Photography class 5 - white balance 

Photography for beginners

White balance can have a huge impact to the photos we take. Understanding how to use white balance to colour correct our photos, or use it to creative control should be one of the first manual settings you learn.

Different light sources have different colour temperatures. Different blends of phosphors can create various shades of whites, depending on the blend. Florescent lights usually have a blueish hue to them. Incandescent light, like the light that's probably in your bulbs at home, have a yellow hue to them. We don't really notice them during everyday life because our brains account for the colour cast, and automatically adjusts. Want to test this for yourself? Take a white sheet of paper and look at it under different light sources. It'll probably still look white. Now, take a photo of that same piece of paper in the different light sources. See the colour cast yet?

I've put up a table below to show the colour of light that different situations produce. The camera's white balance settings are designed to attempt to neutralise the colour tones. The way it achieves this is by adding the opposite colour to the light temperature. Go and grab your camera, change the white balance setting to tungsten, and take a shot.. You'll see that the photo you've just taken is probably pretty blue. (unless shot under domestic lighting). Tungsten light has a very warm colour tone, so the camera adds a tonne of blue. Landscape photographers often use this kind of white balance control to creative effect. Changing the white balance to cloudy or shade will pump the photo full of warm tones, like a pseudo golden hour.


 Light colour temperature table. 

Light colour temperature table. 

Auto white balance

Auto white balance can be an amazing tool! In most situations auto white balance does a pretty good job of correctly matching the colours in the scene. You may find it is very reserved in it's corrections at times though. Shooting in incandescent light, it'll often still leave a warm cast to the photo. Likewise, with sunset/sunrise scenes, the auto white balance sometimes colour correct the beautiful warm light. This is where using the white balance presets can be super beneficial.

White balance presets

White balance presets are white balance settings that are pretuned to fit common light scenarios. 

  • Incandescent - This is the closest match for the most common light you'll find at home. This preset will colour correct much better than auto white balance.
  • Florescent - With a few different presets within this setting, some trial and error may be required.
  • Dayight - Pretuned to give neutral colours under midday sun.
  • Flash - A slightly warmer setting than daylight to compensate for the cooler tones a flash gives off.
  • Cloudy - Even warmer preset for cloudy skies. Light has a cooler tone to it in cloudy weather.
  • Shade - A warmer toned preset. Designed for open shade under a blue sky.
  • K - Some DSLRs allow the user to set the white balance manually. Best used with studio lights with a specific colour temperature.
  • PRE - Allows the user to take a white balance measurement from a neutral surface and create a custom preset from it. 

It's best practice to set your white balance before you start shooting. I am a hypocrite for saying this though. As I shoot in RAW mode, I will typically leave it in auto white balance mode and afford myself the adjustments later in post. RAW mode actually allows you to change white balance presets in your post processing workflow, so nailing the correct white balance isn't as much of a concern. Shooting in JPEG format doesn't allow for this flexibility. So getting the correct white balance is pretty important. You may decide that you'll always shoot in RAW, but just imagine that you've accidentally set your file format to JPEG.. At least with changing white balance settings in camera you'll have some usable photos until you realise the error. 



Now for the practical  stuff; Grab your camera and familiarise yourself with which white balance presets you have. Choose a preset and take a few shots in different lighting situations. Change the white balance setting and repeat the process for all white balance presets. If possible, try shooting at different times of the day too. You don't need to take any fancy photos, just try to take photos that give you a broad range of tones. This will really help you get an idea of the effect changing white balance has on your photos. Review your shots and pay attention to how the light looks in each shot.

* Remember! - Shooting in RAW mode allows you the flexibility to change white balance presets in post processing. *