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Understanding White Balance in Photography

Understanding White Balance in Photography

Introduction to White Balance

In the realm of photography, mastering the manipulation of natural light and color is essential. An integral part of this mastery is understanding the concept of white balance. White balance is a fundamental photography technique used to control how colors are captured and represented in images. 

It's about adjusting colors to match the light source, so what appears white in person is rendered white in your photograph. This process helps compensate for the color temperature of different light sources, ensuring that the colors in your photographs are as accurate and natural-looking as possible.

The Science Behind Color Temperature and Light

To fully grasp just what white balance in photography is, one must first understand the concept of color temperature. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K) and it represents the hue of a specific type of light source. The color temperature scale ranges from warm (yellow/red) to cool (blue). 

For example, candlelight has a low color temperature and emits a warm, yellowish glow, whereas a cloudy sky has a high color temperature and emits a cooler, bluish light. The standard for 'neutral' light is typically around 5500K, which is the color temperature of daylight at noon.

The Impact of Incorrect White Balance

Incorrect white balance can lead to colors in your photos that look unnatural. For instance, photographs taken under incandescent lighting without adjusting the white balance may have an orange tint, while those taken in the shade might appear overly blue. This color shift can affect the mood, tone, and realism of your photographs, making it crucial to either set the correct white balance in-camera or adjust it during post-processing.

Automatic White Balance (AWB): A Double-Edged Sword

Most modern cameras and even smartphone cameras come equipped with an Automatic White Balance (AWB) setting. This feature automatically assesses the light in a scene and adjusts the color and white balance manually to what it considers the most natural.

close up of a digital camera's options

AWB is incredibly useful in dynamic lighting situations or for beginners who are still learning the nuances of white balance. However, it's not foolproof. In mixed lighting conditions or scenes with predominantly warm or cool tones, AWB can struggle, leading to inaccurate color representation.

Manual White Balance: Precision and Consistency

For those seeking more control over their photography, manual white balance adjustment is the way to go. This method involves setting the white balance based on the specific lighting conditions you're shooting in, either by selecting a preset or custom setting. Manual white balance provides consistency across images, especially important in professional settings like product photography or fine art reproduction, where color accuracy is critical.

White Balance Presets: A Helpful Starting Point

Digital cameras typically offer a range of white balance presets that correspond to common lighting situations. These include Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash, among others. Each preset is designed to counteract the color cast of these specific light sources. For instance, the Tungsten preset cools down the yellowish color of incandescent lights, and the Cloudy preset warms up the cooler light on an overcast day. These presets are a great starting point for beginners and a quick fix for experienced photographers in familiar lighting conditions.

Custom White Balance: Ultimate Control

For the utmost accuracy, photographers can set a custom white balance. This is typically done by photographing a neutral grey or white object under the same lighting conditions you will be shooting in. The camera then uses this reference to adjust the white balance for all subsequent photos. This method is particularly useful in controlled environments like studios, where the lighting remains constant.

When to Use Automatic White Balance (AWB) vs. Manual White Balance

Deciding between Automatic White Balance (AWB) and Manual White Balance settings depends largely on the situation and the photographer's skill level. AWB is incredibly useful for those new to photography or when working in rapidly changing lighting conditions. It allows the photographer to focus on other aspects of the shot, trusting the camera to make reasonable judgments about the color temperature. However, AWB may not always understand the photographer's vision or handle complex lighting well.

a photographer's studio with light diffuser panels

On the other hand, Manual White Balance offers much greater control. It is invaluable in settings where ambient light often remains constant or when you need uniformity across a series of shots, such as in studio work or during events like weddings. By manually setting the white balance, you can ensure that colors are consistent from one photo to the next, maintaining a professional and coherent look in your work.

How to Change White Balance In Camera

Automatic White Balance

This is auto white balance mode, typically the default setting on most cameras. When in AWB mode, the camera evaluates the scene and automatically adjusts the white balance to what it considers the most neutral setting.

Custom White Balance

For precise control, a photographer can use a white or grey card as a reference. By photographing this card under the lighting conditions of the shoot and setting this image as the custom white or gray card and balance reference in the camera, you can achieve accurate color reproduction.

When to use Manual White Balance

This setting is most beneficial in controlled environments or when shooting a series of photos in the same lighting conditions. Here, you can select a preset or customize the setting to match the lighting, ensuring consistent color across all images.

Choosing A White Balance Preset

Selecting a preset based on your lighting situation can be effective for quicker adjustments. Whether you're under fluorescent lights or outdoors on a sunny day without fluorescent light, these presets can quickly bring your colors closer to what you perceive with the naked eye.

White Balance and Color Temperature: The Technical Connection

Every light source emits light with a particular color temperature, and understanding this can significantly impact your photography. For instance, if you're shooting during golden hour, the light has a warm, golden tone. Setting your white balance to a cooler temperature can neutralize this warmth, retaining the natural colors of the scene. Conversely, if you're shooting in the shade, where the color casts the light can be bluer, setting a warmer white balance can help balance the colors.

Color Temperature of Different Light Sources

Recognizing the color temperature of various light sources can help you choose the appropriate white balance setting:

white balance preset gradientimage credit:

Incandescent/Tungsten (around 2700K)

Produces a warm, orange light. The Tungsten preset compensates by cooling down the colors.

Fluorescent (around 4000K to 6500K)

Emits a cooler, sometimes slightly green light. The Fluorescent preset corrects this by warming up and sometimes adding magenta to counteract the green.

Direct Sunlight (around 5500K)

Considered a standard 'neutral' light source. Daylight preset usually works well here.

Shade or Overcast (6500K and above)

Light in these conditions can be cool with a blue tint. The Shade preset warms up the image.

Tips for Shooting in RAW for Accurate White Balance

Shooting in RAW format is a game-changer when it comes to white balance control. Unlike JPEGs, which compress and process image data, RAW files keep all the data from the camera sensor. This provides far greater flexibility in post-processing, particularly with white balance adjustments. When you shoot in RAW, you can adjust the white balance after the fact without any loss of image quality. This is a significant advantage, especially in challenging lighting conditions or when precise color representation is crucial.

a digital camera with an image of a woman leading a meeting in the viewfinder

In RAW processing software, you can fine-tune the camera's white balance with much more accuracy than in-camera adjustments. This can be particularly useful in mixed lighting scenarios, where different light sources might cast various color temperatures across your scene. With RAW, you're not just correcting white balance; you're able to manipulate it to enhance the overall tone and mood of your image.

White Balance in Post-Processing

Once your images are imported into a post-processing program like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or Capture One, adjusting the white balance becomes a straightforward task. These programs offer advanced tools for white balance correction, allowing you to tweak temperature and tint with precision.

a man at a desk editing digital photos

In Lightroom, for instance, you can use the 'Temp' slider to adjust the color temperature, making your image warmer or cooler, and the 'Tint' slider to manage the green-magenta shift. For a more automated approach, the eyedropper tool lets you click on a neutral grey or white area in your photo, and the software will automatically adjust the white balance based on that reference point.

How to Change White Balance in Post-Processing Software

Adjusting white balance in post-processing software is often a matter of experimentation and personal preference. The basic steps usually involve:

Identifying a Reference Point

Find a neutral grey or white area in your image. This should be an object that you know is grey or white in real life.

Using the Eyedropper Tool

Most software has an eyedropper or similar tool that you can use to select this reference point. The software will then automatically adjust the white balance based on this selection.

Manual Adjustments

If automatic adjustments don't yield the desired results, or if you want to create a specific mood, you can manually move the temperature and tint sliders. Warmer temperatures add yellow, cooler temperatures add blue, while tint adjustments add green or magenta.

Consistency Across Images

If you're editing a series of images shot under the same lighting conditions, you can apply the same white balance settings to all of them for consistency.

Challenges in Post-Processing White Balance

While post-processing offers greater flexibility, it’s not without challenges. Finding the right balance can be tricky, especially in mixed lighting conditions. Additionally, extreme adjustments can sometimes lead to unrealistic colors or increased noise in the image.

Advanced Techniques in White Balance Adjustment

As you grow more confident in your photography skills, experimenting with advanced white balance techniques can further enhance your images. Here are a few methods to consider:

Bracketing White Balance

Similar to exposure bracketing, this technique involves taking several shots of the same scene with the same light at different white balance settings. This approach can be advantageous in complex lighting situations, giving you a range of options during post-processing.

Using Color Temperature Meters

For professional photographers, especially in studio settings, using a color temperature meter can provide precise readings of the light's color temperature, allowing for highly accurate white balance settings.

Creating Mood with White Balance

Deliberately skewing white balance can create a specific mood or atmosphere. For example, a cooler white balance camera setting can evoke a sense of coldness or melancholy, while a warmer setting can create a sense of warmth and intimacy.

White Balance and Artistic Expression

White balance isn't just about accurate color reproduction; it's also a tool for artistic expression. By understanding and manipulating white balance, you can convey different emotions and atmospheres. The choice of white balance can dramatically alter the viewer's perception of a scene, making it a powerful component of your creative toolkit.

The Future of White Balance in Photography

With advancements in digital camera technology and software, the process of adjusting white balance continues to evolve. New cameras are equipped with more sophisticated sensors and algorithms that better understand and adjust to different lighting conditions. In post-processing, software becomes more intuitive and powerful, offering greater control over color adjustments. However, the fundamental principles of white balance remain unchanged, making it a timeless aspect of photographic technique.


Understanding and mastering white balance is a key component of photography. It is fundamental in achieving accurate, visually pleasing, and accurate colors in your images. Whether you prefer to use automatic settings, presets, or manually adjust your white balance, developing a keen eye for color temperature and understanding its impact on your photos is essential. Remember, while technical accuracy is important, the creative use of white balance can also add a unique and personal touch to your photography. Experimentation, practice, and a deep understanding of light and color are the best ways to enhance your skills in this fascinating and crucial aspect of photography