What is White Balance in Photography and How to Adjust It

Have you ever taken a photograph of something that was supposed to be white but it turned out yellow or blue instead? Understanding white balance — and how to adjust your camera settings for it — is one of the most important things you’ll learn as a photographer. But first, what is white balance?

This article will define white balance and explain how to adjust it in your camera or later when you edit your photos. Understanding white balance and how to adjust it will go a long way in making you a better photographer. 

Understanding white balance will go a long way in making you a better photographer.
Photo by Marco Xu on Unsplash

What is white balance?

White balance (WB), as the name implies, adjusts the color temperature of a scene so that colors appear true and accurate. White balance needs to be adjusted according to whatever different lighting conditions you’re shooting in because different kinds of light have different color temperatures.

To truly understand how the process works, it helps to understand color temperature.

What is color temperature?

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K) and describes the characteristics of the light. In other words, it’s a way of measuring the hue of different sources of light. 

Colors that are higher on the Kevin scale will have cool blue light, whereas colors that are lower on the Kelvin scale will be warm and orange. See the chart below for examples.

Kelvin scale

As you can see, different lighting conditions have different color temperatures. And, depending on what lighting conditions you’re shooting under, the light will cast those colors onto your image. 

For example, an image shot in household lighting will have a warm, orange cast. Whereas an image shot outside under a cloudy sky will have a bluish cast. Photos taken with flash should have a neutral color temperature and will be close to natural in color when shot. 

White balance can get tricky when the scene you’re shooting has many different light sources with different color temperatures, for example, a wedding reception with candlelight, overhead lighting, and sunlight coming in the windows. This is called mixed lighting and may require extra color correction in post-processing.

How does white balance work?

Now that you understand color temperature, it’s easy to understand the concept of white balance. It balances the color in your image by adding the opposite color to bring the temperature to neutral. 

For example, if you’re shooting in shade, your image would normally have a blue cast. By adjusting the white balance, you’ll add the opposite color — in this case, orange — to cancel out the blue and make the image appear more natural in color. 

Luckily, adjusting WB is very easy. It can be done in two ways: in-camera or in post-processing.

The lighting conditions you shoot in will affect the white balance of your photographs.
Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

How to adjust white balance in-camera

There are multiple ways to set the white balance in your camera before you ever take your photograph. If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, chances are you have several preset white balance options and can choose your own Kelvin temperature. Or, you may choose to manually adjust your camera’s white balance by using a white or gray card.

Preset White Balance Settings

Most cameras have the following presets that are set by the manufacturer. They will vary slightly depending on your camera make and model

  • Auto (AWB) – Auto white balance. With this setting, your camera will automatically guess the setting based on the ambient light. It is a good starting point but is not always accurate in mixed or difficult lighting situations.
  • Tungsten – Use this setting for incandescent light bulbs.
  • Fluorescent – Use this setting if your images look too green or when you’re shooting under fluorescent light.
  • Daylight – For use when you’re shooting outside in direct sunlight.
  • Cloudy – Use this setting if you’re shooting on a cloudy day or in the shade. It will warm up your image more than the daylight setting.
  • Flash – If you’re using flash, this is the setting for you.
  • Shade – This setting will add more warmth than the cloudy setting. It’s good for shooting in shade and at sunset.
  • Choose a color temperature (K) – This setting will allow you to choose the color temperature for the lighting condition you’re shooting in. Refer to the chart above.

Manually adjust white balance using a white or gray card

This is the most accurate way to adjust your white balance. The method for manually setting WB varies from one camera to the next, so refer to your camera manual for exact instructions. But here is the basic method:

  1. Take a photo of a blank white or gray card under the same lighting conditions you’ll be shooting in. Depending on your camera, you may need an 18% gray card or you may be able to photograph anything white or gray.
  2. Set your white balance. After you photograph the white or gray card, open your camera’s WB settings. You’ll need to refer to your manual for exact instructions as they are different for every camera. Set the white balance using the image you’ve just taken.
  3. Take your photos using this new WB setting. As long as the lighting conditions are the same, your white balance will be accurate for any photos you take with this setting.
Another way to adjust white balance is to shoot in RAW and change it in post-processing.
Photo by Caio from Pexels

How to adjust white balance in post-processing

If you shoot your photographs in RAW, you don’t have to put too much thought into changing your white balance when you’re shooting. You can usually just set your camera to AWB and forget it. Since shooting in RAW records all the color information available, you can easily change it later with Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. 

Here are a couple of different ways to change your white balance in post-processing:

  1. When you open your RAW image, simply select one of the preset white balance options similar to those available to you in your camera. These can be found in the Basic adjustments panel.
Adjusting white balance in post.
  1. Select the eyedropper tool on the Basic adjustments panel and then click on a white part of your photograph. 
Adjusting white balance in post.

Final thoughts

Now that you have an understanding of color temperature you can see how different lighting situations affect the color of your photographs. Once you know how to adjust your white balance to make the color of your images more natural and realistic, you can begin to use it as a creative tool. Use it to warm up and cool down your photographs to change the feel of your photos and add your own artistic flair.

Remember, if you always shoot in RAW, you’ll have wider control over many aspects of your photographs — including their white balance.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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