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Mastering White Balance: How to Get Accurate Colors in Your Photos

Photo of a male running on in the field covered in snow.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes your photos come out with colors that look like they’ve just taken a spin through a psychedelic washing machine? Well, the culprit behind those funky hues is often the white balance. 

What is White Balance in Photography, and Why Does it Matter?

You may have asked yourself, what does white balance mean in photography? 

In simple terms, white balance is your camera’s attempt at understanding the color of the light to make sure it gets the white bits white and not some shade of orange, blue, or green. 

It is essentially a setting in your camera that compensates for the color temperature of the light illuminating your subject. Its goal is to render colors, particularly neutral ones, accurately.

It’s a big, wide, and colorful world, so I want to help your camera capture it just right. So let’s learn all the basics of white balance photography.

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White Balance and Color Temperature

Photo of a young male standing near the old tower.

White balance and color temperature are two sides of the same coin; they play a critical role in how colors are reproduced in an image.

Color temperature is a way of expressing the quality of light based on the theoretical heating of a so-called ‘black body’ or ideal physical body that absorbs all incident light and then re-radiates it. This re-radiated light varies in color, correlating to different temperatures on the Kelvin scale. So, it’s like the various moods of light in your image – everything from the romantic glow of a candle to the crisp, clear light of a sunny day.

Lower temperatures (like 1500-3000K) give a warm, reddish-yellow light similar to a candle, while middle-range temperatures (5000-6500K) give a neutral white light akin to daylight, and high temperatures (over 7500K) result in a cooler, bluer light like an overcast day.

Photo of a male in winter coat holding taking a photo of a winter landscape in Latvia.

And what does white balance do in photography? Well, white balance is your camera’s attempt to neutralize color casts from the light source so that white objects appear white and not tinged with color. Essentially, white balance is like a translator; it interprets the light source’s color temperature and then adjusts the colors in your image so they look natural to the human eye.

When your camera is on auto white balance, it’s like having a personal assistant who constantly analyzes the light and makes necessary color adjustments. But you can take control and set the white balance manually.

Photo of a Fujifilm x100v digital camera - adjusting white balance settings on Fujifilm x100v
You can manually adjust the white balance on your digital camera

Interestingly, if you want a cooler (bluer) look in your photo, you’d select a higher (warmer) color temperature for white balance. The camera will then ‘cool down’ the image to neutralize the ‘warmth,’ resulting in a cooler picture.

Similarly, if you want a warmer (redder) look, you’d choose a lower (cooler) color temperature, and your camera would warm up the image.

So, while the color temperature is about the quality of light, white balance is your camera’s interpretation of that light.

White Balance - The Camera’s Color Thermostat

To define white balance in photography, you first must Imagine that the role of white balance in your camera is like the thermostat in your home.

The thermostat regulates the temperature to keep it comfortable and consistent. In the same way, white balance ensures the colors in your images feel natural and authentic, much like the real-life scene.

So let’s see what are the different settings:

Automatic White Balance – The Smart Color Thermostat

Photo of a Sony A7 III mirrorless camera with AWB settings.
Automatic White Balance (AWB) mode on Sony A7III

The Auto White Balance (AWB) mode is like having a smart thermostat in your house. 

It adjusts itself automatically to keep the room at a comfortable temperature. Similarly, the AWB setting self-adjusts to different light conditions, aiming to make white objects look white and, consequently, the other colors look natural.

This model is very reliable, particularly for conditions ranging from warm indoor light to cool daylight. But it may struggle to balance colors accurately in challenging lighting conditions.

TIP: For beginners, I highly recommend setting your white balance settings to automatic mode (AWB) to let your camera work its magic. In my experience, automatic white balance works fine in 99% of situations. Additionally, remember that you can adjust the white balance in post-production.

White Balance Presets – Predefined Color Thermostats

Photo of Sony A7III digital camera with daylight white balance preset
Daylight White Balance preset on Sony A7III

White balance presets are like predefined thermostat settings for different times or seasons of the year. For instance, you may have one setting for winter, another for summer, etc.

These presets are for specific light conditions, symbolized by icons like a cloud for overcast conditions or a light bulb for indoor lighting. You choose the preset that matches the type of light in your scene, and your camera adjusts the colors accordingly.

White Balance Manual Settings – Customized Color Thermostat

Photo of Sony A7III digital camera with custom white balance settings on the screen
Custom White Balance settings on Sony A7III

There might be times when the automatic mode or presets aren’t giving you the color results you want. In these cases, you can switch to manual mode and dial in your custom white balance settings.

The custom white balance is like programming your own thermostat settings. You can do this in two ways:

  • Using a neutral white or gray card: You take a photo of this card in your lighting environment, and the camera uses this to balance colors in the rest of your shots. This technique is beneficial in scenarios where color precision is vital, like for a product photography shoot.
  • Manually setting the color temperature (measured in Kelvins): The Kelvin scale is the opposite of what you might think. Higher values represent cool (blue) light, and lower values signify warm (orange) light. For instance, setting a high value like 8000K tells your camera to compensate for the cool light by adding warm colors.

Auto vs. Manual White Balance

When choosing between Automatic White Balance (AWB) and Manual White Balance, you need to consider various factors, from the light conditions of your shooting environment to the specific aesthetic you’re aiming for.

Automatic White Balance (AWB):

AWB can be used under several circumstances. It is most beneficial when:

Varying Light Conditions: If you’re in a scenario where the lighting conditions are changing rapidly (for instance, on a cloudy day where the sunlight keeps appearing and disappearing), AWB can help you maintain consistency in your shots without needing to adjust settings constantly.

Photo of a small kid in the rainy day conditions
Auto White Balance is great when lighting conditions are changing rapidly

Multicolor lighting: If you’re shooting in a scene with multiple light sources of different colors, AWB can be helpful. For example, in an urban night scene, there could be a mix of neon lights, LED street lamps, and tungsten bulbs. AWB tries to balance all these different light sources to render a neutral color.

Photo of a young male in sunglasses sitting in a train looking in the window.
Automatic white balance (AWB) takes care of multiple light sources

Quick Shots: When there’s not enough time to fine-tune settings—for example, in street photography or at a fast-paced event—AWB can be a lifesaver.

Photo of the old man standing next to a clothes shop in a shadow
Auto White Balance is great for street photography

However, AWB is not perfect. Sometimes it can lead to washed-out or unnatural colors, particularly in scenes dominated by a single color or in low-light situations. 

It also makes post-processing more challenging because each image could have a different color balance, leading to inconsistencies when trying to create a uniform look.

Manual White Balance

Manual White Balance is helpful in:

Monochromatic Scenes: In situations where a single color dominates the scene, the AWB might try to ‘correct’ the color, leading to inaccurate representations. In such cases, setting the white balance manually can lead to more accurate colors.

Young woman in black clothes standing next to a big white wall. Monochromatic portrait of a woman.
Manual White Balance can deliver better results in monochromatic scenes

Mixed Lighting: Although AWB can be handy in diverse lighting scenarios, manual white balance is preferable if you want a specific scene part to dictate the color balance. 

For example, in a portrait shot at sunset, you might want to balance for the warmer sunset light, even if there’s also some cooler ambient light present.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a portrait of a young woman in white dress during sunset.

Creative Control: Sometimes, photographers intentionally skew the white balance for creative effect. For instance, adding a cooler (bluish) white balance to a snow scene can enhance the feeling of coldness.

Consistency: If you’re shooting a series of photos that you want to have the same color balance—say, for a photo book or a themed Instagram feed—manually setting the white balance ensures that the colors will be consistent across all the images.

Screenshot from Book Wright application with two photos side by side.
I often use White Balance to create a consistent look in my photo books

How to Change the White Balance in the Camera?

Setting the white balance depends on your camera model and camera brand. Most cameras have dedicated buttons or shortcuts. Look out for a WB button, or consider setting up one of your camera’s customizable buttons to give you immediate access to manual white balance mode.

The symbols representing different white balance modes should be consistent across camera brands and models. You might see a little icon of a sun, a cloud, or a light bulb, each representing different lighting conditions

These icons might be accompanied by numbers indicating the color temperature in Kelvin (like 3200, 6500, 7500, and so on), helping you match the white balance setting to the actual light you’re shooting in.

White balance photography chart

Post-Processing and White Balance

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your camera’s white balance setting may disappoint you. That’s when post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One comes riding in like a white knight. These powerful tools can correct or creatively alter the white balance of your shots during the editing process.

In my experience, using RAW format gives you more flexibility when adjusting the white balance in post-production. This is because RAW files contain more color information than JPEGs, which allows for more precise color adjustments.

PRO TIP: Even if your white balance was off in the original shot, shooting in RAW allows you to fix it in post without losing image quality.

How to Change White Balance in Adobe Lightroom

  1. Open Adobe Lightroom and select the image you would like to edit.
  2. Click on the “Develop” tab in the top navigation bar.
  3. On the right side, locate the WB (White Balance) panel in the tools panel. Click on the “As Shot” heading to open a drop-down menu where you can choose different White Balance presets.
  4. Alternatively, you can manually adjust the White Balance by using the temperature/tint sliders.
  5. Additionally, you have the option to use the eye dropper tool for precise White Balance correction. Simply select a neutral gray color in your photo (if present).
A screenshot with a step by step instruction on how to adjust white balance in Adobe Lightroom.

Creative Uses of White Balance

While traditionally used to ensure accurate and natural color representation, manipulating white balance can also bring a creative edge to your photographs. A perfect white balance isn’t always necessary or desired. 

Here are a few insightful examples:

Day for Night Photography

By tweaking the white balance, you can turn a day shot into an image that appears to be taken at night – often called “day for night” in the film industry. Setting the white balance to a cooler temperature (say 2500K – 3500K) gives your image a bluish tint, akin to moonlight. You may also need to adjust exposure and contrast to get the effect right.

Emphasizing Warmth with Shade or Cloudy White Balance

Portrait photo of a young woman in white shirt

Using the Shade or Cloudy setting in bright daylight can add an intense warm cast to your image, providing a summery, cozy, or nostalgic feel.

Mixed Lighting Scenarios

Portrait photo of a young woman sitting in a train and wearing black sunglasses.

In mixed lighting situations with warm and cool light sources, you can intentionally set the white balance to emphasize one, creating interesting color contrasts.

Creating Black and White Images with High Contrast

Black and white high contrast portrait of a young woman walking with her hair covering part of her face.

You can use white balance settings in combination with black-and-white shooting mode to create high-contrast monochrome images. You can enhance a b&w photo by playing with temperature because the temperature will influence the other colors in the picture.

FAQs

How Do You Set the White Balance for the Golden Hour?

Golden hour is the time shortly after sunrise or before sunset, during which daylight is warmer and softer. Many photographers manually adjust their camera’s white balance setting to enhance the warm colors characteristic of this time. 

Typically, you’d set the white balance to a cooler color temperature (like 4000-5000 Kelvin) to enhance the warm, golden light. Some cameras have a “Shade” or “Cloudy” preset, which might yield good results. 

Experiment to find what best suits your vision.

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How Is White Balance Measured?

White balance is measured in degrees of Kelvin (K). It’s a scale that describes the color temperature of light. Lower values (around 2000-5000K) represent warmer colors (reds and yellows), while higher values (around 6000-10000K) indicate cooler colors (blues).

How Does White Balance Affect Exposure?

White balance and exposure are independent of each other. White balance affects the color cast of an image, whereas exposure affects the brightness.

However, adjusting the white balance drastically in post-processing can impact the perceived exposure because our eyes associate warmth with brightness. So while it doesn’t technically affect exposure, it can influence the visual perception of the image’s brightness.

How to Master White Balance: Final Thoughts

Whether you’re shooting a warm sunset or a cool winter landscape, understanding and controlling your camera’s white balance can help you capture stunning, true-to-life photographs.

To summarize, mastering white balance requires practice and experimentation.

But once you understand its potential, it can significantly enhance your photos, making your work stand out.

Here are some additional resources from OhMyCamera that cover more photography terms and techniques to further assist you in your journey. Happy clicking!

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Discover Why 2,367 Photographers Love This Free eBook!

Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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