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What is white balance in photography?

Modern cameras have spoiled us with their automatic modes, making it easy to ignore white balance settings. You will realize white balance is a very important part of photography as you advance in the art. Getting familiarized with color temperature and tint is crucial, and today we are here to help you with that!

Also read: What is focal length in photography? All your questions answered.


What is white balance?

White balance refers to the effects color temperature and tint have in photographs. Different light sources emit varying color temperatures, ranging in a spectrum between orange and blue. Likewise, light comes with tint, which ranges between green and magenta. Changing the white balance settings will help you find a balance between these colors and achieve a more natural effect.

More about tint and color temperature below.


Why do cameras need help with white balance?

When a human sees an object, the eyes and brain work together to correct colors automatically, making white look white under most natural circumstances. Regardless of whether you are out in a sunny day or indoors under a tungsten light, colors will look natural after your eyes get used to the environment, which doesn’t take long.

A camera needs some help figuring out how to make things look natural. Modern cameras try to emulate our brains, and do a pretty good job figuring out white balance in auto, but they can get things wrong.

Modern cameras do a pretty good job figuring out white balance in auto, but they can get things wrong.

Edgar Cervantes

Understanding color temperature

Color temperature is measured in kelvins (K), which is a base unit of temperature. Understanding how kelvins work requires much more than this article, but we will try to explain in a brief, simple way. Kelvins are based off the color radiated from a “black body” when exposed to that specific temperature. A high kelvin color temperature will make colors appear more blue, while a low one will make them appear more orange.

In photography we have certain white balance options to help figure out the correct kelvin levels one should use under different circumstances.

  • Candlelight: 1,000-2,000K
  • Tungsten bulb: 2,500-3,500K
  • Sunrise/sunset: 3,000-4,000K
  • Fluorescent light: 4,000-5,000K
  • Flash/direct sunlight: 5,000-6,500K
  • Cloudy sky: 6,500-8,000K
  • Heavy clouds: 9,000-10,000K

Understanding tint

Tint is as important to keep in mind when shooting under artificial lighting and uncommon lighting situations (like sunsets, sunrises, and other natural phenomena). Light can have a tint to it, which ranges between green and magenta. You can add more of either colors to correct an image’s unnatural color.


Adjusting white balance: in camera vs post processing

This is a personal preference. I am one of those photographers who prefer having as much done in camera as possible, so I tend to set the white balance in camera and just do slight adjustments during editing.

Shooting RAW has its advantages when working with white balance.

Edgar Cervantes

Shooting RAW has its advantages in this case, as the image file keeps all data and white balance is used as a point of reference. A RAW image file will allow you to manipulate color temperature in post-processing to your heart’s content. This is why modern photographers have a tendency of trusting cameras more. One can easily leave white balance settings in auto and correct images in post-processing only when the camera happens to mess up.

This is not the case with a JPEG file, which has a set white balance. The image will lose quality if you try to alter its color temperature and tint too much. In such cases, you can use the temperature options listed above.

Alternatively, you can use the custom or preset mode (PRE). This option measures color temperature and tint by measuring color in a white balance card. This is done by taking a picture of it under your desired conditions. The downside to this method is that you have to go through the process every time you switch lighting conditions.


How to adjust white balance in camera

Camera white balance settings on Nikon D610

The process is simple, but every camera has its menu set up differently, so we can’t give you a step-by-step guide. The white balance settings should be somewhere in your menu, though. Once in there, you should see most of the white balance options listed in our color temperature section (likely worded a bit differently).

Select your option based on lighting conditions. There is also an option for picking kelvin temperatures manually, as well as the preset mode for using a white balance card. Some cameras have physical buttons for white balance controls, which can save you the time of going through the menu.


How to adjust white balance in post processing

Photo editing programs and apps handle their options differently, but the general gist of the process should be very similar across the board. Find the “white balance” or “color” section in your editing software of choice. This area should have a list or drop-down menu with all the options listed in our color temperature section. Alternatively, you should be able to modify color temperature and tint manually, as well as things like vibrance, saturation, and more.

White Balance Color Settings Lightroom CC

A handy tool I recommend is the white balance waterdrop tool. You can select this option and then pick a white or neutral (gray) color within your image. The software will read the color you picked and bring it to its ideal white balance levels.

White Balance waterdrop tool Lightroom CC


Breaking the rules of white balance

Photography is an art and creative expression, so we can’t tell you to stick by the rules. We have been telling you this whole time that the right white balance is that which emulates the natural colors of your scene. That is a good rule of thumb to go by when learning the concept, but there are times when you might want to get creative with colors.

A “cooler” (more blue) color temperature get make a scene feel gloomy. Likewise, a more orange hue can also give images a warm, soothing effect. Color theory is a whole science of its own, and you can make amazing photographs if you learn to manipulate it. Here are some samples of images I recently shot, in which I played with temperatures and tints to achieve special effects.

Sample image of playful white balance beach

Sample image of playful white balance coffee by the beach


Now that you understand white balance, funny colors and camera mistakes shouldn’t surprise you. You can even use it to your advantage!

Now read: What is ISO in photography? Everything you need to know


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