Camera White Balance Explained for Beginners

Michael • updated June 30, 2022 • 8 min read

Camera White Balance Explained for Beginners

At noon on a sunny day, there is this one moment when the light is completely white. But as soon as a cloud rolls in, a bit of fog hangs in the air, or the day turns toward evening, the color of the light changes.

For us, this is hardly noticeable; for our camera, however, it is: the photos suddenly get a yellow or blue cast. To prevent this, there is a white balance. We’ll show you how to set it on the camera or how to use it later in image editing.


 

Why is light not always white?

Light varies not only in brightness but also in color temperature. This ranges from about 1,500 to 8,500 Kelvin (K) and is responsible for a blue or yellow cast in the image:

  • Candlelight (1,500 K) = yellow-red light.
  • Incandescent bulbs (2,680 – 3,000 K) = yellow light
  • Morning sun/evening sun (5,000 K) = yellow light
  • Midday sun (5,500 K) = white light
  • Overcast sky (6,500 – 7,500 K) = blue light
  • Fog (7,500 – 8,500 K) = blue light

With a correct white balance, white tones are just white – without any color cast.”

Kelvin color temperature graphic

How to set the white balance on the camera?

Hardly anyone thinks about the different color temperatures of light. Why should they? After all, the human brain automatically makes a white balance, the so-called chromatic adaptation.

Your camera, on the other hand, has no idea what the light temperature is in front of the lens. Therefore, you help it with the white balance (also called WB or White Balance).

To do this, go to the → menu of your camera. Thankfully, most digital cameras have a selection of presets white balance, so you won’t have to worry about color temperature and a color shift when taking the picture.

camera white balance settings

1. AWB: The automatic white balance

Here the camera orients itself to the brightest part of the image, assuming that it is a neutral white or gray area. All other colors are aligned to this.

The problem is that the camera can only guess. If you photograph a green meadow, for example, the image will have a strong color cast.

As a rule, however, the camera is quite good at guessing. And it can switch from one color temperature to another much faster than you could manually.

The automatic white balance is therefore well suited for windy days when the light situation often changes due to a cloud-sun mix.

If, on the other hand, you have a mixed light situation, such as a combination of daylight and artificial light, or if you shoot exclusively indoors, you should rather use the manual white balance.

portrait sunny day 5300 Kelvin
Portrait sunny day white balance at 5300 Kelvin

2. Daylight/sun

On sunny days, this is a good setting to take pictures.

3. Shadow

Use this setting if, for example, you want to take pictures in the shade or in a forest.

white balance compared - auto vs fluorescent

4. Tungsten light

Choose this setting if you want to take pictures inside or outside of closed rooms with artificial light.

5. Cloudy

This setting will aid you on cloudy or foggy days. On the other hand, it’s best to use the automatic white balance if the sun and clouds are always coming and going.

6. Flash

Use this setting if you want to use the flash indoors or outdoors. Also, a flash is usually taken during the day.

7. Manual

You can indeed set the white balance on many DSLRs yourself. You can set the light temperature in Kelvin or take an image to use as a reference.

For the second, you tell your camera in its settings that you are going to take a picture of a white object. This sets the camera’s color temperature.

Then take a photo of a white sheet. It’s essential that the lighting is the same as in the pictures that come next. Taking a new sample image is necessary if the light changes.

“Basically, the preset simply sets a specific color temperature in Kelvin. Setting the exact Kelvin number can often be done manually “

How to take pictures without getting a color cast

You can make sure your picture doesn’t have a yellow or blue tint by taking a few simple steps.

Shoot in RAW format

If you don’t want to make too many changes to your camera during the shoot, leave the white balance on auto, but make sure you shoot in RAW format first.

So, all the information about the image is saved, and you can change the white balance whenever you want when you process the image.

If, on the other hand, you shoot in JPG format, you can’t fix a badly set white balance without losing quality.

Try to avoid mixed lights

When you’re shooting inside, you might have natural light coming in through a window on one side and a light bulb on the other.

This creates mixed light, which usually doesn’t lead to good photos. On film sets, the light temperature is neutralized by hanging the gel in front of each light source. If you don’t want to do this, you should try to stay away from situations with mixed light.

What are gels in photography?

Gels, which are also called lighting filters, are thin sheets of polycarbonate or polyester plastic that can be placed in front of a light source to produce a wide range of colors to set a mood or add interest.

Color Temperature Orange (CTO) and Color Temperature Blue (CTB) Filters (CTB) Optical filters are a great tool that can be used for many different lighting tasks. Changing the color temperature of a light source with gels is a common method.

Crossing the white balance: How to deliberately give your images a color cast

With the right white balance, you can deliberately give your photos a certain look—for example, a blue color cast. By adjusting the white balance on the camera, you can achieve this directly when you take the photo and not later in image editing.

To do this, you use the manual white balance and tell your camera that a certain color, such as a shade of blue, is white. It will then “misbalance” all the other colors accordingly and create your special color look.

portrait comparison cerrect vs wrong white balance

Creative tip for white balance

Photographers working in product photography or with portraits will handle white balance quite differently and much more correctly than landscape photographers. Especially in landscape photography, an “incorrect” white balance can convey the right mood.

The icy cold of a winter day is enhanced by blue light, and the romantic mood of a sunset calls for warm light. Play with the different possibilities.

How to set the white balance in Lightroom

In image editing, you give your photos the finishing touches. Even if you always set your camera to the prevailing light temperature, it can happen that a picture is too blue or too yellow. This can be easily fixed in image editing.

Using the eyedropper tool in Lightroom

Lightroom makes white balance easy. You do this by using the Eyedropper tool and, with one click, making the color cast disappear from your image. Namely, like this:

Go to the → Develop tab in Lightroom. There you can adjust all the settings, including the white balance. You can find it in the eyedropper tool on the right side.

Click on the eyedropper. Your cursor is now also displayed as an eyedropper. Click on a spot in the image that you know is really white. In our example, the wedding dress is slightly off-white, so you can’t use it for the white balance. 

 

correct white balance in Lightroom, example wedding dress

Now Lightroom automatically performs the white balance and adjusts all the colors to the true white. Our image loses its yellow cast. You can also “play around” a bit with the eyedropper by clicking on different places in the image. How this affects the other colors becomes immediately clear in the image.

 

 

Frequently asked questions


How does the automatic white balance (AWB) work?

Automatic white balance for color reproduction is the default setting in all cameras, like automatic exposure metering for brightness. The camera analyzes the colors in the image, tries to deduce the incident light, and decides on the correction.

How do I create a certain mood with white balance?

Sometimes you want to give your photo a special mood. In a romantic photo, it looks good if the photo is a bit orange. Set the white balance to a Kelvin value of about 6000 to 7,000.

The photo will then be a little warmer in color. For an eerie photo atmosphere, use a white balance that creates a blue cast. With a low Kelvin value, your camera adds more blue to the photo.

What is white balance simply explained?

In simple terms, white balance refers to the overall color temperature of your photograph. When it comes to color, your camera does a good job because it has the ability to analyze the scene and adjust for overly warm or cool colors.

Most of the time, colors in your photographs will appear as they did in real life. Your camera, on the other hand, sometimes can not interpret the scene correctly and makes the colors appear either too warm or too cool.

The parts of your scene that are or should be white are the easiest places to spot this error. By candlelight, the whites of your photographs can appear yellow or orange.

What does a white balance do?

Under a correct white balance, white and gray areas of the image appear neutral and without a color cast. If you adjust for these areas, the rest of the colors in the photo will also appear natural. These differences are caused by the different temperatures of the light.

Every shooting situation and time of day offers different light. White balance is the camera’s ability to adjust to all these light situations and provide images with natural colors.

How to set the white balance at night?

If you like to get cooler colors in your night photograph opt for a lower value of around 3.000 Kelvin. In contrast, warmer color temperatures will already be between 6,000 and 8,000 Kelvin.

What white balance should I use for astrophotography?

For the best sharpness, start the lens’s aperture as wide as it will go and then close it down by about two stops. White balance should be set to a fixed value. Either 3800 K or “daylight.”

Conclusion

With some practice, we can learn to tell what kind of light is around us at any given time. And with the white balance, we can tell our camera what we know. This is how you keep your pictures from having a yellow or blue tint (or if you like to be creative give them one).

You can set the white balance on the camera before you take a picture, or you can do it later in a program like Lightroom.

Wat is your take on Camera White Balance Explained? – Let us know in the comments!

By Furoore team member Michael
Furoore Team is here to assist you in capturing the most significant moments in your life. To create exciting photographs, discover photography guides, find unique photo ideas, and limitless image inspiration.

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