White Balance: What is it and why it is important to Photographers
by Rich Reierson
This post is the first in a short series on how photographers can use white balance to improve color in their photographs.
White balance is one of the most important and fundamental skills when shooting pictures. Think of your photo as a house and you need a foundation to build that house. White balance (WB) is that foundation. Simply put white balance is the temperature of an ideal black-body that radiates light of comparable hue to that light source. Sounds pretty technical. Think of it in degrees of warm or cool. These degree’s are measured in Kelvin with 5000 degree being neutral.
Color Chart courtesy of Duke University
Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources, however digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance. An incorrect WB can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts, which are unrealistic and particularly damaging to portraits. To combat the handicap, cameras are preloaded with profiles for your particular shooting conditions. First, auto white balance is available in all digital cameras and uses a best guess algorithm within a limited range– usually between 3000/4000 K and 7000 K. For the most part, auto white balance will get you pretty close to the correct WB. Second is custom white balance. This allows you as a shooter to calibrate the white balance using a card or cap. We will talk about these a little later. The rest of the icons calibrate in order of increasing color temperature. Here is a great representation of the effect changing the presets has on an image.
These were taken with my D300 in the different WB modes:
Question: Which image has the correct white balance?
Answer: There is not a correct image! Technically none of them are totally correct and we will talk about that next blog post but WB is totally subjective. What I mean is some people like cooler images and some like warm images. It is up to the photographer to make the decision. Whatever that decision is, make sure that the images are sync’d with each other so that a person does not run the gamut of warm to cool.
The simple answer is whatever you think is right, is right. Sometimes a picture needs to be a little warm or a little cool. Your eye and a calibrated monitor are essential to judge what is “right” at least in your eye.
Calibrating and working with WB
If the preset modes don’t work for you and you want a more precise method of calibrating WB you have a few options. First, there are a few lens covers that give you a precise WB in manual mode by firing a calibration shot with them attached. The market leader has to be Expodisc. The second way to achieve correct color is to shoot at a gray card. Gray cards have been used for decades as a way to calibrate the picture by giving a neutral point of reference to base white balance off of. I will cover how to use gray cards and lens covers in a future post. Third is to shoot in RAW mode. Raw mode is great for the tricky situations that warrants adjusting white balance in the post processing phase of your workflow.
In a nutshell, RAW allows you to establish a color profile, adjust exposure, set white balance, and tweak the image before it is compressed into the JPG format. A good rule of thumb is that if you have any doubt if your shots are going to be “off” shoot in raw and adjust in post processing.
Come back tomorrow to learn how to use post processing in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, and Photoshop to adjust for perfect white balance.
*** Two related MCP Products/Services to this post ***
- Achieving accurate white balance is only the beginning. Once you accomplish this, you may want to consider MCP’s Color Correction Photoshop Training Class – teaching you to get better skin tones in Photoshop.
- If you did not shoot Raw, or your colors still look off when you edit inside Photoshop, you may also benefit from the MCP Bag of Tricks – these Photoshop actions help color correct and fix skin tones.
This post is by guest writer Rich Reierson, an expert in Photoshop and Lightroom and owner of Mariposa Photography in Dallas/Fort Worth. His main focus is supporting the photographer by building specialized computers built for editing and tutoring on Photoshop and Lightroom. As a sideline he shoots sessions on a referral basis. He has been using Adobe products since 1994 and still has the original 11 disks for Photoshop 3.0. He is a father of 2 kids and and he says his wife makes the best baby bows.