How to use the white balance correctly in photography

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Playing the color exactly in photography is quite complex , and if we talk about scenes with different sources of light, let’s not say.  Of course, we need to be aware that the first step in the camera must be made, with a choice that determines the way in which the color of the light of the scene is captured, and thus the end result. Therefore, we will examine this important issue for every photographer, especially for the beginner, the white balance. This is the most appropriate term to talk about what we normally know as white balance.

This is one of the typical settings that is normally set automatically, especially when filming in RAW. However, we have repeatedly said that the white balance also affects the exposure, despite the inclusion of raw files. While it is true that it is not usually something that will cause us major problems, we need to know it to avoid it.

How to use the white balance correctly in photography

First, because you need to know that automatic white balance can fail in certain situations. Second, because mastering this field is one of the many creative possibilities of photography and, in particular, this is a window open to creativity.

What is white balance?

Surely you already know that all cameras, including mobile phones, have a setting for configuring white balance, which includes an automatic option (AWB). To learn more about the topic, you may refer to a photography course. You can learn there completely. However, we will remember the most important thing.

White balance is nothing but a setting that tells our camera what the color temperature is in the scene. The color temperature, as you may know, refers to the light color. Since the different types of light have different temperatures, certain tones are dominated over others, which we normally can not see with the naked eye.

How to use the white balance correctly in photography
Photo by Daniel Olah

And not because it is a failure of our eyes, but quite the opposite. Our visual apparatus can adapt so quickly that it interprets the scene and lets us see what is white in white, even when lit by warm light (where yellow-orange tones dominate). However, a camera would display this with a predominant orange tone as it is when no color correction is applied.

In contrast, when the scene is lit by a cold light (where blue is predominant), our camera would reflect the same dominant color, something that our eye corrects automatically and almost infallible .

We say “almost” because our brain for this interpretation is based on experience and sometimes confused. Has it ever happened to you that you have bought a shirt with a special color and it can be seen outside the store (with a different kind of light), does it seem to be different? Well, this is one of those situations where the view can confuse us to be something new, something our brain did not know before.

The interpretation of our visual system is based on experience, as we say, as well as on the interpretation of neutral elements (white, black and gray). And so does a camera with the limitation that we need to tell it how to behave. Therefore, it is important to know all this and to know the difference in behavior between our camera and our eyes.

How to use the white balance correctly in photography
Photo of Dustin Scarpitti

The color temperature

If you have experience, you have certainly heard of the degrees of Kelvin on which the color temperature of the light is measured. Although we return to the course of photography, we would like to remind you that the spectrum of light that is visible to our eyes is usually represented by a graphic that spans around 10,000K. This corresponds to a very intense summer of the blue sky (yes), sunlight has a bluish dominant), up to about 1,000K has the light of a match.

In a great majority of situations we will let the camera decide this value but what if the camera is wrong?

In between are the most common values, with particular focus on the 6,500K, which is considered as daylight, and about 3,500K, which is commonly referred to as a light bulb (which would be a bulb of the predecessor). As we expected earlier, the spectral lights closest to the first value (ie with a high color temperature) are called cold light and have a blue dominance. On the contrary, the lights with a lower color temperature are those called warm lights, and orange tones predominate.

If we have talked about daylight and incandescent light, it is because these are usually the two most common values ​​that we use when taking photos, although it is also very common to use the adjustment for fluorescent light (whose dominant is usually greenish and has a temperature approx. 5,000K ), the cloudy day (over 7,000K ) or the cloudy day (around 8,000K). Of course, as we said in principle, in a great majority of situations, we will let the camera decide this value, but what if the camera is wrong? What if there are different sources of light?

Correcting the dominant ones

Apart from what we have already pointed out (a correct exposure also depends on choosing the right white balance) when recording in RAW, we can usually use auto white balance because we can correct this in post processing. However, if the scene has different light sources with different temperatures, the camera may not know what to expect.

How to use the white balance correctly in photography
Photo of Tim Gouw

This is the case, for example, if we shoot from the inside and the picture is a window from which the street is visible. Or on the contrary, when we present an outdoor scene in which a window appears, through which you can see something different from the outside. The result of these shots can be very interesting (this is where everyone’s creativity comes from), but as long as we know how to handle the color well, avoiding dominants that are not very aesthetic.

Another, but quite common case is in certain situations where, despite the fact that the cameras are very advanced, we still notice how many mistakes are made. The clearest example is when there is little light and the scene is illuminated with light bulbs. It is common to see how the camera can not adjust properly and provide images with a clear orange dominant.

In all these cases, it is convenient if the photographer manually adjusts the white balance so that the reproduction of the color of the scene is as accurate as possible. Recognizing the color temperature of the lights may seem complicated to a beginner, but assure you that practicing is relatively easy.

In any case, the immediacy of digital cameras is a great help in this regard, as it is very easy to quickly check the final result to make the necessary adjustments. With many cameras, you can even make detailed corrections before capturing them from the LCD screen. So the basic thing is that our basic images do not have large color dominants, and you can always make the adjustment for the later phase on the computer screen (calibrated correctly, of course).

How to use the white balance correctly in photography
Photo of Patryk Sobczak

Of course there are ways to make a practically perfect color adjustment, mainly using a neutral gray color chart so that the camera can make a correct evaluation (based on the color used to calibrate the systems of both the white balance and the exposition). But this is something that we will only need on very specific occasions, in which we have to reproduce colors with complete accuracy. In most cases it will serve us with the advice that we have given to you so that you do not put the “autopilot” and you look a little more at this setting when taking photos.

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