Understanding White Balance

We have received a few requests for posts dealing with white balance and it seems like there is a lot of confusion around this topic. The white balance in your camera is its way of trying to figure out the color temperature of the light when you are shooting each image. Most cameras come with a few standard settings for your white balance; Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Florescent, Tungsten, Kelvin, Flash and Custom. Getting your white balance correct (and even knowing what should be correct) can be a very detailed and tricky task. There is lots of science behind it, but we will give you a simple yet full explanation of white balance and some ways to help get a good image in camera.

First let me start off by saying just like most other parts of photography the “Correct” white balance is always in the eyes of the beholder. While here is a true reading for white, your personal preference might be a little warmer tone to your images. Or you might prefer a cool or cyan tone to your images, the main thing to always keep in mind is this question, “does the color in the images distract your eye or add to the story of the shot”. The eel of the shot should always be accentuated by the color temperature of the image.

With that being said, how you shoot each image will greatly help your post production time and make things much, much easier on you in the long run. There are a couple of different ways to think about white balance and before we get into the details on how to get the balance right here is a quick overview of color temperature.

Color temperature is the spectrum of light which is radiated from a “blackbody” with that surface temperature. A blackbody is an object which absorbs all incident light– neither reflecting it nor allowing it to pass through. Higher color temperatures (5,000 K or more) are cool (blueish white) colors, and lower color temperatures (2,700–3,000 K) warm (yellowish white through red) colors. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin degrees (K)

Here is a list of some common light sources and their color temperature.

Temperature —–> Typical Sources
1000K —–> Candles; oil lamps
2000K —–> Very early sunrise; low effect tungsten lamps
2500K —–> Household light bulbs
3000K —–> Studio lights, photo floods
4000K —–> Clear flashbulbs
5000K —–> Typical daylight; electronic flash
5500K —–> The sun at noon
6000K —–> Bright sunshine with clear sky
7000K —–> Slightly overcast sky
8000K —–> Hazy sky
9000K —–> Open shade on clear day
10,000K —–> Heavily overcast sky
11,000K —–> Sunless blue skies

Setting your camera to the correct white balance (or doing a custom white balance) can save you hours and hours of time in post production. There are really two different approaches to getting a good white balance. The first is to use one of the cameras preset modes. These normally will get you pretty close to where you want to be and with a little photoshop or lightroom work you can fine tune it to be perfect. If you are shooting in a consistent light then doing a batch adjustment in bridge or lightroom is very easy. Here is an example of a shot with the same exact settings shot with different white balance points in the camera.

camera auto white balance
Look at this next shot taken with the same exact settings on auto. There were a few minor changes with people in the background and that made the camera change its white balance. This is the main reason why I never suggest to shoot in Auto, your white balance will be different in every photo and doing the post production will take a lot more time.
camera auto white balance 2

camera shade white balance
camera tungsten white balance
camera florecent white balance
camera flash white balance

For setting a custom white balance there are a few different ways to do that and many tools available on the market. I’ll address this in another post coming up. Any questions or comments leave them below!

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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