In photography, there are a lot of technical terms bandied about which can make it hard to get into for beginners. Not to mention all of the camera equipment and photography accessories.

Yet once taken in isolation, many of these terms like aperture, field of view, and white balance can be easily digested. It doesn't matter what lens you use, or what type of photography you do - be it macro or landscapes - white balance cuts through everything in photography.

After you’ve taken some time out to learn these basic photography terms, your knowledge of the theory and technical terms should translate to better images in the long run.

Sure, you can take good photos with minimal photography equipment and knowledge of the various concepts in photography, but it would be like trying to write without a full understanding of grammar.

White balance is all about colour, and how it affects your photos.

In this guide, we’re going to explore what exactly white balance is, how it interacts with colour temperature, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your photos.

colour drops
Colour correction in photography is about colour temperature, and how warm or cold the lighting is. Unsplash
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What is White Balance?

Put simply, white balance refers to the colour correction of your photographs.

Whenever you enter a room and switch on the light, the objects in that room will usually take on a yellowish hue depending on the colour of the light emitted by the bulb. Our brains are smart enough to recognise that this is all it is, so even though something which is usually white as a piece of paper may appear yellow in colour, we know it’s white.

Digital cameras don’t have the cognitive powers of our brains, so when you take a photo in a room with a yellow light, the objects within that room will retain the yellow glow.

White balance is what happens when you try to correct this process and restore the balance of colour to the photo so that it is more realistic.

Typically, white balance is something you can tinker with within your camera settings, but it’s also something you can adjust in post-processing software such as Adobe PhotoShop.

To truly understand white balance and how to get the best colour in your photos though you’re also going to need to understand what colour temperature is, as this is an important factor in photography.

What is Colour Temperature?

colorful leaves
Colour temperature determines how cool or warm a photo appears. Unsplash

Colour temperature refers to the shade of colour you see within a scene. It could be the warm, orange glow of sunlight or the cold blue light of a lamp.

Whenever you take photos, you’ll probably notice that the colour skews more towards blue or orange, depending on the lighting of the scene.

This is because, as we mentioned earlier, cameras don’t have the ability to recognise that this is happening and auto-correct to make the photo more realistic. That’s down to the photographer.

So how do you measure colour temperature?

Kelvin Scale

Colour temperature is measured in units of Kelvin, going from 1,000-2,000 all the way up to 9,000-10,000.

At the lower end of the scale, you have the intense shades of orange, the likes of which you’d expect from a raw flame or a candle burning.

At the higher end of the scale, you have a deep blue like the ocean or sky.

In the middle, you have what is known as a neutral colour temperature. Most people consider the sunlight in the middle of the day to represent a neutral colour temperature, and this is somewhere in the region of 5,000-6,000 units of Kelvin.

What’s interesting about colour temperature is that it doesn’t all have to come from a single source. When you’re taking a photo, you might find that you have to work with several different light sources with various colour temperatures.

This mixed lighting, as its known in photography, can prove to be a challenge if you don’t know how to use the white balance. This can get even more tricky if you’re taking outdoor photos and the colour temperature changes from one second to the next, as the sun takes shelter behind the clouds for example.

This begs the question: how do you use white balance to account for colour temperature in your photos?

How do White Balance and Colour Temperature Interact?

The easiest way to think about white balance and colour temperature is to ensure they are the same whenever you are taking photos. This is a great hack to get the best photos as a beginner regardless of what lighting you have to work with.

For example, if you’re indoors in a room that has light bulbs with 2500K then you should adjust your camera to have a 2500K white balance. That way, the photos should come out looking realistic, unaffected by the colour temperature.

Then again, this refers to the very unlikely scenario in which all your photography is indoors, and that you can quickly ascertain the colour temperature of the light bulb.

This isn’t going to be possible for most of us, so there is going to be some guessing involved.

What usually ends up happening is that photographers will do their best to adjust the white balance for colour temperature at the moment, but almost always have to go back and double-check once in post-processing.

Since the majority of photographers use post-processing software to brush up their photos anyway, it isn’t any more of a hassle to correct the white balance after the fact.

How to Use White Balance for Better Photos

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Post-processing software can help you get the white balance spot on. Unsplash

To use this knowledge about white balance to take better photos, you’ll want to know about the two ways you can adjust it.

The first is in the camera as you’re taking your shot, and the second is in post-processing software.

Let’s take a look at what your options are in each case, so you can decide which method is best for you.

In the Camera

In most cameras, you will have the ability to play around with white balance and adjust it manually. There are also some photo accessories such as filters that can help with colour correction.

Often, you will have various white balance presets that will let you pick the colour temperature you’re dealing with. For example, your camera might have a setting for ‘sun’ and a setting for ‘shade’ which can be easy when you don’t know exactly how to adjust for white balance yourself.

On a basic level, the camera adjusts for white balance by adding either blue or orange to the photo in order to correct for colour temperature.

Some cameras will even have a white balance button on them, usually indicated with the letters ‘WB’, which makes it straightforward to access and browse the various presets. You can also set the camera to ‘auto’ white balance, which means the device will attempt to figure out the lighting and adjust accordingly.

In Post-processing

A lot of people prefer to adjust their photos in post-processing software, as you have all the time in the world to tinker with them and make sure the white balance is just how you want it to be.

However, it’s worth noting that you should take your photos in the RAW format if you want to easily correct the white balance in post-processing software.

Software such as Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop will let you go through a process of colour correction, in which you can adjust the colour temperature using a sliding scale along with other factors such as tint.

When you can adjust white balance with a sliding scale, you can make minute changes that you wouldn’t be able to if you were adjusting with your camera. You can see exactly what the photo would look like if it were warmer or cooler, and find its sweet spot on the Kelvin scale.

Auto White Balance

As a beginner, it’s perfectly acceptable to rely on auto white balance when using your camera to correct for colour temperature.

However, when you start to get more proficient and you want to take your photos to the next level, it’s worth slowly moving towards manual adjustment.

This goes for just about anything in photography.

Sure, you can use the automatic settings and have the camera make the decisions for you, but this isn’t always going to lead to the best results. There arrives a point at which you’ll want to take more control over the photos and how they turn out.

Cameras overcompensate quite often when it comes to white balance, so if the photo is a little warmer they might add so much blue that the subject starts to look a pale blue colour. This is especially true of close-up photography, where the individual colours need to shine through in order for the photo to really pop.

White balance is a concept that will be hard to get used to in the beginning, but over time it’s something you should learn to appreciate. In photography, lighting is everything, so the better you know how to correct for colour temperature the more able you’ll be to produce stunning photos in all kinds of lighting conditions.

If white balance and colour temperature are still a little hazy for you, why not find a photography tutor to help you better understand the concepts?

With Superprof, you can find experienced photography tutors with whom you can take classes either online or in person.

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