A basic look at White Balance – Photography 101

“White Balance”  is a photography term so don’t freak out!
Renee from A Bakers Dozen asked me to write a tutorial about white balance, she already posted it on her blog but I thought I would share it here too. I tried to keep this pretty basic so even those who use point and shoot cameras can learn something applicable.

Why you should set your white balance…
(disclaimer: I try to only share good quality photos that represent the caliber of my work.   The following photo does not fall into that category. I am sharing it to illustrate a point.)

Before                                                                                         After

Ever notice that when you take a picture indoors under tungsten lighting that the resulting image comes out looking rather yellow? And when you take a picture under florescent lighting the results are rather blue? The human eye, or brain rather, is quite the magnificent organ and under unusual lighting conditions it is actually correcting what you see so that you perceive the colors as normal. Your camera on the other hand, is not as smart. If your camera is set to auto white balance (this is the factory default) you will see a lot of variation in the coloring of your photos. To compensate for this fact camera manufactures have given us White Balance Presets. On your digital camera you may have noticed little icons on your screen that look like a little light bulb, a sun shining, a cloud, and perhaps a house.  The symbols look something like this
The symbols stand for Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, and Shade respectively.  You can improve the coloring of your photos dramatically by simply selecting the corresponding preset to the situation in which you are taking the photograph. I.E. if you are in your dining room with the overhead light on pick the tungsten setting. You will have to consult your camera manual on how to change between the settings as each camera is set up slightly different however, its usually pretty simple. Don’t be intimidated by your camera manual – it won’t bite you! On my camera I simply hold down the “WB” button with my left index finger while scrolling through the preset options with my right thumb on the “command dial.” You too can set your white balance!

For those of you who want to take this to the next level…

As you have probably already guessed the flaw with the preset system is that the presets are broad generalizations. The shade differs from day to day and natural light changes from hour to hour so even with white balance presets your color may be slightly off.  To solve this problem camera manufactures have given us one more tool, and that is custom white balance. When you use custom white balance you are effectively telling the computer in your camera “in this lighting situation [This] = white.” [This] being a picture of something white.  Yes, you actually take a picture of something white, usually a piece of white paper (I will go into more options here in a second).  The steps in the process differ slightly from camera model to camera model so again you are going to have to consult your camera manual, though the concept is the same across all camera models.  There are two basic steps 1) you tell your camera you are going to set the custom white balance 2) you take a picture of a plain white object in the lighting that you are going to be using. As far as I can tell the difference between the two largest camera companies (Nikon and Canon) is that the order of these steps is opposite. For Nikon you perform step 1 then 2 and for Canon you perform step 2 then 1.  I tried to come up with a general description of the specific steps taken but even within Nikon the buttons pushed differ dramatically. On the D80 the WB button is on the back of the camera, on the D200 it is on the top, on the D40 you must select WB from the menu. Canon seems to also have a varied approach. So there is no getting around it you are going to have to consult you camera manual for the specifics.

If you don’t know where you camera manual is it is pretty easy to find a copy of it online.
For Nikon check here
For Canon check here

If you have another brand of camera just try googling your camera model + manual. (e.g. “olympus E-300 manual”)

Now back to that “something white” there are a lot of options here, you can use a piece of printer paper, your sock or almost any other solid white object. There is also a photographic tool called a grey card designed for this purpose.  You can pick up a grey card for about $5 at most photo stores. Another option is a tool called an expodisk/white balance cap. With all these options the important matter is that you place the object in the lighting in which you will be working (it’s no good setting your white balance indoors and then going outside to take photos – the light will be dramatically different). It is equally important that you fill the viewfinder with solid white object (or 18% grey in the case of a grey card) and that you have the exposure set before you take the photo. If you use a grey card or a sheet of what printer paper it usually works well to just have your subject hold the card/paper. If you use an expodisk or white balance cap you simply hold it over your lens.

So what if you forget to set your white balance. You end up with a picture like this.
The above image is SOOC (“straight out of camera” – i.e. unedited)

Now, there are several things technically wrong with this photo but let’s just focus on the white balance, it is clearly off as my baby looks like a blueberry. This was the first photo in a series that I took. I snapped this one and then took a peek and realized that I had forgotten to set my white balance. I set it right then but this photo was taken with the previous shoots setting (which happened to take place in my bathroom – very different lighting.) There is hope if this happens to you. You can correct your color temperature in ACR (adobe camera raw) if you shot in RAW or in light room, or if you have CS3 you can open a Jpeg in ACR and edit it there.  You can also adjust the color balance and selective color in Photoshop, though I have never been very successful at it.  With this photo I simply adjusted the color temperature and got this result.


Much better, right!

I do want to caution you against using Photoshop (ACR/ Lightroom) to always “fix” your photos.  It’s time consuming and does not encourage learning the technicalities of shooting correctly.  If I had set my white balance before I took this photo I would not have had to “fix” it.  Learn to take great technically correct photos SOOC and then try to use Photoshop only to enhance your images.

Catherine, (a Baker’s Dozen reader) asked  if I could explain what was wrong with this shot other than the color. So I am going to CC (constructively criticize) my own photograph.  Other than the color I chopped of his left arm. This is just bad composition, also there is probably too much space at the top of his head. The eyes are slightly out of focus, and I shot this at a really low shutter speed so the movement of his right hand is causing it to blur. Overall I don’t really like the angle of the light. In this photo Simon is laying on his back on my bed the window is slightly behind him and to my right. This is causing his face/head to cast a slight shadow across his chest, while his forehead is very light. The catch lights are also minimal. I took this one shot and then climbed to the other side of him so the that indirect light was directly on his face. The resulting photos were the ones that I posted in the “It’s too hot” post.

Since people are interested I will post a few more “Photography 101” tutorials.

Any other questions?

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  1. Brooke

    Wow! Thank you so much!! I learned so much by reading this and can’t wait to try it out! I’d LOVE to hear your other photography “secrets” since I don’t know anything other than just point, shoot, and hope it turns out semi-clear. =)

  2. loving it, loving it. Hmm…I know basic framing tips for generic photos, what about some framing tips for portraits? Or is that too big of a topic? As of now I try to focus a little on framing, but my top concern is on lighting and focus points…and sometimes when I get something in focus, the framing is not the best. As I use the five focus points and shift between them. BUT…I would like to know what to aim for! Ha…I know…such a novice!

  3. Pining Away in Southern California

    So, you want some comments, huh? Well here’s a comment for you – enough with the baby pictures. Rumor has it there’s a pretty girl staying with you this month, how about some pictures of her?

  4. Great tutorial. You have a good writing style, very easy to understand!

  5. great info – thanks so much for explaining it so well.

  6. Wow, that explains so much! I came here from Renee’s site, and loved your tutorial!! Please, Please do more! I love to learn how to take better pictures of my kiddos. Thank you so much, I will keep watch for more.
    PS I am also in Washington, I am in Tacoma.

  7. OK, I just tried some of it and I have some other questions. My camera is just a point and shoot, but it is a pretty good one. (or at least I think it is) I have a Casio Exilim Z50- with 6.0 megapixels. I have all the options under white balance that you talked about (wow, who knew, certainly not me!) but I was wondering do you turn off the flash when you alter the WB? Also I have a lot of “best shot” selections, like Auto, Children, Pets, Flowers, Night, etc…. So which one should I use when altering the WB? Or do I turn that off completly? Thank you so much. I am excited to play with my camera and see what I can come up with.

  8. Great tutorial, it was very easy to read. I would love to learn more about basic photography: composition (?) lighting, settings etc. I only know if I like a picture or not, but not why. It would be good to know why so I could like more of my pictures!
    But that’s not your job, I could read my manual, too. I don’t think I’ve even cracked it open yet!

  9. Hi Emily – we have never met but we have many friends in common. I often enjoy your pictures on their blogs. 🙂 I know nothing about photography so I enjoyed reading this post and will check back to read more of these tutorials. Also, the pictures from your “why we went to the beach” pictures remind me of some from one of my favorite blogs: http://treverhoehne.blogspot.com/. How do you get the sun to appear like that??? Just curious. Future tutorial perhaps? 🙂 Blessings to you and your sweet family, Melanie

  10. Kara

    Thanks so much! I’ve been playing around with wb and am noticing a difference even in normal lighting, not just “off” or strange lighting.
    Some areas I would love to get some advice are converting to black and white and tips on finding great natural light.

  11. EvelynB

    This is the first time I have read a photography tutorial and actually tested it out – your explanation and sample photos were compelling enough to make me excited to try it out! And it was so exciting when I saw the results of the change. Thank You!!! I can’t wait to read more.