White Balance photo

Photography Basics: White Balance

Written by Tim on . Posted in Photography Basics

Photography Basics: White Balance

White balance is one of the first things you need to learn about as a photographer, at least in terms of color and composition, since it’s easily the cornerstone of all color theory in photography. Simply put, if you cannot or do not grasp the concept of setting your white balance, the shots you take will probably appear “off” in some way. You might get away with a few lucky shots, or a few shots where your colors are so out of whack it almost looks like creative effort, but at the end of the day, knowing how to set your white balance and what it will do to your photos is key to making sure the colors you want show up in your photo.

This article will teach you the absolute basics of understanding white balance and how it works. It’s all basic stuff, with nothing really “technical” to get in the way. A lot of what’s said in this article is to simply get you understanding white balance, in the easiest terms possible.

What Is White Balance and Color Temperature?

White balance is a term, stemming from video production, and it comes from the mix of red, green, and blue used to make the colors in a picture accurate. In case you don’t remember elementary school science, pure white light is made of all the colors in the visible spectrum. However, we won’t ever be dealing with purely white light, and that’s where white balance comes in.

Most light you come across isn’t going to be perfect studio lighting, and as a result that light is going to be made up of a different mix of colors. While the human eye and brain work in conjunction with one another to ensure you always see the color white correctly, your camera lacks this ability. It will remember the same concept of “white” regardless of lighting until you tell it what white is again, a process known as “setting” white balance.

The effect on your photo is easy to see: a heavy shift towards either the orange-yellow side of the color spectrum, or in the opposite direction towards blue and green. If you have taken photo after photo and haven’t been able to see the colors you expected, white balance is probably the culprit. Take a look at a few different examples of white balance, and how it affected these simple outdoor comparison shots. Once you get these photos side-by-side, the difference really stands out, as you can see.

“Cloudy” white balance preset shot in sunny conditions Same settings shot 5 minutes earlier under overcast skies
Photography Basics: White Balance Photography Basics: White Balance


The driving concept behind color balance is called color temperature. While color temperature is a weird science, it’s one that we can get away with not knowing a lot about. As you can see on this handy chart, light that are higher in color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin, tends to sway more over towards the blue end of the spectrum, examples of this are overcast skies or flash bulbs. Cooler color temperatures, due to the wavelength of the light being shorter, tend to show up on the opposite end of the spectrum, in the reds and yellows. While it may seem a little disorienting, as long as you can remember that hotter color temperature means cooler light, you should be okay.

Photography Basics: White Balance

Setting White Balance

So, now that we know the basic idea of white balance, how do we apply this theory to our shots? Well, there are a variety of ways one can go about setting white balance on a DSLR camera, and each one is a little tougher to master than the last. With most modern digital cameras, including point-and-shoot models, one can usually opt for Automatic White Balance or AWB, or select from a number of factory settings to attempt to rectify color casts that might show up in your shots. Some point-and-shoots and almost all DSLRs will also come with an option to set white balance manually.

Using the AWB on your camera is by far the easiest way to make sure your colors always come out correctly represented in a shot, but it’s only accurate about 75% of the time. The limitations of the technology have moved forward loads from the first generations of digital cameras, but it is still far from perfect. If you’re taking family shots, moving from dark to light or vice versa, or even just trying the camera out, you’ll likely stick with the AWB setting at first.

Photography Basics: White Balance

Good Auto White Balance

However, it’s conceivable that the AWB setting just isn’t doing what you want it to do. Look at the photo of the floral shop below. The camera got confused because of the mixed lighting conditions. We have the natural light from outside, plus the track lighting on the ceiling. These two light sources have different color temperatures, causing the camera AWB to freak out and choose a setting it thought was correct.

What setting is correct in this kind of situation? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to that question. Some complex lighting situations don’t necessarily have a “correct” setting, but rather you’d have to choose what you think is right. Experiment, practice and test as much as you can, and you’ll soon find your own “correct” setting.

Photography Basics: White Balance

Bad Auto White Balance

Photography Basics: White Balance

The color temp bar represents the actual color (and type) of light your camera compensate for when using its white balance presets

Let’s go back to the first photo of the pie. Auto White Balance did good in this case. It captured the warmness I was trying to convey. Why did it do so much better than the floral shop photo? Because there was only one main light source and color temperature – a portable flash. The camera I use, the Nikon D300s, is great at getting good white balance with flashes. Plus, the white highlight on the table helped because when using Auto White Balance it’s always best to include at least one bright colorless object for the camera to reference.

Your camera also includes presets, like the ones seen on the right. These will give us more control over setting white balance depending on the lighting situation where we are, and usually include settings like Tungsten, Florescent, or Daylight.

Using presets is usually as easy as rotating a knob or hitting a button a few times to select the kind of light you’ll be shooting in. Take a few test shots, if time permits, and this will give you an idea of how your presets are going to affect colors. Indoor presets like Tungsten or Florescent will add more blues and greens to a photo, while Flash and Cloudy presets add warmer reds and yellows.

Manually Setting White Balance

Once you’ve got a good idea of what white balance does for a shot, the next step is figuring out the correct way to set it yourself. This can involve hundreds of dollars worth of equipment for a professional, but an amateur can do it for a fraction of the cost. While those of us on the amateur side of the fence don’t require half the widgets the pros do, using the right equipment is just as important.

It will probably surprise you to know that the equipment can be as affordable as a sheet of paper, though! Simply photograph a sheet of paper, and then use that photo as a reference to adjust the white balance manually within Photoshop or Lightroom, or if you have a higher-end camera, use the photo as a reference shot for your camera. Depending on the color temperature of the light you’re shooting in, you should be able to easily discern blues and greens and reds on a white sheet of paper, and reduce the amount of them present in the photo.

The next step from this is to invest in a color reference object, which can vary in appearance. The most popular reference object is likely the “gray card,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a small monotone gray card, which is usually 18% gray. Color charts are also available, which allow a photographer to see how different colors will appear under different light balances as well as set white balance. Reference objects such as cubes or spheres are also available to those who like to have something hanging from a keychain or belt.

Recommended White Balance Tools

There are tons of unique ways to achieve great white balance out there, but I still like to stick to the basics. Here are a three tools I would recommend if you’re looking to improve your white balance. Click the image if you wish hop over to B&H Photo for more info.

Photography Basics: White Balance

The ExpoDisc

  • Quickly Set Your Camera White Balance
  • Works for Still and Video
  • Provides Accurate, Consistent Color
  • Calibrated and Certified for Neutrality
  • Use in Ambient, Studio or Mixed Light
  • Easy to Use, Durable, Compact

The ExpoDisc Neutral White Balance Filter allows digital photographers to quickly and easily set an accurate custom white balance. Each ExpoDisc is individually assembled, calibrated and certified for neutrality in the visible spectrum, and for 18% light transmission.

Photography Basics: White Balance

DGK Color Tools Digital Grey Kard

  • 2 x 3-1/4″ Card Size
  • Accurate Color Balancing Tool
  • Easy-to-Use
  • Can Be Used in Pre- or Post-Production
  • Premium Lanyard with Detachable Clip

By using this set of three cards – Black, White and Neutral Grey simply take a picture of the card in the same lighting your subject is (or was) in. Use auto white balance and P (Program) mode for the picture. You can either use the resulting picture as the basis for a custom white balance setting, or you can use the White Balance Card Set picture during post processing for a custom white balance.

Photography Basics: White Balance

Delta 1 Gray Card – 8×10

  • Large 8×10 card stock
  • Cut it into any size
  • Accurate to within 1%
  • Can Be Used in Pre- or Post-Production
  • Easy-to-use

Correct color or B&W exposures every time regardless of contrast, brightness or conditions. Accurate to within 1%. Includes instructions. 8×10″ card stock.

You can also diffuse the light entering your aperture and use this shot as a reference. It has become a preferable way of setting white balance for many amateur photographers simply because it is as easy as snapping a picture of your light source. All that is required is to place a diffuser, such as a coffee can lid or more expensive tool like an Expodisc, against the lens of the camera, snap a shot of the light and either adjust accordingly or use the picture as a reference shot for your camera to adjust automatically.

Another alternative is to shoot with a camera that produces files in the RAW format. RAW format files are capable of having white balance adjusted after being shot in a program such as Photoshop or Lightroom. While the files are a good deal larger than a typical TIFF or JPEG file, the quality and customizability of the format is undeniable. Beginners looking to understand white balance and really color theory in general simply can’t go wrong by fooling with a RAW format file.

White Balance and You

Understanding how different light affects the way your camera sees different colors is one of the lynch pins of photography, and this makes white balance an important thing to be comfortable with. Try snapping photos in a variety of different lighting, under a number of different presets, at least at first. This will give you an idea of which presets are good to use and which are duds, as well as what each will do to your shots, color-wise. Another great exercise to try is to set your white balance to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, such as shooting daylight shots with a tungsten balance. This will give you a better idea what colors your preset white balance settings add to your shots.

While white balance is important to photography, it’s only dipping your toe into the big deep end of color theory. Once you understand what certain lighting does to your whites, you’ll understand what it does to your reds, purples and yellows as well. And once you understand that, you’ll know how to make those reds, purples and yellows look exactly how you want them to look.

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