Every single person who made photos and uploaded them to the computer probably wondered why all of a sudden everything looked blue or not orange enough? The same concept applies to every genre of photography – the sunset could look paler, the skin could look greenish or blueish, etc.
In this article, I’m going to explain how it works, how to manipulate it and how to creatively use the white balance. I’m not going to write in Wikipedia-depth style, that’s a bit boring. As always, I’ll try keeping it as practical as possible.
What is White Balance
WB stands for the White Balance in photography. Colour balance or white balance is a general adjustment of all colours and their intensities in an image. The classical goal is to achieve correct neutral colours, hence the naming. However, a creative approach often allows manipulating white balance (known as WB) to be off neutral.
The concept of white balance covers the whole multitude of colours in the photo as a system, so when you adjust the so-called white point, all tones in the photos change accordingly.
Main takeaway: WB is the process of adjusting all colours at once to make neutral colours correct.
Understanding White Balance
The whole concept originates from the fact that our eyes see colours differently under different types of light. And in the end, we know that white is white even if it looks orange as our eyes automatically adjust the whole system of colours, fixing the white balance automatically. The cameras are not as perfect as our eyes and brain and they often produce wrong colours and wrong white balance. Also, we may have some idea we want to implement with colour. Another reason is that sometimes parts of images will have different correct white balance and the photographer might need to balance all of them. An example of the latter is real estate photography – you need everything evenly neutral. Another example is sky and land having different white balance settings especially if the land is in shade.
As you probably know, the colour of light has a temperature parameter, which actually means the tone – from cold to warm. The same applies to the White Balance setting. The temperatures are in the Kelvin Scale and they also have names for simplicity.
Here is a White Balance Chart with WB symbols combined with the Colour Temperature Chart:
It’s a bit counter-intuitive but the low temperatures are warmer, the higher temperatures are cooler. 5200-5500K is what we see during the midday and therefore, this colour temperature is neutral. So, to compensate these colour casts and bring it all to 5500K, our eyes balance it out with the opposite values.
For simplicity, the names mean the light source illuminating the objects. Like, if it’s cloudy outside, set to Cloudy. In theory, this should balance the colours straight away. But we’ll talk about fixing it all in the next chapters.
When Should I Set White Balance
The simple answer to this question is – always. You should always be aware of your WB setting. If you shoot JPG, it’s best to set it in advance because the information JPG stores is quite limited. And if your WB is too much off-balance, then upon restoring it in editing, you may lose data. However, if you shoot RAW, you can adjust later in editing without any losses. Always shoot raw. I usually leave it as Auto and then do fine-tuning during the raw conversion.
Should I Set White Balance in Raw
There’s one reason to preset WB even when shooting raw. As I said, it’s not affecting the resulting file, however, it does affect how the image looks on the camera screen. So, if you want to have a sneak peek at the image for certain colour temperature, you may preset it in-camera.
Setting WB in Camera
Every camera will have a different way to set WB. It’s best to finally read that user manual. In some cameras, you can change it only via the menu. In others, there’s a dedicated button for that. Through the menu, you typically navigate to the shooting menu, look for the WB or White Balance section and change it there.
Setting WB in Lightroom and ACR
There are three ways to change White Balance in a raw file.
- Choose a preset value from the drop-down list. It contains As Camera (as camera determined when making a shot), Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, etc. Try a few and see what works best.
- Pull sliders manually. There are two sliders which make a White Balance – Temperature (orange/blue) and Tint (green/magenta). By pulling these back and forth you may set your own look and feel to the photo.
- Using the White Balance Tool, which looks like a little eyedropper. To use it, point it at the presumably grey/white area and the system will shift the whole system of colours to make the spot of your choice neutral. I use this tool all the time when shooting interiors and not so often for the landscapes to set the white point.
Now that you know the technical side of setting White Balance we are almost ready to know the “why” side of the process, to learn how to do it effectively.
Setting White Balance in Photoshop
One last thing before we go into the creative part. If you have only JPG files, they go straight into Photoshop without ACR or Lightroom. And there’s no such thing as changing WB through Photoshop. But there’s a little trick for that. If you open Filters –> Camera Raw Filter from the menu and we are back to set the white point. You’ll have just the same ACR raw converter as if you had a raw file. Change your colour balance there and hit OK.
This photoshop white balance method, however, is worse than changing your WB at once during the raw conversion as it may lead to some information loss.
There are some ways to do the proper colour correction in photoshop but they are our of the scope of our current topic and it should be started with setting colour balance anyway.
Highlight and Shadow
This concept is very important! There are two types of light – direct and ambient. The light typically illuminates one side of the object, leaving the other side in shadow. But what happens to the shadow side as it’s not getting any direct light? Remember this – shadows have a blue hue. This is a fact of our reality (probably because the sky is blue). The rule of thumb is to keep this blue hue while editing. It’s not a hard-set rule but that’s what makes an image look natural.
Correct White Balance for Landscapes
It does not exist. Shall we end our story here? Absolutely not. While there’s no absolutely right WB, some could be obviously wrong. Like, how orange is too orange? You’ve seen those photos, I’m sure. There are certain rules I follow to make my landscape photos look best and I’m going to share them with you now. Be aware, some photographers may have other rules they made up and follow to set their colour balance.
How To Use White Balance
- The main rule is that a landscape photo should have the richest colour palette possible. This means I won’t smash it all with some radiating orange as it kills all other colours and tones. Such approach destroys the shadows making them also orange and flat. Mono images do exist but they are rarer than a classic landscape.
- To achieve the richest palette, I temporarily set Saturation to +100 and start pulling the WB sliders. When I see that I’m getting (for example) red highlights, blue clouds, green-cyan water, then I set my saturation back.
- Sometimes, the sky and the land require different settings. Then I expose my raw files several times and combine in Photoshop using layers. Alternatively, if the edge is simple, I may use a gradient adjustment in ARC/Lightroom with a White Balance modification.
- Sometimes I would additionally make shadows a bit bluer OR add a complimentary colour. For example, if the highlights are purple, I may make shadows greenish for additional colour contrast. You can do it via split toning or Curves tab. I won’t go into the details here as it’s more about editing now and I’m planning to write a set of editing articles.
- Don’t blindly do anything. Some images are born to be mono. For instance, a foggy morning can’t have any warm tones. A sunset bright sunlight hitting the lens can’t have anything cold. Use common sense.
This is a common practice to have a bit warmer white balance for landscape photography. Just watch your shadows and make them a bit cooler.
White Balance Issues
Most issues in this area originate in human mistakes. I see many newbie photographers want to make that sunrise fiery red or that fog deep blue. Any harsh adjustments kill subtle tones and half-tones. Sometimes it’s a good idea to make some adjustments, then walk around for a minute letting your eyes have some rest, then start fixing your colour balance again.
Another issue is mixed white balance – when you have multiple light sources. The fix is case by case because the desired result might be different each time. In real estate photography, you’ll want everything neutral, in a night portrait you may want to show coloured highlights, in a landscape you want everything shifted a bit into the warmer colours, etc.
White Balance Lifehacks
As you already know, you need some sure-fire neutral object to determine the correct white balance. You may not have anything in the frame to do so. There exist a few things to help you out.
A so-called grey card is what it is – a neutral grey piece of plastic. You include it in the photo, set correct settings using an eyedropper WB tool I mentioned earlier, then stamp it out (or make several frames – with and without the card). The trick here is to that you may need to do several shots with the card in different locations within the photo – if the light is different there.
I use a similar set of cards from eBay for like $5.
A little piece of magic here. Unlike grey card, where you have 1-3 cards, here you have a whole bunch of colours. Using this thing is not that easy as it may look as now you need to match many colours to the known colour hexes from the board. Using the checker in full is not a purpose of this post as it may require a separate post. I’m adding it here to let you know it exists. And by the way, it also has some shades of grey for the WB picker tool.
White Balance is an essential concept for any genre of photography. It brings a powerful way to balance all colours at once by adjusting the whole palette and changing the mood. It can, however, ruin your shot as well. As long as you shoot using the raw format, you can have the flexibility to play with this setting in editing without losing any single bit of information.
Such a great article about WB and how it should be done properly. I appreciate you sharing with everyone so they know the best practices. It’s way too common to see these things done wrong. Thanks again!
Anton Gorlin says