How To Control White Balance For Better Photography

by Aug 17, 2023Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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The Importance Of White Balance For Photography

In this article, we look at the subject of using White Balance for Photography. I’ll be explaining what it is as well as how to correctly set a white balance to produce better photos. When you understand white balance, you can gain more control over the colours in your photography.

Let’s start by understanding what the white balance is.

What is a White Balance in Photography?

Imagine that you are in a dark room when someone turns on a light. There’s nothing special or unusual about the light, so if I asked you what colour it was, you would probably answer “white”.

Now imagine that you took a photograph of the room. When you look at this, you might find that it appears orange. What’s happening here is all to do with the colour of light, white balance and how our brains work.

The Colour of Light

You might remember from your school days that white light is a combination of colours that can be split out using a prism. When white reflects off a coloured object, we see the colour because of the wavelength of the reflected light.

Whilst we tend to think of light sources such as the sun as being white light that’s not entirely true. Light from the sun for example, can change colour and is affected by factors like the time of day and weather conditions.

Look at the following colour temperature chart for some examples of how the colour of light can change.

Colour Temperature Chart shwoing the colour of light

On the left side of the chart, we see that a candle or sunset is yellow or orange (warm light). But if it’s overcast or we are in the shade, the light tends to be cool and blue. Most of the time, this goes unnoticed because our brains make us think the light is white when in fact it isn’t. It’s as if we have an auto white balance in our heads.

Here’s another example of two images side by side. These were taken at the same time of day, using the same settings on the same camera.

Photos a colour checker cards taken in different lighting

Notice how blue the image on the right appears compared to the image on the left. All that’s different is that it was taken in the shade, whilst the other is in direct sun.

The Camera White Balance

When I took the two shots, I didn’t notice the change in colour caused by moving into the shade. My brain cancelled it out, but the camera records it. That’s because the camera was set to use the Daylight white balance.

Another commonly used white balance setting amongst photographers is AWB or Auto White Balance. This attempts to neutralise the colour of light so that neutral colours (black, grey, and white) appear neutral. Had I set the camera to AWB when I took the two photos above, you probably wouldn’t notice much difference between them. That’s because the camera AWB would ensure the neutral colours in the scene appear neutral. At least that’s the theory.

Why is White Balance Important?

So why is this important? All it’s doing is making light look white, just like we see with our eyes.

It’s important because it can affect how we see the colours in an image. In product photography it may be critical to capture the product with an accurate colour. Or perhaps you’re photographing a wedding and want the brides dress to look white. Or maybe you are photographing a landscape in the evening and want to accurately capture the warm light falling on the land as in this shot.

landscape photographed in warm evening light

If we don’t control the white balance in our camera, we can’t represent colours accurately. This can produce a completely different feel in the photograph.

Here are two versions of the same image using different white balance settings.

Comparing the effect of different white balance settings on the colour of a photograph

This scene was photographed in the Scottish Highlands around 40 minutes after sunset, a period known as Blue Hour. The version on the left shows the accurate colours produced by the light. Compare this to the version on the right where the Auto White Balance has been used. This has neutralised the colour of the blue light that occurs after sunset.

When do I set the White Balance and How?

In photography, we need to think about the White Balance and not just ignore it by setting the camera to AWB.

There are two points in your photography workflow where you might want to do this. The first is when you are taking the photo and the other is when you are editing the image.

Taking the Photograph

To set an accurate white balance in a camera, we need to take a photograph under controlled light conditions. Typically, we do this using a Grey Card which can also be used for setting an accurate exposure, but that’s another topic.

Most digital cameras have an option to manually set a white balance reading from a photograph. How they do this may differ between manufacturers so you will need to check your camera manual. That said the general principles are the same.

When I take a photograph of a Grey Card in a room in daylight, I can use it to set a white balance. For example, I use a daylight balanced bulb in the room where I do my photo editing. If this is the only light source when I photograph the grey card, I know that the Grey Card should appear as a neutral grey colour. I can therefore use that to set a custom white balance in my camera.

Now that I have an accurate custom white balance for daylight, I can set my camera to accurately record the light colour. If I then use this to photograph a sunset, the colour of the light is recorded accurately.

An alternative to setting a manual white balance using a grey card, is to set a daylight white balance in the camera. It’s worth checking your camera manual when you do this as some cameras have multiple daylight settings. You then have a known starting point for adjusting the white balance settings when editing the RAW file.

Setting the White Balance When Editing

Being able to change the white balance during processing is a good reason for shooting in RAW format rather than JPEG. Whilst you can still adjust the white balance of a JPEG or TIFF image, you will be able to achieve better results working with RAW files.

Let’s go back to the colour calibration chart that was photographed in the shade. Here’s a before and after comparison.

Setting the white balance for the image

The image on the left is the original, whilst the image on the right has had the white balance corrected. This was done in the Lightroom Develop Module.

Correcting the White Balance in Lightroom

When you have the image open in the Develop Module, you can use the White Balance tool. You will find this to the top left of the Basic Panel, next to the Temp and Tint sliders. You can see it indicated in the following screenshot.

Using the Lightroom White Balance tool

To use the tool, click the eyedropper icon once. You can then position your mouse pointer over something in the image that should be a neutral grey colour. Click once on that point to set the Temp and Tint sliders. The settings ensure the point clicked in the image is neutral.

A common mistake when using the White Balance sample tool is thinking that you need to click on something that’s white. It’s usually much better to click on something that’s grey, which is why including a Grey Card in a reference shot is a great solution.

Having set the white balance in the first image, you can apply the same settings to other images taken in the same lighting conditions.

It’s important to remember that the lighting conditions in any photo you apply these settings to must be the same. Think back to the start of the article where I shared two images of the colour chart taken at the same time. I can’t use the same settings for both images because the lighting conditions were very different.

Summary

In this article, we have looked at the importance of White Balance in photography, why the white balance is necessary, and how to set it when taking the photograph and processing the RAW file. If you are a photographer who ignores the White Balance and leaves the camera set to AWB, I hope I have convinced you to give this more thought in the future. This simple setting can often transform a landscape photograph.

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