Understanding White Balance

White Balance Explained: a Guide to Getting Your Color Temperature Just Right

All light has a temperature – not one you can feel, or one that we can measure as heat, but an amount of ‘warmth’ in its tone. White Balance plays a critical role in setting the mood for your images. A warm light casts a cozy glow, reminding us of firesides and winter indoors. A cold light can be harsh or even clinical. White balance is utilized in all types of photography, from real estate and architecture photography to portraits, wildlife, wedding photography, landscapes, and product photography.

Lights shown with their Kelvin color temperature

How can light have a temperature?

You might be wondering how light can have a temperature, or an anything – isn’t all light just light? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a physicist to understand, or at least, not the bits we’re interested in as photographers.

Light is partly energy, and that energy has a frequency. Our eyes see that frequency as color. Most light sources emit some light in all the frequencies we can see, but more light in certain, specific wavelengths.

Compensating for different lights

Of course, we really see with our brains, not our eyes, and they do a fantastic job of adjusting the way we see the world to compensate for different lights. When we look at a picture, however, it’s only part of what we see. Our brains, already compensating for the real world, can’t compensate for the image in the picture.

This is why white balance is so important. By balancing the colors so that white in the picture is truly, exactly white, the picture will look normal when we see it.

It’s tempting to say that cameras can’t compensate for the world in the same way we do, but that isn’t entirely true anymore. Almost all cameras use automatic white balance by default, which is the camera trying to do our brain’s work for us, as well as our eyes’.

Of course, we are slightly better at it than cameras are. There are a few particular situations where taking back control of your white balance can lead to a better photo.

When to Manually Set White Balance

Perhaps the trickiest situation is when multiple, conflicting light sources get involved. This can be incredibly hard for a camera to get right – after all, which light source should it pick? Splitting the difference reduces the confusion, but will never look ‘right’.

Humans are social animals, and thousands of years of evolution have taught us to pay visual attention to people. We are hard-wired to find people and faces everywhere we look, which is why it’s so easy to find things in nature that look a bit like a face. As a result, matching whichever light is falling on people is usually the way to go. Yes, the surroundings will look odd, but that’s part of choosing a scene.

Or it can be a deliberate choice, which leads us to something else cameras can’t do for us. Intentionally getting your white balance just a little bit ‘wrong’ can change a picture – sometimes for the better. A nice warm glow on skin can add a little intangible something to a photograph that really makes it larger-than-life.

Another creative trick is to play with the background. A ‘warm’ subject on a ‘cold’ background can make a person pop in a very unique way. And it doesn’t stop there – playing with white balance can lead to some stunning images that you could never find in nature. And even if you did, your brain would fix them before you got to see.

Setting White Balance on Your Camera

Thankfully, this is very easy to do now. In the old days, a given film had a white balance of its own and there was no way to change it, but now it’s just a setting you can change on your camera. These settings are named for the type of light illuminating your composition – ‘incandescent’ for old-style light bulbs (or more commonly LEDs designed to mimic them), daylight for the great outdoors and so on.

These can be a bit tricky to use creatively – you need to use a setting in the opposite direction than what you intend. For example, choosing ‘daylight’ while lit by a warm light is not going to make your image colder.

Setting White Balance While Editing

Using color temperature for effect can be easier in post-production, where it’s as simple as dragging a slider. Not only can you preview what you’re doing without having to wait for the image to be taken, but editing also allows for an incredibly fine control. It can be hard to get just the right amount of extra warmth for a bright, smiling portrait in camera, but, armed with a mouse and keyboard, it could not be simpler.

Left to Right: 6000, 4500, 3000 kelvin temperature colors

White balance is not simply how orange a picture is: it is an integral part of how cameras capture what we could otherwise only see momentarily – and a way for us to see things in, quite literally, a new light.

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