Mastering White Balance: The Art of Colour TemperatureJan 10, 2024
The primary function of the White Balance button on your camera is as a technical setting to correct colours, but it can also be used creatively to create different moods within your images.
Understanding White Balance
At its core, white balance adjusts the colour temperature of your image, balancing the colours to look as natural as possible. The colour temperature is measured in Kelvins, with lower numbers giving a warmer (yellow/orange) tone and higher numbers yielding cooler (blue) tones. This adjustment is crucial because our eyes naturally adapt to different light sources, but cameras need to be told how to interpret these light colours.
Most cameras have a default White Balance setting of "automatic". When you take a photo, the camera tries to determine the correct white balance automatically by analysing the colour temperature of the scene. And ninety percent of the time, this will probably give you an acceptable result. However, there are times when the automatic setting may be fooled. By manually adjusting the white balance settings, you have more control over the colours in your image, allowing you to create a specific mood or atmosphere.
Most cameras have built-in presets for different types of lighting, and these are usually represented by small symbols which you can select from. The most common options are "Daylight", "Cloudy", "Tungsten/Incandescent lighting", "Fluorescent lighting", and "Flash". In addition to these, there is usually a custom setting that allows complete manual control over the colour temperature value.
If automatic white balance isn’t quite getting things right for you, then use one of the presets that matches the lighting conditions you’re shooting in. And if none of them looks quite right, you may need to set the white balance manually. This is often done by setting the Kelvin value directly or using a custom white balance setting, where you tell the camera what ‘white’ looks like under a specific light source.
White Balance in Mixed Lighting
The trickiest conditions are when the lighting in a scene is mixed, for example, there may be daylight coming through a window but the room you’re shooting in is lit with tungsten lamps. In these cases, you need to strike a balance between the two light sources or resort to using colour correction filters over windows or lamps to try to balance all the colour temperatures. You can also view these mixed lighting environments as a creative opportunity: You can choose which light source to balance for, leaving the other to add a contrasting colour cast, creating a visually intriguing scene.
Post-Processing White Balance Adjustments
White balance can be further adjusted in post-processing. Software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop allows for fine-tuning of white balance, enabling photographers to alter the mood of the image even after it has been taken. This flexibility is especially useful in RAW format photography, where white balance adjustments can be made without loss of image quality.
White Balance as a Creative Tool
Sometimes, using an incorrect white balance setting can work as a creative tool. Photography is about storytelling, and the mood of a story can be significantly influenced by colour. A warm, golden hue can convey nostalgia, comfort, or happiness, perfect for golden hour landscapes or intimate indoor settings. Cooler tones, on the other hand, can create a sense of calm, sadness, or detachment, suitable for somber scenes or to emphasise cold, wintry landscapes.
Portraits: Adjusting white balance can change the entire feel of a portrait. Warmer tones can make skin tones glow and give a friendly, inviting feel. Cooler tones might be used for a more dramatic, introspective portrait.
Landscapes: Landscape photographers can use white balance creatively to emphasise the time of day or season. A cooler white balance can enhance the crispness of a winter morning, while a warmer setting can accentuate a sunset's glow.
Urban and Street Photography: In urban environments, different light sources (neon lights, street lamps, etc.) offer opportunities to play with white balance. A slight adjustment can make a night scene more vibrant and dynamic.
Experimenting with White Balance
The best way to understand the impact of white balance is through experimentation. Using the preset white balance settings is a great starting point, but for full creative control, manually adjusting white balance provides the most flexibility.
Breaking the Rules
While accurately balancing whites is often taught as a photography fundamental, breaking these rules can lead to striking results. Learn how to get an accurate result first, but then don’t be afraid to deliberately skew the white balance to enhance the mood within your image.
Mastering white balance is about understanding the science behind light and colour and using this knowledge to create natural-looking tones within your images or deliberately changing the colour balance to achieve a specific effect. Whether you're a seasoned photographer or just starting, embracing white balance as a creative tool can open up new horizons in your photographic journey.
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