Understanding White Balance

white balance guide

What is White Balance?

Have you ever taken a great image and then wondered why it’s got a cold blue cast over the entire photo? Or taken a shot of something indoors in artificial light and it’s come out yellow?

It’s down to something called white balance. In this article you’ll learn how to correctly set the white balance on your camera for different lighting situations. This is important to learn, because if it’s set incorrectly, it can ruin your image by adding color casts and making skin tones look unnatural. I will also talk about how to change white balance in post-processing.

What is White Balance?

White balancing your camera to the ‘color’ of the light you are shooting means adjusting the colors so that they look more natural to the human eye.

All light sources have a specific measurement on the color temperature scale. This scale is called the Kelvin scale, and all colors of light are measured in Kelvins. This is why, if you have ever looked at your camera’s custom white balance numbers, they have a ‘K’ after them.

Not all light sources have an equal color temperature. If you think of bright light like normal daylight, or studio lights, they tend to have a temperature around 5,550K, which is about halfway up the scale. A candle flame has a warmer, redder light, and is about 1850-1930K. At the other end of the scale is pure blue sky from a north-facing source. This comes in at 10,000K. It’s easier to think of the scale as going from dark, warm orange at the lower end to bright, cold blue at the higher end.

white balance guide

Our brain automatically adjusts to these changes in color temperature. If you looked at a white piece of paper under a fluorescent light, then took it outside in the sun, you’d still see a white piece of paper. A camera doesn’t have that ability, which is why we need to tell it what color temperature the light is so that it can accurately adjust the colors to show true white – regardless of whether you’re shooting in candlelight or in bright blue daylight.

Yes, you can choose auto white balance mode on your camera, but sometimes it’s not good at judging the color temperature and that is when you end up with a horrible blue or orange cast to your images.

white balance guide

This image above looks like it was shot under tungsten light without being white balanced. See the yellowy-orange cast that everything has?

Can’t I Just Change White Balance in Post Processing Instead?

Yes, you can – if you shoot in RAW format. You can change the white balance to any that you like best in Lightroom, because a RAW image stays unprocessed by the camera, and any settings it applies are for reference only, they do not affect the actual image.

If you shoot JPEG’s, however, you can’t change it in post. You can try, but I bet you won’t like the results. So you’ll have to learn to white balance for any given lighting situation.

Personally, although I shoot in RAW format almost exclusively, I always set my white balance before a shoot. It just saves time in post-processing, and I can see the colors rendered accurately as I shoot on my LCD or tethered PC screen. Sometimes I have forgotten to change the white balance and only remembered halfway through a shoot, but as I shoot in RAW it’s not a problem.

How to Manually Calculate White Balance

It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take long. You can buy a special white balance card, or you can use a piece of white paper. Simply put the paper in the scene you’re photographing in the light you’re using, and fill the viewfinder with the paper so that nothing else shows. You may need to put your lens on to manual focus to do this, as your autofocus will struggle to find something to focus on in all that white, but most lenses have a switch on the side which allows you to go back and forth between the two.

Take a couple of images, then go into your custom white balance menu on your camera. It will ask you which of the suitable images you want to use to set white balance. Choose one, set it, and your images will come out looking good whether you’re in tungsten lighting or outside on a cloudy day.

white balance guide

This image of snow covered trees is very blue in the shadows, and could do with the white balance adjusting to make it slightly warmer – in my opinion! Snow scenes can be tricky to shoot though.

white balance

How to Change White Balance in Camera

The process varies according to your camera manufacturer. As a Canon shooter, I press the ‘Q’ button on the back, and select white balance. It gives you a range of options for preset white balances, from tungsten through to cloudy, and the option for dialing in any Kelvin values you want. To create a custom white balance on Canon, you have to go into the main menu and select ‘custom white balance’ as I mentioned above.

If you don’t know how to change the white balance on your camera, I suggest looking at the instruction manual to find out how, or searching for info online.

How to Change White Balance in Lightroom

Go in to the ‘develop’ module of Lightroom, and have your image up on the screen. On the right-hand side, you will see the ‘white balance’ drop-down menu like the one below:

white balance

This gives you a range of preset white balances which you can apply to your image. Underneath the drop-down you will find a manual white balance adjuster, with two sliders labeled ‘temp’ and ‘tint.’ You can type the values in, or move the sliders.

You can also sync your new settings to other photos in the same collection, so that with one click of a button, they all have the same white balance. Simply change the white balance on your first image, then select all the photos that you wish to make the same in the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen, and click the ‘sync’ button at the bottom of the develop module:

white balance

You can use the sync feature to replicate any changes to one image across them all. It’s a real time saver!

Final Thoughts

Learning to set and change white balance isn’t hard, but it can make all the difference to your images. Practice taking photos of the same subject with different white balances and see what results you get! Then import them into Lightroom and play around with changing the white balance there. Sometimes you can create cool effects on your images by changing the white balance to a completely different one.

Next time, I shall tell you about understanding the different digital camera modes, and how to use them.

2017-12-05T09:52:15+00:00
  • Thank you

  • Chadwick Estey

    Thanks for this insight Phil! This is actually the second time this week that I’ve heard the trick of photographing a white piece of paper to set the white balance – seems super handy!

  • Sherry Lucas Gleason

    I am very amateur and after doing a facepalm for not understanding the white balance on Light Room and now will seek out the control on my Nikon. Thank you so much. Looking forward to starting the class. Can’t start now. It is a Christmas present you see so I’m not supposed to know about it 🤪😆😍