Understanding White Balance in Photography

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In this photography tutorial I explain white balance as an introduction to a longer post I plan to write on colour theory. White balance is a key setting in photography, but it’s something that beginners often overlook. If you have ever found yourself looking through photographs you’ve taken indoors under artificial lighting or outside under street lighting and wondered why they’re so yellow and what you can do about it, then this tutorial will help you. This tutorial will also be useful if you’re an artist or Etsy seller who needs to photograph true to life images of artwork or products for your online portfolio, Instagram page or shop.

What is white balance?

White balance in photography refers to the colour temperature of your scene and image. If you observe an object which is pure white under different types of lighting, you will notice that sometimes the object appears blue rather than white, and that at other times it appears orange. You might instinctively refer to these types of lighting as ‘cool’ or ‘warm’ and have in your mind an idea of where you’d encounter them. For example, the lighting you have at home probably tends towards the warm end of the spectrum with ‘warm white’ LED or tungsten bulbs while the lighting you will encounter in hospitals, airports, shops and offices is usually much cooler.

White balance and colour temperature are measured using the Kelvin scale. In everyday photography, light varies in temperature from around 2500K (warm, for example under tungsten lighting) to around 7000K (cool, in the shade during the daytime or just after sunset under ambient natural light). The colour temperature of daylight is around 5500K.

Setting your white balance in camera to correctly match the scene you are photographing is very important, and it’s quite easy to do. Most cameras have an auto setting, usually marked as AWB. You will probably find settings for a few common lighting scenarios as well, for example artificial lighting (tungsten and fluorescent), daylight, shade and flash. Of course you can always dial in your white balance manually, in kelvin, but this isn’t a very convenient way of working either as an amateur or as a professional in a fast paced setting. Manual white balance is only ever a good idea in a studio setting, or when photographing in a controlled or predictable environment.

I recommend that you use the AWB setting on your camera as nine times out of ten your camera will get it right. However, I also encourage you to develop an eye for spotting whether the white balance is correct in your photos so that you can correct it in post-production. This is something you’ll learn with time, practice and careful observation. The way to do this is to look at areas of your image that you know to be close to pure white. For example, a sheet of paper, white clothing or the whites of people’s eyes. Taking a look at these areas of your photos before you do anything else to them in post-production is a good way of becoming familiar with white balance.

The goal in correcting white balance is to make white areas of an image appear white, rather than blue or orange. The purpose of this is to keep skin tones looking natural in portrait photography, and to make images which are colour accurate. White balance is the first step in any colour work you do in post-production. Don’t even think about adjusting your colour channels, saturation and vibrancy levels until you have seen to your white balance!

In this scene the white window frames and the man’s white coat and shoes offer reference points for correct white balance

How to Edit White Balance

I do all of my photo editing in Adobe Lightroom, and I always shoot in RAW. You can change the white balance of JPEG images too, but not as accurately, and not as dramatically. Shooting RAW just gives you more options in post-production, so I encourage you to change your camera settings to save a RAW file in place of or alongside your existing JPEG file.

To alter the white balance of your image in Lightroom, open up your image in the ‘Develop’ module. At the top of the panel on the RHS you will find a lot of different tools for editing. Always start with white balance! Before you change anything else in your photos, make sure that the white balance is correct! To help you along, you can use the little selector tool (White Balance Selector; shortcut ‘W’) and click on a white part of your image. The white balance selector isn’t 100% accurate, so you might need to hover over different areas before you find the right settings. Don’t worry, all of this editing in Lightroom is non-destructive meaning you can always reset any changes you make and start again.

Lightroom is what I use, but it is by no means the only piece of editing software available. You can also use darktable or GIMP (free and available for Windows, Linux and macOS) or any of the various mobile apps available for Android or iOS. All of them will come with options for editing white balance and colour channels and the steps won’t be too different to those described above for Lightroom.

An example of mixed lighting; warm artificial light indoors and balanced natural light outside

A Note on Mixed Lighting in Photography

Sometimes you will encounter mixed lighting. Mixed lighting is inevitable, but it’s also a pain when it comes to photo editing. In the scene above of a bakery in Prague, the woman is stood inside under warm artificial light, while the outside of the building is lit by ambient daylight. This photo was shot on daylight balanced film and as such it is balanced for the outside of the building. However, even if I had wanted to adjust the white balance to favour the woman’s skin tones, it wouldn’t have been so simple. There is no clear divide between inside and outside, and the pastries in the doorway are exposed to mixed light.

Other examples of mixed light you may encounter, especially if you’re a beginner and like to take lots of pictures of your family at home, is the combination of warm light from lightbulbs and window light streaming in from outside. This is particularly tricky at dawn and dusk (and in winter in the UK when it’s so gloomy you need the lights on all day).

My first tip is to try and avoid mixed lighting situations as much as possible. Turn off artificial lights (unless they are daylight balanced), move your subject closer to a window or other source of neutral, natural light. If you can’t avoid it, then adjust your white balance to favour your subject. If you’re taking a portrait, then set your white balance so that their skin tone appears natural, even if this throws the background slightly blue or orange. There are advanced editing techniques you can use to work with mixed lighting for example using gradients and radial filters which I will discuss in future tutorials, but where possible it’s always best to get white balance right in camera rather than rely on image manipulation in post-production.

If you take a lot of photos at home, for example if you have young children and like to photograph them playing, reading stories, or teatime in the kitchen, consider investing in daylight bulbs. Having tried daylight balanced LED bulbs (6000K) I can’t imagine going back to ‘warm white’ or tungsten lighting. Another bonus of daylight balanced LED bulbs is that they are very efficient, environmentally friendly and give you a boost if you suffer from seasonal depression.

Finally, try not to worry too much. If the photo you’re taking captures a beautiful moment and you don’t have the time, chance or ability to change the light, it doesn’t matter. What matters most in photography is the story. A slightly imbalanced photo which captures the moment perfectly will always trump a technically perfect but emotionally flat or dull image.

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