Balance Work?

    White balance is the tool that digital cameras use to remove the color cast in an image caused by different light sources. 

    This may sound like a complicated process, but the reality is that it is quite simple. Your camera will adjust the colors of your image in the opposite direction of the light source you are shooting under. 

    For example, if you are shooting in warm light, your camera will make the colors in your image cooler. Likewise, if you’re shooting under a cool light source, your camera will make the colors in your image warmer. 

    In any event, your camera will adjust the colors in your image to be a neutral color temperature. This will make the colors in your image as accurate to the real scene as possible. 

    White Balance Modes 

    Now that we have established that white balance is the tool that digital cameras use to adjust for different color temperatures. Digital cameras come with a variety of different in-camera white balance modes, including automatic, presets, and custom. 

    Automatic White Balance (AWB)

    One of the most common white balance settings is AWB or automatic white balance.

    In this setting, your camera will detect the color temperature of your scene and adjust the colors in your image automatically. 

    Automatic white balance is most effective when you are shooting outdoors. Cameras often work well at detecting the differences in light temperature in natural light.

    Automatic white balance is not as effective in complex lighting situations. If you’re shooting in RAW format, this won’t be an issue since you can always correct your white balance in post-processing.

    But, if you are not shooting in RAW or prefer to reduce editing work in these situations, then I recommend adjusting your white balance on location using white balance presets.

    White Balance Presets

    Cameras typically come with white balance presets, including shade, tungsten, incandescent, daylight, cloudy, shade, and flash. These white balance presets adjust the white balance for predetermined color temperatures. 

    Each preset mode is set to a specific type of light source and color temperature. As a result, when you set it to a specific mode such as overcast, your image will be adjusted accordingly to offset the color cast caused by your light source. 

    White balance preset modes apply a generic white balance adjustment for a given scene. The adjustments can be inaccurate if your color temperature does not match the mode you are using. 

    Overall white balance preset modes are effective if you are shooting under the predetermined scenes. This will give you greater control than using automatic white balance. 

    As long as you know the basic color temperature, then you can use white balance presets to adjust the colors in your image. 

    Tungsten /Incandescent 

    Tungsten and Incandescent are often used interchangeably as camera presets. They often represent the same range of values on the Kelvin scale. 

    Tungsten and incandescent light are warm, and the temperature can vary depending on the type of light bulb you are using. Tungsten and incandescent preset typically adjust for light between 2,400 K and 3,200 K. 

    When shooting with tungsten lightbulbs, your images will have a warm or red-orange color cast. To correct the warm color cast, your camera will make the colors in your image cooler. 

    Daylight

    As the name suggests, this setting accounts for any color cast caused during daylight. The daylight setting is preset to account for color temperature between 4,900 K and 5,200 K. 

    This preset is best when shooting during mid-day or when the weather is clear. It’s important to note that if there is cloud cover or you are in the shade, you need to use a different white balance mode. 

    There are several other presets that account for the different color temperature if you are not in direct sunlight. 

    Cloudy

    The cloudy preset is programmed to account for light temperatures during bright daylight with a bit of cloud coverage. Cloud coverage causes direct light to become cooler. 

    The cloudy preset typically accounts for color temperatures between 6,000 K and 6,500 K. Its important to note that the cloudy preset is that always accurate. 

    Since cloud cover can range from heavy to light sometimes the adjustment is not sufficient or too much when shooting under overcast skies. 

    Shade

    The shade preset is programmed to account for light temperature when shooting under direct sunlight but in shaded areas. Shaded areas cause the color temperature to become significantly cooler. 

    As a result, the shade preset typically accounts for color temperatures between 7,500 K and 8,000 K. 

    Remember that if you use the shade preset, it will adjust the entire image for as if there was shade. If only a portion of your image is in the shade, then it might be best to determine what the color temperature is for the rest of your image. 

    If the majority of your image is in the shade, then it might be best to use the shade preset, but if not, then I recommend using the preset that best matches the majority of your scene. 

    Flash

    The preset flashed is programmed to account for the color temperatures caused when using the flash feature. The flash feature on most cameras often emits a particular type of color temperature. 

    In most cases, the light from a flash results in color temperature between 5,300 K and 5,600 K. As a result, the preset will typically make your image slightly warmer to account for the color cast caused by the flash. 

    Custom White Balance 

    Most cameras also include two options that allow you to set a custom white balance: Kelvin and PRE. 

    Kelvin Mode

    The Kelvin white balance mode allows you to determine the exact value on the Kelvin scale that you are adjusting for. This mode is the most accurate because it allows you to set the exact white balance value you want to adjust for. 

    The disadvantage of using the Kelvin method is that it requires that you have a better understanding of the lighting conditions you are in. Determining the exact Kelvin value of your situations is not always easy, but there are a few ways to do so. 

    Using Kelvin mode gives you full flexibility and allows you to adjust to changing light temperatures very easily. This is great if your shooting throughout the day, and you need to adjust as you shot. 

    Kelvin is also a great option if you don’t like the adjustment of any of the other color modes. It is also great for adding a creative flair to your images using white balance. 

    PRE

    The PRE camera mode the other custom white balance setting that most cameras have. In this mode, you can take a photo or select a photo that it will use as a baseline for the white balance adjustment. 

    To get an accurate reading, it is recommended that you take a photo with the entire frame is filled by a white or grey subject under your lighting conditions. I recommend you use a grey card if you are using the PRE mode. 

    A grey card is the easiest way to get a white or grey surface under your lighting conditions. 

    I don’t recommend you use the PRE method because it can be time-consuming and difficult to measure. 

    If you do want to use a custom mode, I highly recommend the Kelvin method over PRE. 

    How to Measure Color Temperature 

    Using a Color Temperature Meter

    The first and most traditional way of measuring color temperature is using a light and color meter. Using a professional light and color meter is the most accurate way of determining the color temperature of your scene. 

    It is very simple to use; all you have to do is point the device to an object with reflected light. The device will then give you an accurate measure of your color temperature. 

    Professional handheld color temperature meters are expensive. Most light temperature meters will cost between $300 and $600, but they can go as high as $1,500. 

    If you are looking for a quality and inexpensive color temperature meter, the Illuminati Wireless Light and Color Temperature Meter is a great option. It is small and compact and connects to your smartphone using Bluetooth, which makes it very easy it use. 

    Smartphone App

    If you are looking for a cheaper alternative to using a handheld color temperature meter, you can always use a smartphone app. There are several free apps that allow you to measure the color temperature, but I recommend you make a small investment and get pay for a premium app. 

    The premium apps will give offer more accurate measurements of your color temperature and give you more features. 

    Adjusting White Balance In Post Processing 

    Using camera modes while you shoot is not the only way you can adjust the white balance of your photos. One of the most common and effective ways you can adjust your white balance is during post-processing. 

    Nearly every post-processing software, whether you are using a paid option such as Lightroom or Photoshop or if you are using a free version such as GIMP, they allow you to edit your white balance. White balance is now a standard editing feature making it very easy to adjust even after you have taken your photo. 

    When editing your white balance in post-processing, you are typically given two slider options: Temperature and tint. Each of these sliders adjusts the white balance of your image slightly differently. I will discuss the difference between these two sliders shortly. 

    Another important thing you must consider before you start editing your photos is the file format you are shooting in. For the best results shot in RAW, although you can adjusting the white balance of JPEGs, you are severely limited. 

    Shooting in RAW and White Balance in Post Processing 

    Shooting in RAW is the best choice if you want to edit your white balance in post-processing. RAW images offer more flexibility and greater control during post-processing. 

    One of the biggest advantages of shooting in RAW is that you can set your white balance after you have captured the shot. The adjustment made in RAW will act the same as if you made the adjustments on location. 

    Another great thing about RAW images is that they are non-destructive. This means that when you make any edits to your images, they are not permanent. You always have a copy of the original image if you want to undo your changes. 

    There are many advantages to shooting in RAW, such as higher quality image, wider tonal range, and greater editing flexibility. 

    White Balance Sliders in Post-Processing

     

    When editing your white balance in post-processing, you typically have two different sliders to use: temperature and tint. 

    Temperature

    The temperature slider is the traditional white balance slider that all editing software offer. The temperature slider adjust the white balance on a cool and warm scale. 

    Moving the slider to the left will make your image cooler or more blue while moving it to the right will your image warmer or more yellow. 

    Tint

    The second slider you can use to adjust your white balance is tint. The tint slider allows you to remove any tint that a light source may add. This is typically not an issue when shooting with natural light but can be an issue when you are shooting with artificial light, such as tungsten or incandescent bulbs. 

     For example, if you are shooting in the city, some light post are surrounded by colored glass such as green. This glass will add a tint to the overall colors in the image. 

    The tint slider allows you to adjust for any green or magenta tint that is added to your image. Moving the tint slider to the left will increase the green nature of your image while adjusting the slider to the right will increase the magenta tint on your image. 

    If your images do have a tint, adjust the slider in the opposite direction to remove it. 

    White Balance Presets in Post Processing 

    If you forget to adjust your white balance while you are shooting, post-processing software also allows you to use the same preset options offered by your camera. 

    The effect that is applied while you are shooting will be applied during post-processing as well. The benefit of using post-processing is that you can test the impact of different white balance presets on your image and choose the one you like the most. 

    Using White Balance Creatively 

    White balance is most commonly used to correct for any color cast caused by the light source you are shooting under. This is not the only use for white balance; you can also use white balance creatively. 

    Using white balance, you can add a creative flair to your image or even enhance the colors of your image. 

    For example, if you are shooting during sunset, but the warm tones of your image don’t match the mood you wanted to create, you can enhance it using white balance. Consider using a white balance preset mode, such as cloudy to enhance the warm tones in your image. 

    It is important to note that if you want to enhance the colors of your image, you must choose the opposite lighting than you are shooting in. 

    If you want to enhance the warmness of your image, you need to use a cool value on the Kelvin scale (6,500K to 10,000K). Since a high value on the Kelvin scale will enhance the warmness of your image to offset the coolness, using it with an already warm image will enhance the warmness even more. 

    Wrap-Up

    The color of an image is one of the most important aspects of photography. Unfortunately, the colors in an image are not always representative of the scene. This is because your image’s color is heavily impacted by the light and conditions you are shooting in. 

    To ensure that images have accurate colors regardless of your light source or conditions, photographers adjust their images’ white balance.

    With a good understanding of light temperature and shooting in RAW, you should have no issue using white balance to adjust the colors in your images. This can be by choosing the best camera mode for your lighting situation while your shooting or adjusting your white balance during post-processing. 

    This article will teach you everything you need to know about white balance so that you always produce images with the exact colors that you want. 

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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