Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Understanding White Balance

Another caffeine fueled, sleepless night is upon me so time to blog again. Especially now that this blog is read by tens of people.

Before I get to the white balance thing, I just wanted to take the time to thank two wonderful people who featured me in their blogs today. The first is Kelly Malouf who creates her own clothes, bead jewelry, accessories and home decor. Her blog is: and of course that's also her website where you can view all her products.

The second blog was done by Jennifer from Jlcstudio She's an Etsy artist and has some fantastic jewelry so please check her out at Great stuff and a really nice person. I'm thankful to both for including me.

Now, the other day when I posted my first blog ever, someone wrote and asked about white balance. Since then on the forums of Etsy I've noticed a lot of people aren't too sure what it is or how to use it. So I thought tonight I'd reprint my response so nobody has to dig for it, and also add a few things.

So....white balance

White balance is basically a way for your camera to figure out the "color temperature" of the light in the scene you are shooting so that your camera records the true colors in the scene.We can look at a white object in the sun, the shade or anything in between and our brains are able to always see it as white.

With cameras, unless they know what type of light is available, they might read it wrong.You've seen shots or maybe taken some, where the entire color of the photo seems to move in one red/orange, too blue or too green. This is because the camera was probably set to the wrong white balance, and the camera thought the subject was lit with one type of light, when in reality it was another.

You will typically see your white balance settings listed as little pictures - the sun, a light bulb, a fluorescent, a flash symbol, Auto, cloudy, shade and perhaps custom.

The spectrum of light is measured in Kelvins. Though you're never going to need this information, I'll give it to you anyway.

1000-2000 K Candlelight
2500-3500 K Tungsten Bulb
3000-4000 K Sunrise/Sunset
4000-5000 K Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 K Electronic Flash
5000-6500 K Daylight with Clear Sky (sun overhead)
6500-8000 K Moderately Overcast Sky
9000-10000 K Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky

You don't have to memorize this chart, it just shows you that different types of light have a different color cast. Depending on what the conditions are, you need to change your camera's white balance so that color is recorded correctly.In the days of film cameras, you might have seen multi-colored filters at the camera store to attach to lenses. This was how white balance was handled then.

If it was "cool" light, which would normally produce a blue color, a red or orange "warming" filter was used.Now with digital cameras, this is all done automatically. It's not perfect and you can get situations where it's a little tricky.You will most likely get good results with your camera set to "auto" white balance. It generally does a good job and if you use Photoshop or another editing software you can make minor adjustments.

If you shoot RAW files on a dslr you can completely change the white balance even after you've already taken the photo.I will usually leave the white balance on Auto, or if it's bright and sunny I'll switch to "daylight". Indoors with household bulbs, switching to incandescent really does work well especially at night when bulbs are truly the only source of light.

The trickiest situations are always shade and overcast skies. Even on a cloudy day, sometimes you switch the white balance to "cloudy" thinking you've done the right thing, and the camera compensates too much and the photo looks orange. Same thing for shade. In these two situations it's always best to take a test photo and change the white balance if needed. Most of the consumer point and shoot cameras have a live view LCD screen on the back. You can change the white balance and look at the viewfinder to see what effect each setting has on color.

Because light is a mix of red, green and blue, the ratios vary a lot and so finding the perfect setting on your cam can be tricky sometimes. Sometimes on a sunny day, the "sunlight" setting produces a shot that's too cool and blue. Sometimes on a cloudy day, the cloudy setting renders everything too warm and orange.

I hope that helps people understand what it is and why its important. If it doesn't I can understand that too because it's 3am and my eyelids are starting to sink lower than the US dollar. If you still have questions, feel free to message me here, convo me over at Etsy or email me from my website

In my next blog I'm planning to talk about how to control depth of field. But if there are other topics you think are more important, feel free to let me know.


Kelly said...

Thanks Robert for mentioning your interview on my blog. I hope your readers enjoy it and learn a bit more about you.
Great info and photos~ I'm going to bookmark your site to visit again.

Suze said...

I'm going to bookmark your blog. I love to take photographs, but I need more information and it seems you are the one to provide it. I haven't used the manual functions on my camera out of fear - and I think it's about the way, your photos are awesome.