Photo 101: White Balance

Apologies for the delay in this series. Have I mentioned how much the summer heat kills by creative ability? Plus, my little studio doesn’t have great airflow, which makes it more than uncomfortable to work in in the summer. But the heat appears to be breaking. I’m hoping it stays relatively cool for the rest of the season.

But anyway. Back to photography!


 

One of the many things that makes the human brain amazing is its ability to color correct just about everything in just about every situation. What does that mean? Think about your best friend. You know what they look like and what color their hair and skin is. Unless you’re under dramatically colored lighting (like at a rock concert), you’re able to look at your friend and perceive their skin color the way it actually looks, instead of how it looks under that light. For example, if your living room has very warm lighting, your friend’s face would look much yellower than usual, but your brain thinks, “No, that’s not how they look. THIS is how they look!’. And so they do.

No matter how cool cameras get, they can’t color correct as efficiently or as effectively as your brain does. This is why, when you look at certain pictures (especially ones taken with film), people and things can be the wrong color. Maybe your friend’s skin tone looks right, but the couch or the walls look too blue. This is caused by the camera applying color correction filters to the entire image, not to individual people or things the way your brain can. That doesn’t mean your camera is bad. It just means that it’s an electronic system that doesn’t color correct the world item by item the way your brain does.

If your photographs are turning out with an unexpected hue across the board, you can use the White Balance tool to help correct that. Find the ‘WB’ on the back of your camera or in the menu settings and adjust it until the colors on the screen are correct, or as close to correct as possible. In some situations like school gyms, concert lighting, or under street lights, the camera may not be able to perfectly adjust for the type of light you’re working with. In that case, you can try to set a Custom White Balance (digital SLR, mirrorless, and some Point and Shoot cameras will have this setting). Barring that, just find the White Balance setting that works best.

Though some cameras will have a broader range of White Balance settings, every camera I have come across has had the same basic ones: Automatic, Sunny, Cloudy, Open Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent.

Automatic:

This is the default White Balance and the one I recommend for most situations. These days, cameras are good at identifying the type of available light and adjusting accordingly. You can leave the camera in Automatic White Balance most of the time and not worry about it. For this photograph, for instance, I photographed one of my bookshelves using window light, no flash, on a dark and cloudy day:

DSC09012_auto

The colors are accurate, the whites are white, and the blacks are black. Good job, camera!

If you find that Automatic White Balance isn’t doing the job, here is a rundown of what the other settings will do.

Full Sun:

This setting is represented by a picture of a sun with rays extending out from it like a kindergartener might draw.

In this mode, the camera is setting itself for a color temperature of approximately 5000 Kelvins, or, the color of sunlight around noon.

DSC09013_full sun

The colors here are still pretty accurate, given how cool the lighting in my studio was. Use the Full Sun setting when you’re taking photographs outside on a bright sunny day.

Full Shade:

This will be denoted by a picture of a house with a line denoting a shadow off the roof.

And what, you ask, is Full Shade? It’s the kind of light you get when you are in the shadow of something big, like a building or a bunch of trees. It’s a sunny day, but you’re not in direct sunlight so the light is slightly cooler and more diffuse. Full Shade is great for portraits, as the light will be fairly even across the face(s) and not casting harsh shadows, and your subject won’t be squinting because of intense sunlight.

DSC09014_open shade

Notice how the whites are a little warmer (yellower) than the first two photos? This is because the camera is applying a warming filter to the photographs to offset the cooling effect that shade has on light.

Cloudy:

This will be denoted by a little picture of a cloud.

It’s for those cloudy days that are optimal for portraits and flowers. The light is soft and diffuse, so no matter where you go you won’t have to worry about harsh shadows or squinting people. Just remember to keep an eye on the sky in case of rain.

DSC09015_cloudy

In this photograph, the colors are accurate, though slightly warmer than the Automatic example. This is because of how the Cloudy setting processes colors (by warming them up a little), and because I was photographing these books using natural light on a cloudy day.

Incandescent:

This will be denoted by a little picture of a light bulb.

Though we don’t use tungsten light bulbs as often as we used to, a lot of household compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are manufactured differently in order to produce a warmer light than they otherwise would. They’re called Warm White and things like that. This warm light creates a cozier feeling in your living room or bedroom than normal fluorescents. But it can give your photographs an amber hue if your camera can’t accommodate that warm light automatically. The Incandescent White Balance will apply a blue filter to the photograph to counterbalance the yellow glow of the light bulbs. It works well in your living room, but if you’re not under that kind of light it will make your photographs blue:

DSC09016_tungsten

If you take a photograph and it turns out with these sorts of colors, make sure to check your White Balance settings. If it’s in Incandescent, and you’re under a different kind of light, make sure you adjust that setting to something more accurate. Software can help you correct the colors a little bit, but it’s difficult at best and doesn’t always work.

Fluorescent:

This will be denoted by a little picture of a fluorescent light tube.

Your camera may have more than one Flourescent White Balance setting, depending on its age or level. A little point and shoot camera might have one or two Flourescent settings, while others may have more. My Sony A7 III has four. This helps account for the many kinds of fluorescent lighting. For example, where I work we use three different kinds of fluorescent lights: regular fluorescent for the main floor and the hallway, warm fluorescent that shines on photographs and displays, and daylight balanced fluorescent where our photo printer is. To a trained eye, these three lights produce noticeably different colors, and so require slightly different White Balance settings.

DSC09017_flourescent

This photograph was taken using warm fluorescent settings. It’s balancing out the warming effect of a fluorescent.

DSC09018_daylight flourescent

I used the Daylight Fluorescent setting for this one. Notice that the colors are more accurate than the previous photo, in which the camera applied a blue filter to balance out the Warm Fluorescent’s yellow.

Most cameras will do a perfectly fine job of adjusting for the various colors of light in the Auto White Balance mode, but if you ever find yourself looking at your screen and thinking, “The colors don’t look right at all!”, just remember that you can adjust the colors using the White Balance adjustment.

2 thoughts on “Photo 101: White Balance

  1. This is really neat! I knew that my eyes made automatic adjustments, but I never stopped to think about how this affects my photography. Not that I do much fancy photography — I don’t even have a real camera any longer, just my cell phone. XD

    Is your studio in your home?

  2. Color in photographs is an issue I have been dealing with and trying to explain to people (often with little success) for a long time. And I get it. Color seems so obvious when you look around. The sky is blue. Grass is green. Duh, right? But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and not a lot of people realize it. I’m hoping that I simplified this enough here to get people to at least consider it in their photography. How did I do?

    My ‘studio’ is technically the second bedroom in my apartment. I live in an old building, and I always wonder how people dealt with the rooms before fans and air conditioning was a thing.

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