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What is white balance? Comprehensive guide to understand white balance

Shubham Davey 0
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Photography is a game of light and color. Speaking of color, you might have had instances where your photos turn out to be bluish, yellowish or too bright to be real. If not, try shooting white objects in a daylight with a higher ISO. You will notice a pale white color of those white object or anything else, but definitely not white. This happens because of little to no white balance. Furthermore, if you are doing this for the first time, you might not notice any drastic change in the final image. But, you will definitely feel the absence of perfection in your image.

It is important to know that the color of light is associated with the temperature of the light. Cool light is bluish, warm light tends to be on the yellowish side. That’s why the sky looks bluish in the morning, white or yellow in the noon and orange or red during the evening. White balance is a natural phenomenon as it happens with your and my eyes too. Left and Right eye have different purposes, left eye does the most work. The left eye sees white as white whereas right eye adds a yellowish tint to everything it sees. Fortunately, our eyes adjust the white balances automatically as per the lighting conditions.

But in case of DSLRs, this is not possible. At times your DSLRs may misunderstand the light temperature and apply wrong light settings. That why you should know about the white balance so that you can master the color composition of your photographs.

As my attempt to introduce you to yet another powerful feature of your DSLR, I’m going to be as easy as I can. Keep reading.

white balance

What is White Balance

If I were to rank small yet powerful features in a DSLR, I’d rank white balance second in it, first being the exposure composition through metering mode. White balance is something I wish I knew a lot sooner, but better late than never I finally came to know about it. By default, your DSLR will be set on AUTO WB mode which pretty much does well for almost all lighting conditions. But, for those, for which it doesn’t do so well other white balance preset settings will let you do even that.

Simply put, white balance will help you get rid of color casts that your DSLR create so that you can take a picture that matches with what you were looking at. The reason why we need to adjust the white balance in DSLR is that most of the light source(sun, bulb, flashlights etc) do not emit pure white light. Furthermore, this makes it hard for the DSLR to understand and adjust the right color as per the original scene. In most of the cases, your DSLR guesses right but in some cases, you have to spoon feed by adjusting the white balance as per the scene.

white balance

White balance

I shot the same scene at different white balances, one is properly lit and other is not. The image on left is shot in the Fluorescent mode in white balance. On the right, it is daylight mode.

How does temperature of colors affect white balance

Each color has a certain temperature associated with it. In this space, we measure the color temperature in Kelvin. Take a look at the chart below, it will help you understand the color better.

white balance
                                                              Source: Exposure Guide

Speaking of temperature, if your DSLR is set to auto white balance mode, there are chances that might not get the result you are looking for. Reason being the fact that your DSLR, when set to auto WB mode, takes references from white objects in the scene. Now, what if there are no white objects for the DSLR to take reference from? That is why the auto WB mode is not always fruitful.

How to change the White balance in your DSLR

So, this is pretty straightforward. Most of the professional DSLRs like Nikon D700 or Nikon D3 have dedicated “WB” button on the body top dial.  To change WB, you have to press the button and rotate the rear dial counter-clockwise. Apart from this, there are DSLRs where the button is not present. In such cases, you will find white balance setting in the menu as shown below. You will need to switch your DSLR to Lv(Live view) mode to change the white balance setting.

white balance

white balance

White balance presets

Now that you know a lot about white balance, let me introduce you to the various presets available. These presets are powerful enough to deal with almost any kind of light. Since the color of the light affects your photographs, it is important to know about each of the presets.

Basically, there are seven presets available in a typical DSLR. However, the number would vary depending on the DSLR variant you use. Let’s explore each of the white balance preset settings.

white balances
                                                                 Source: Exposure Guide

AWB or Auto White balance

By default, your DSLR is set to this mode while manufacturing. To begin with, you can rely on this mode but not for long. While in this mode, your DSLR will automatically adjust the white balance according to the lighting conditions. If you are shooting in the night time, your DSLR will fire the flash whenever needed.

Tungsten

Tungsten mode, as the name suggests, is useful to shoot indoors. The light coming from a bulb(with tungsten) is harsh for your photos and leaves its mark of high temperatures. Hence, in order to avoid it, switch to tungsten mode and cool down the color temperature in your photos

Fluorescent

This mode is useful when you purposefully want to enhance the temperature in your photographs and bring sharpness in it. Depending on the lighting conditions, this mode comes handy both indoors and outdoors. This mode compensates the fluorescent light for warmer temperature in your photographs.

Daylight

Daylight mode comes handy when you are shooting in bright daylight with harsh light on your subject. While in this mode, your DSLR will cool down the temperature of light reflecting off the subject. Many DSLRs do not have this mode, in that case, AWB will do.

Cloudy

When shooting in a cloudy daylight, there are chances that your photos would seem under-exposed. This is because you have less light reflecting off your subject. That’s where this mode comes into this picture. While in this mode, your DSLR will warm up the temperature of the light from the subject and surroundings. And, this will give a clear and better-lit image.

Flash

The problem with shooting at night is, you have to rely on shutter speed to get evenly-lit images. You cannot always use flash as it may be too harsh on the subject and kill the essence of the photo. Furthermore, having a slow shutter speed will add digital noise in your images. Fix? The flash mode. Flash mode is useful while shooting under inadequate lighting conditions. While in this mode, your DSLR will pick right white balance under low lighting conditions.

Shade

Similar to cloudy, shade mode is because of the shade closer to the subject. This eats up a lot of light from the subject and the surrounding. In the cloudy conditions, the shade is because of the clouds but the light is still better. For example, you are shooting a couple sitting under a tree. In this situation, the shade of the tree might steal the light your DSLR needs to take a better photograph. Thanks, to shade mode, you can warm up the subject and the surrounding in order to take a properly lit photograph.

Note: These white balance presets are available only in pro camera modes.

How to manually adjust the White Balance

While the auto WB is the least controllable and precise, manual WB is the opposite of it. This mode doesn’t help you directly by adjusting the lighting conditions. But, it actually helps your DSLR understand how white a particular object look in particular shot. It is a good practice to manually adjust the white balance in order to accustom your DSLR to changing light conditions. Since the daylight changes during the early mornings and late evenings, the intensity of light is easily perceived by your DSLR. Hence, it is good to perform this every time when there is a lighting condition change. Especially, when you have to shoot in the same mode in different lighting conditions.

To manually adjust the white balance in your image:

  1. Point your DSLR at a pure white object
  2. Set the exposure and focus
  3. Activate the white balance on the object
  4. Make sure, you overwrite the previous data to acquire the latest data. This can be done from the menu as shown below

white balance

Done. It may take a few seconds to adjust the white balance, but once done you will be able to process your photos better. Furthermore, this will be the color setting until the next time you manually adjust the white balance.

Conclusion

White balance is like losing weight, it is not mandatory for everyone every time, but at times, it is unavoidable. Times when you have to rush through capturing a moment, you think cannot be redone, auto white balance comes handy. I prefer keeping this mode on most of the times unless needed otherwise.

However, these settings teach you to understand the lighting conditions. You can already see the final version of the photo you are composing right now. It comes with practice. It’s fun to play with each of the settings and know what each of them does to your photos.

Over to you. What did you find the most informative thing in this post? Is it the color temperature or manually adjusting the white balance. Let me know in the comment section below.

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