Photography: White Balancing Tutorial

Updated on October 2, 2017
Marco Arista profile image

Researcher by trade, curious by nature. Writer, photographer, tech lover, crazy about cooking and eating (or maybe I'm just Italian).

Oh My, Another Orange Photo

I have been there, you have been there, and anyone who's ever taken a picture has been there, but do you know why?

You fell victim to the mischievous "wrong white balancing."

Today I will teach you how to solve this problem once and for all!

Let's dig in.

Jean-Luc Picard is not best pleased with the white balance here...
Jean-Luc Picard is not best pleased with the white balance here...

How Digital Sensors Work

Our eyes are an engineering marvel.

Camera makers know it, and they somewhat tried to replicate the way in which they acquire images, inventing the digital sensor and a device that can interpret the information that comes from it, the image processor.

This part of the camera is devised to work like an artificial eye: it is able to sense (hence the name sensor) all of the different wavelenghts that compose the visible light, and process them into a color image (hence the name image processor).

Does it sound complex? Imagine this:

There is a group of people at the bar. Each one of these people is affected by a different type of color blindness:

Al: Can only see blue

John: Can only see red

Jack: Can only see green

Behind them is Rob, who is completely blind: his role is to gather shape and color information from Al John and Jack, and send it to a sketch artist, Philips, who is sitting at another table.

Are you imagining all this? Good, now place an apple in front of Al John and Jack.

Here's what happens:

Al says: "I don't see anything here"

John says: "I see an apple"

Jack says: "I don't see anything here"

Rob elaborates the information and tells Philips: "red apple".

Now Philips knows what to do and he draws a red apple.

Here's what happens with a lemon:

Al says: "I don't see anything here"

John says: "I see a lemon"

Jack says: "I see a lemon"

Rob tells Philips: "yellow lemon".

So what am I talking about?

Al, John and Jack are the camera sensor while Rob and Philips are the image processor.

That's exactly what happens in your camera, and in part, in our retina.

The Difference Between Camera and Eye

You guessed it.

The main difference between them are Rob and Philips. Cameras have microchips, humans have a brain.

Our brains can understand the color of light on their own, microchips cannot (or at least not always).

So if you have a white shirt and you stand in front of a traffic light, it doesn't matter if it's red or green, you will know your shirt is white.

Cameras are sort of sticklers for accuracy, and they will tell you that the shirt is green, if the light is green, and that the shirt is red, if the light is red.

They eye-brain duo is all about what's real, the sensor-processor duo will just tell you how it looks!

How do you fix it then?

You have to teach your camera what white looks like, because you can tell but she can't.

Let's see how it's done, in a few different ways.

Know Your Lighting, and Tell Your Camera

Are you shooting in daylight? What part of the day is it?

Are you indoors and you have a neon (fluorescent) lamp pointed at the scene?

Are you using your camera's flash?

Or is it one of those incandescence bulbs?

Prepare to have your mind blown:

All of these lights have different color dominants.

Daylight is almost white, with a touch of yellow, fluorescence lamps emit greenish light, incandescence bulbs shine orange, flashes are between daylight and sunset in color.

If you know your lighting condition, you can tell your camera and she will make the calculations to remove the color dominant from your picture!

Look for the white balance tool in your camera settings, and set the type of light you are shooting in (there normally are presets such as "daylight", "fluorescence" etc...).

If there are no presets, but just a temperature slider, here's a table for you to know where to set it according to the lighting.

Remember, this is the absolute best way to white-balance, you can fix a slightly wrong setting in post-production but it's difficult to rescue a blatantly wrong one, especially if you are not shooting in RAW format.

White Point (Kelvin Degrees)
Light Source
2400-2500
Incandescent bulb
3000
"Warm white" LED
5000
Fluorescent lamp
5000-5500
Daylight, flash
6500
Overcast weather
Here are some typical white balance presets you will likely find on your phone or camera
Here are some typical white balance presets you will likely find on your phone or camera | Source

Did You Know Different Light Types Have Different Color Dominants?

See results

Fix It in Post-production

Whoops! I was indoors with an incandescence lamp and shot using daylight setting!

That's how you get orange pictures.

How do you fix it now?

There are many ways. Every image-processing software has its own way of doing it. In general you will open your image with your favourite program and look for either one of these settings:

  • White balancing
  • Color balancing
  • Photo filters

Then you will proceed in one of these ways:

  • White balancing tools usually ask you to select a point in your picture: you have to select a spot that you know it's white or better yet, neutral light grey.
  • Color balancing tools are a bit more painful. you have to: 1) identify your color dominant 2) reduce its intensity. For example, if your picture is orange, you will reduce the yellow and the red, until what you know to be white, looks white.
  • Photo filters are present in some programs, they make your picture "colder" or "warmer", so if your picture looks blue, apply a warm filter, and if it looks orange, apply a cold filter. You can usually choose the intensity of the filter to reach the desired white point. The main drawback from using this method is that you cannot fix color dominants other than blue and orange (e.g. the green of a neon light).

Here's a free online tool to balance your pictures if you don't have any editing software installed. It's not great though, try to get it right when you shoot.

In this picture I had set a wrong white balance and the image came out really cold (left), but then I fixed it via software (right)
In this picture I had set a wrong white balance and the image came out really cold (left), but then I fixed it via software (right)

Creative White Balance

Once you know the rules, you can break them!

Creative white balance is setting a wrong white temperature on purpose, to make the picture look colder or warmer.

For example, if you are portraying a smiling child, having a slightly warm white balance can really help communicate a message of joy and happines.

On the other hand, if you want to convey dullness, sorrow or negative feelings in general, a colder white balance can help you deliver the message more directly.

In this landscape I used a slightly warm white balance to help convey a sense of "sublime" and marvel
In this landscape I used a slightly warm white balance to help convey a sense of "sublime" and marvel

Now You Know

I really hope this tutorial will help you get perfect pictures every time, and as always, get creative and don't be afraid, even with something as petty as white balance...

"memento audere semper"

remember to dare, always.

Marco

P.S. Want to know more about photography techniques? Check out my article: "Be a Better Photographer With My 10 Tips and Techniques"

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Marco Arista

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        Angelica Perduta 

        11 months ago

        I prefer to set my camera to "raw" image mode so that it just stores the unprocessed sensor data when I am out on site. Then I can choose the color balance at my leisure when I get my pictures home.

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