I wish someone had written this article when I was learning about white balance. Getting good white balance consistently has really been my nemesis throughout my photography journey. I finally have a hold on it, but for real, white balance is the biggest beast to conquer when learning. So, skip my mistakes and fast forward yourself through some frustration as I help you understand white balance.
Color of Light
Light comes in different colors. Morning light, full sun, shade, sunset…all have different wavelengths that emit different colors of warmth or coolness. This affects our photos. Sometimes in a good way…a beautiful sunset for example, and in other times it isn’t quite what we are looking for, like the blue skin from a portrait taken in the shade. For the most part, our brains adjust how we see so that we still see “correctly”. Colors still look pretty much how they are supposed to whether we are hanging out in the shade or not. Cameras don’t have brains to compensate. Auto white balance is it’s best attempt. We can, however, control that luckily. Shooting in manual is about taking control of your camera. And controlling white balance is no different.
There are several ways to adjust for different colors of light in camera.
- Auto White Balance
- Camera Presets
- Custom White Balance
Auto White Balance
This is the camera’s default for white balance. The camera chooses the white balance setting for you. Pretty self explanatory.
Cons: Inaccurate for tricky light settings, can change from photo to photo in one shoot causing a headache in editing, often need changes in post processing.
These are preprogrammed presets that are installed on just about every camera. There are presets for sunny, cloudy, flash, florescent lighting, shade, and incandescent, most likely. The presets are assigned a Kelvin setting for the lighting scenario.
Pros: Fast, easily accessible
Cons: Least accurate, limited profiles, Kelvin values have ranges which the presets don’t take into account.
The color of light is measured in Kelvins (K). On one end of the spectrum is 1500- 2000K which is super orangey yellow like candlelight, and at the other end is 10000K which is a dark blue like night fall in the summer. And then there is everything in between. Natural light is considered daylight, where there isn’t a heavy yellow or blue light cast. When using Kelvin for white balance, first you decide what color of light your are shooting in, then dial in the corresponding number.
Along with everything else photography, this technique takes practice, but soon you’ll learn which settings work best for windowlight, outdoors in open shade, etc. and you’ll only need to make minor changes in post processing.
Pros: No extra tools needed, fast and easy, reproducible
Cons: Some artificial light sources like florescent lighting have a green or magenta tint that Kelvin does not account for, so it can be a little trickier in post processing. Takes practice (like everything else worth learning).
Custom White Balance (CWB)
There are several tools that can be used to set a CWB in camera, the gray card being my favorite. It is easy to do and the most accurate, but not always the quickest option.
- Gray Card
- Expodisc or other lens cap for white balance
- Things you’d use in a pinch (white sheet of paper, sidewalk, etc.)
Pros: Accurate, takes green/magenta into account, can be used in mixed lighting,
Cons: Extra tool needed, some cameras require going into the menu to assign profile
Can you tell which white balance techniques I’m pushing here? I use a combination of Kelvin and CWB when shooting. I have learned the best Kelvin ranges that I like and I use a CWB in tricky lighting scenarios.
Give some of the techniques a whirl! See which options your camera has and try to set your white balance in camera.
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