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What is white balance?

Posted By Connie E On June 4, 2011 @ 7:00 am In Photo Tips | 6 Comments

My photographer buddy, Michael Flagg, kindly agreed to share his expertise on achieving perfect white balance. If you don’t know what white balance is, not a problem. Michael provides an easy-to-understand explanation.
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What is white balance? – Or – Why did my daisies turn out blue?
By Michael Flagg

The daisies by the garage have just come into bloom, so you grab your camera to capture them in their glory and post them up on your Share site. After a hundred or so shots, you go to look at them on the computer. The pictures are beautifully composed, with great depth of field and you even have some nice bokeh in the images. But then you notice, your gorgeous white daisies have a bluish-green tint to them. What gives? Checking your camera settings you realize that darn dog was playing with the camera…AGAIN, and changed the white balance settings from “Auto” to “light bulb shaped icon” <Sigh –  Dogs!>

Incandescent lighting/Daylight lighting

White balance (WB) is important to the digital photographer as the camera’s image sensor cannot make the automatic adjustments our eyes do to the constantly shifting spectrum of light we encounter all day, every day. Incandescent bulbs glow with a nice warm yellow-orange hue, while outdoor light is heavily blue in color. Fluorescent bulbs emit – God only knows what, but our eyes and brain tend to neutralize those colors allowing us to see white as white, and gray as gray. WB is the color correction programmed into your camera’s image sensor that neutralizes the heavy blue or orange colors and renders whites as whites. A properly set WB then shifts ALL the hues in the scene toward a more natural appearance giving a more pleasing image.

Incandescent lighting/Daylight lighting

Back in the day, photographers had to use specially designed films or color correction filters in order to compensate for different types of light. Today, the digital programmers in Japan, Germany and wherever else cameras are made have done a wonderful job creating automatic WB settings that adjust to cover most lighting situations you will see. In fact, the great majority of camera users never even touch their white balance settings. (Unless they have a very bad dog!). Still, “automatic” settings can be anything but, and you may want/need to adjust your settings manually (ex. mixed lighting – lighting from two or more types of sources). For those who want to dabble with manual  WB settings, the following icon description might be helpful – especially for new Nikon users:

Letter “A” = Automatic white balance

Light bulb shaped icon = Sets the white balance for incandescent lighting.

Long horizontal icon with flashy things = Sets white balance for fluorescent lighting.

Round ball with rays (kinda looks like the sun) = Sets white balance for outdoor lighting.

Lightning bolt = No, not for thunderstorms, but sets white balance for electronic flash.

Puffy cloud icon= Sets the white balance for overcast.

House icon with shade = Sets the white balance for open shade. (Good for daisies on the shadow side of the garage).

Letter “K” = Sets the white balance for a specific color temperature you program in. May not be available in all DSLR’s

For those who shoot RAW, (.NEF/.CR2/.ARW etc) your camera likely came bundled with software that allows you to correct white balance in the computer. Also, third party programs such as Lightroom, Aperture, Capture NX2, PS Elements and Camera RAW,  will let you do the same.

Proper white balance is important to render appropriate colors in your photography, but it can also be used creatively to alter mood in your photography. Remember those nice warm indoor shots back in the film days? Set your white balance for “outdoor” lighting; and shoot by incandescent light for a very warm image. Likewise, set your WB for incandescent lighting and position your subject looking pensively out a window. The added blue can help create a deeply moody image.

An extreme example:

My grandson was recently born in distress and had to spend some time in the neonatal ICU. He is healthy and growing now, but he had to spend some time under specialty lights intended to counter jaundice. These “bili” lights are deeply blue/purple and defy any camera preset for WB. When under the lights, images of my grandson were understandably very dark blue/purple no matter what preset WB setting I chose. Realizing that blue is a very “high and hot” color temperature; I manually set my WB as high as I possibly could, in this case – 10,000 K(elvin).

Auto WB

Manual WB – 10,000 K

The bottom image is now a gallery wrap mounted above my grandson’s crib.

Proper white balance is as important for the digital photographer as proper filters and film types are for the film photographer. Understanding what settings are used for each lighting situation will go a long way toward improving your color images. It will help render your whites “white” and all the other colors as you remember seeing them. Of course some situations, such as “mixed” lighting, can complicate your WB choices, but you select the setting that will give you the best color on your subject and work from there. Get comfortable with your WB settings. Pick a subject or two and try out all your WB settings. It’ll only take a minute or so.  Then compare your images.  You may even find that it will open up some creative options you didn’t have before.

As for the dog? Buy him his own camera and when he’s asleep…mess with his WB settings and see how he likes it when his dog bone ‘portraits’ come out blue.

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