White Balance in Photography: What is it, what is it for and how to use it

Every time you’ve seen the concept of “white balance” you may have jumped with a frightened face directly to the next setting, the next article, the next chapter in the book. I understand you perfectly πŸ˜‰ . It is a concept that creates torpor even before having reached the Β«sΒ» of whites. Allow me, before continuing and if you want to delve into the subject of photography lighting, that I recommend reading this mega guide that we have prepared for you, so that you do not miss any important concept.

Coming back to our topic, if you google about the definition of White Balance you can find terms like:

  • Spectral energy distribution
  • Light energy
  • RGB level scaling
  • Gamma compensated

Mario would say “Is it me or do I get the feeling that you have to study Semantic-photonic-graphic engineering to understand these concepts?” The worst thing is that explaining things in such a complex and hermetic way only manages to drive away the amateur photographer by giving them the false feeling that photography is something very complex. Nothing is further from reality, luckily πŸ™‚ .

The truth is that it is so easy wear it, so easy to understand and use it in your favor when taking pictures, that passing by is almost sacrilege, because the white balance is nothing more than the color cast of an image. Surely you have ever looked with surprise at a photo that has left you blue or orange. How strange, right? if when you looked through the viewfinder you saw a perfectly white light (or normal, come on…).

That’s because our eye is capable of perfectly processing different color temperatures (or dominant) without flinching, but the truth is that the sensors are not up to the task at the moment, let’s go as usual, the human being, for the moment, beats the machine πŸ˜‰ .

Having said that, let’s see in depth and in a simple way, what white balance is, what it is used for and, above all, how it can help you improve your photographs.

What is white balance?

The white balance (White balance or WB) is the way we have to balance an image in terms of color dominance. Ideally, this dominant should be neutral, that is, white, which in real life is approximately equivalent to the light of the central hours of the day or the light of the flash, which is also considered neutral.

Each type of light and each moment of the day, although it is not always evident at first glance, has a color cast, which is also known as color temperature. Color temperature is measured in kelvins, and are classified in temperatures more warm (sunsets, for example), cooler temperatures cold (cloudy days) or neutral (We have already commented that they are the intermediate hours of the day).

Cold or bluish color temperature.

For practical purposes, what it is about is that all those tones that are not neutral end up being so πŸ˜‰ .

How is the white balance adjusted?

And you will say: “Voucher. Very good, but how do you do it? Well, it’s very simple, compensating for each other. That is, if you have a scene that is too warm, you will have to add a little cold and, if on the other hand, you have an image that is too cold, you will have to add some heat to it. As simple as that. And this is what the automatic white balance of your camera does.

now you will ask me β€œAnd how do I know which tone is going to be predominant so that I can correct it?” The answer is easy: You can let the camera itself detect that a certain color is dominating the photo excessively and let itself counterattack it. If you want the camera to handle this task for you, go into the White Balance setting and choose the White Balance option. “Auto White Balance” (also known as “AWB”).

As the machines are not perfect, sometimes the camera is not able to detect a certain excess of tones and, therefore, cannot correct it. That’s where you come in (you’re the photographer, did you forget?) πŸ˜‰ Basically you’re going to do the following: you’re going to shoot a test photo and you’re going to look at it carefully, if you find it correct and neutral great, but if you see a certain excess towards a side in blue tones or towards the other in red tones, you will have to manually select one of the different semi-automatic White Balance modes that your camera makes available to you. Next, I attach a small graph in which I explain what White Balance to choose depending on the excessive tone that you want to remedy:

The graph above shows more or less all the options that cameras offer us to adjust the white balance semi-automatically (also called presets). From left to right we would have the tungsten lights (indoor lights), the next symbol corresponds to the fluorescent light, the next to the flash, the sun to the midday light, the cloud to a cloudy day and, finally, the emoticon of Shadows. These are ideal for scenes where one type of light clearly dominates.

As you can see, it is not very complex. If you perceive that the photo comes out too β€œcold”, use a white adjustment from the ones you see on the right of the graph, if instead the photo comes out β€œwarmer” and orange, use a white adjustment from the ones that appear on the left of the graph.

Let’s go with an example, which always looks better. In the following photos, the flowers are illuminated with a lamp with the typical bulb that offers a warm light. The result, of course, is an image with a clear orange cast (left image). In the photo on the right, the white balance has been adjusted with the Tungsten mode, which has managed to neutralize the tone.

What semi-automatic white balance mode to use at all times?

Let’s specify a little more. These are the semi-automatic modes that usually appear in the cameras, they may not all appear in yours, do not get overwhelmed because the main ones are even in your smartphone πŸ˜‰

  • Car (A): The camera automatically adjusts white balance based on ambient light and the use of the flash (if any). Below I will tell you when to use the automatic mode but whenever you photograph in RAW format, use it without fear. In this case we have AWB which is automatic with ambient light priority, and AWBW which is white priority and reduces the warm hue of an ambient light). But on most cameras it will be AWB only.
  • Daylight (sun): Useful when shooting outdoors with the sun shining.
  • Shadow (house with shadow): It is somewhat warmer than cloudy, adding orange colors to the photograph. Suitable for sunsets and sunrises and shaded areas.
  • Cloudy (cloud): Advisable on cloudy days or in shadows. Produces images somewhat warmer than sunlight.
  • Incandescent or tungsten (bulb): Only use it under light from tungsten bulbs or the image will look too blue.
  • Fluorescent (glow tube): Activate it if the photos look too green or when you are under fluorescent lights (the typical ones in offices).
  • Flash (lightning): It is used when using the camera’s flash.
  • preset or custom (PRE) or the last icon in the image above: It is adjusted for a specific lighting, a card or gray chart is usually used. But you can also use a white sheet of paper.

Some cameras have the option Choose color temperature (K), which allows you to manually change the Kelvin value (usually from 2500 to 10000).

And how do I know which light is cold or warm if I see them all the same?

with which you learn that the interior lights are warm (generally), that flash and midday lights are neutral, and that shadows or cloudy days are cold, you have more than enough. But you will see that, knowing all this, you will pay more attention and end up training your eye. Knowledge is power

Automatic, Semi-automatic and Custom White Balance modes

Although if you want to delve a little deeper and that I introduce you to the friend Kelvin that appears in the table above, here is the list of the most common lights with their respective color temperatures. Lower values ​​(for example, 1700) correspond to warmer lights, and higher values ​​to cooler ones. The K is for Kelvin, yes πŸ˜‰

  • 1700 K: Light from a match
  • 1850K: candle light
  • 2700–3300 K: Incandescent or tungsten light (conventional home lighting)
  • 3000 K: tungsten (with halogen lamp)
  • 4000–4500 K: Mercury vapor lamp
  • 5000 K: Fluorescent Light (approximate)
  • 5500–6000 K: Daylight, electronic flash (approximate)
  • 5780 K: Color temperature of pure sunlight
  • 6200K: Xenon lamp
  • 6500 K: Daylight, cloudy
  • 6500–10500 K: Television screen (LCD or CRT)*

*Source: Wikipedia.

Another way to see it is depending on the time of day. At sunrise and sunset, the color temperature is warmer (2000K), midday is more neutral (5500K), mid-morning or mid-afternoon about 3500K, cloudy or shaded skies are cooler (6000-7500K).

Manual or automatic mode?

The Automatic mode it usually works quite well in most situations, for example with neutral and homogeneous lights. However, when different lights with different color temperatures are mixed, or the color temperature is on the lower or higher extremes, it is often not the most suitable.

You can also use auto mode when shooting in RAW mode, we’ll see why later. Now, if you are going to photograph in JPG format, I strongly recommend that you monitor the white balance. In this case, it will be very difficult for you to correct it.

Keep in mind that cameras process white balance differently. Some newer or more advanced camera models sharpen more than older or more basic models. It is important to know how your camera works. That does not mean that yours, if it is an amateur, will not do well, probably the difference will not be evident unless it is a very trained or professional eye. Just keep this in mind if you change cameras often, so you don’t get scratched if you notice differences.

When there are varied lights or you see that the automatic does not work as it should, you can use the semi-automatic modes or presets the ones I told you about before.

You also have the option that I have told you about using the custom mode of some cameras. It is a way of telling the camera what is white under a certain light.

warm color temperature

The magic of RAW

If you are a lover of the RAW format, you will be delighted to know that it is not only the format in which you get a more information for processing (and therefore higher quality), but it is also the format that allows you to correct the white balance of the image in processing without loss of quality with a single click.

That is, if you’re working in RAW, don’t worry about white balance until you get to processing. There you can adjust it in a simple way as you consider and with…