What is white balance? | Photography Basics

It’s the reason your photos at home look yellow, it’s the science of light and it has awesome creative possibilities. It can also be a pain in the behind.


Before I start complaining I should explain a bit more about what white balance actually is and to do that you have to understand light a little better. As photography is all about light than learning a little bit more about it can only be a good thing I guess.

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Different types of light are different colours, even the same light source can change colour and none so more than the sun. At sunset its yellow and golden and full of lovely warmth. At noon on a cloudy day it’s blue and cold and British.

Household lights are yellowish and LED lights are kind of blue too.

The best way to illustrate this is with this photo of a Church in Wimbledon. The top of the church looks bluish-green because of the natural light midday light coming through the windows and the rest of the church looks slightly yellow because of the artificial lights.

Understanding White Balance

I only achieved this effect because of how I used my white balance settings on my camera (no fancy Photoshop needed).


I told my camera that I wanted the yellow light to appear normal, not yellow in other words. What this does is make the blue light bluer and the yellow light less yellow or ideally not yellow at all.


I must have a really good camera you’re thinking?

Well yes, but I can do the same thing with my iPhone camera so it’s a pretty standard setting.


The problem with AUTO WB


By default your camera is probably set up for AUTO White Balance which is fine most of the time if you’re photographing somewhere with a consistent light source.

The reason your photos taken inside are yellow is that your camera thought you were going to use a flash and for whatever reason it didn’t go off (stupid camera). By using AUTO your camera will try to make all the blue light from your flash appear normal (not blue) and when the flash doesn’t go off and when the only other light in the scene is yellow then that yellow light appears really yellow.


AUTO White Balance is also a problem when photographing somewhere like this church where we have different types of light. You might get lucky and your camera will decide to be really creative but you are leaving it to chance and that’s not what we’re here for.


With these types of scenes the AUTO settings have a tendency to constantly change. What results is a set of inconsistently coloured images which are a pain to fix later. It’s better to have one consistent wrong white balance setting for all of your images and then the fix in processing later with one consistent correction than lots of images than are wrong in lots of different ways and all need different degrees of correction.


So how do I change my White Balance?


Firstly you have to find it, most camera manufactures cleverly disguise White Balance as WB somewhere in your settings.

Most cameras have lovely little icons which will help you make the right decision about what setting to use. The sunshine icon is good for bright sun, the lightbulb is good for indoors and so on.


Experiment time!


Choose three different settings, one daylight, one artificially lit and another that has a mixture of the two.


Set your camera up either on a tripod or just holding it and take a photograph of each scene using each and every one of your WB settings.

What you will end up with is an invaluable reference for how different light appears when using different white balance settings. Now think about how you might use this creatively.


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