White balance sounds a pretty simple image adjustment, but there’s a little more to it than meets the eye. Here are 12 white balance tips that might help you get the results you want and explain what’s gone wrong if you don’t.
1. Shoot RAW
If you shoot RAW you can change the white balance later, though the camera’s white balance setting is embedded in the RAW data and will be used by default with the ‘As Shot’ setting.
2. There may not be one ‘correct’ setting
In mixed indoor/outdoor lighting there may be no single, ‘correct’ white balance setting but several. Choosing which white balance setting is correct may be a creative decision, not a technical decision.
3. Auto white balance can be effective
Auto white balance can give you different colors from one shot to the next, which can be irritating, but in mixed lighting it can often give you a very good balance between the different light sources, which is good.
4. White balance eyedroppers have their limits
You can use the white balance eyedropper in your RAW software to pick a neutral object or tone in the image, but it’s not always easy to decide what should be ’neutral’ and you may still have to modify the result manually to make the image look natural.
5. Use Temperature and Tint together
You can use the white balance temperature slider to ‘warm up’ an image, but this can make the picture look ‘brown’ rather than ‘golden’ – but it will look better you increase the tint value a little too, typically by around half the amount of the temperature adjustment.
6. Use white balance presets for consistent color
If you want consistent color rendition for a series of shots, you need to choose a white balance preset. This will force the camera to use specific temperature and tint values rather than choosing its own from one shot to the next (auto white balance).
7. Correcting the color may ruin the effect
White balance is subjective. Sometimes a photograph succeeds because of the color of the light, and ‘correcting’ it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Often, you need to use white balance presets to stop the camera from doing this.
8. Different RAW converters don’t always agree
Different RAW converters don’t treat white balance consistently. They may not respect the camera’s own temperature and tint values and they may not produce the same color balance as the camera when you choose a white balance preset in software.
9. JPEGs offer some white balance control, but less
If you shoot JPEGs, you have much less leeway for white balance adjustments later because a lot of the original color information will have been discarded. You will only get relative temperature and tint values (percentages) and not absolute temperature and tint values.
10. Color temperature and tint is the new approach
‘Color temperature’ is the old way to measure the color of light, dating back to film days. It’s still used for color balanced lighting systems, but cameras now use a secondary Tint value to add a green-magenta element for wider and subtler color corrections.
11. You can balance light sources with local WB adjustments
With RAW processing software that offers local adjustments, you can select different areas to apply different white balance settings. This could be useful in shots which include a mixture of daylight and artificial light, for example.
12. Some light sources can’t be ‘corrected’
Some light sources can’t be fully corrected with white balance adjustments. These only work if the light has a broad color spectrum. Some yellow street lighting, for example, only emits yellow light. If you correct it, all you get is black and white.
Essentially, there are two approaches you can take to white balance adjustments: one is based on correction, the other is based on creative interpretation.
• If a bride’s wedding dress comes out pink, or magenta or yellow, that’s just plain wrong and needs correcting.
• If a cold blue dawn or soft yellow candelight is neutralised by your camera’s auto white balance, that’s wrong too!
The best way to think about white balance is as a correction to make the colors look how you want them to look. It’s not always about making colors neutral; often it’s about preserving your creative intent.