What Is White Balance And How To Get it Right In Your Photos

If you care about the colors in your photographs, understanding white balance is a must. In this article, we hope to demystify white balance and teach you how to utilize that knowledge to correct colors in your photographs.

What is White Balance?

White balance (WB) is a camera setting which allows a photographer to set the color temperature of the scene. Setting the white balance helps the camera to capture white color as pure white, without a color cast.

Why Should I set white balance?

Have you ever noticed how some of your photos has a strong blue tint or warm orange color cast?

That is because, without proper white balance, your camera can not understand what is true white in a photo. In comparison, the human eye is very good at compensating for color temperature and interpreting white as white.

In order to capture colors accurately, without a color cast, you should set the white balance in your camera.

Setting the correct white balance is especially important If you are shooting in JPEG or TIFF format. Whereas if you are shooting in RAW, you can always change the white balance in post-processing.

Color temperature and white balance

You might have noticed that you can set a custom white balance in units, Kelvin in your camera. This is because, in digital photography, when you adjust white balance, all you are doing is specifying the color temperature (in Kelvin) of your light source.

Color temperature chart in photography
Color temperatures, in Kelvin increase as you go from red hot to cool blue.

warmer colors (yellows, oranges, and reds) have a lower color temperature than greens, blues, and violets.

How does white balance affect my photos?

If the correct white balance is not set, your image will have a color cast.

Set your camera to different white balance settings and take a few shots under the same lighting conditions. As you can see below, the camera adjusts its interpretation of true white as per your white balance input.

This photo was taken during mid-day sun. WB was set to a color temperature of 5500K, which is similar to the color temperature of the mid-day sun. As you can see, flower petals sepicts natural white as you would expect.

Let’s take the same picture but with lower and higher coor termperature (K) relative to mid-day sun.

The WB of this photo was set to a color temperature of 2250K (warm end of the spectrum). As a result, the camera has added a bluish tint to the whites to compensate for it.
The WB of this photo was set to a color temperature of
48700K (cooler end of the spectrum). As a result, the camera has added a yellow/orange tint to the whites to compensate for it.

Okay, so how do I set the white balance?

Digital cameras have several ‘preset’ white balance options that will allow you to get the right color temperature straight from the camera.

Usually, you access the WB options through the camera’s menu or with the WB button (if your camera has one). Check your manual and read how to set the White balance for your particular camera.

A camera LCD showing the WB options
This is an example of a White Balance selection menu

Here is a list of most common WB options in digital cameras.

Auto white balance

One of the WB options of your camera is the Auto WB. This is the easiest setting since you do not have to do anything but set it to Auto White Balance (AWB). AWB works well if your scene is lit by the same type of light (same color temperature) and has lots of whites and neutral objects.

an image of a tree taken using Auto WB
This photo was taken with Auto WB. Its colors are fairly accurate–close to what I saw when I was in the forest.

For tricky lighting situations, or when you notice there is a color cast on your photos, it is a good idea to move out of the Auto White Balance.

White balance presets (sunny, cloudy…)

Along with AWB, your camera should have the following WB presets; Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade.

Choosing these presets would inform the camera of your judgment of color temperature. The camera then adjusts for the color temperature and depict colors as accurately as possible.

Let’s explore WB presets one by one:

White balance preset menu of a digital camera
  • Incandescent/Tungsten: Tungsten lights emit warm colors. So if this WB preset is used, the camera will compensate by adding a cold tint (bluish tint) to the image.
  • Fluorescent: Fluorescent lights emit a colder white color. So if this WB preset is used, the camera will compensate by making your images warmer.
  • Direct sunlight: (Sunny): Selecting this WB preset sets your color to around 5000 Kelvin, the typical temperature during mid-day.
  • Flash: When you are using a flash, it adds a cold tint to your images.
    So if this WB preset is used, the camera will compensate by warming the image. Note: It adds more warmth than other presets to compensate for the extra cold tint of the flash.
  • Cloudy: Cloudy days are usually grey-ish. So if this WB preset is used, the camera will compensate by making the scene warmer, towards the pinks, to eliminate the blue cast of the clouds
  • Shade: This WB preset is similar to “Cloudy”, but it warms the scene in a more subtle way.
6 sample images taken under same lighting conditions but different white balance presets
This image was taken in direct sunlight. I applied different WB presets to see the effect they have in my images.

Custom Color temperature (K)

Color Temperature or K option is good if you know the color temperature of the scene. It allows you to fine-tune the color temperature value (increments of 100) rather than using the presets.

Custom white balance using a gre/white card

In complicated light settings, such as mixed lighting, you might need to use an extra tool to get the correct white balance: a gray card.

This involves you taking a photo of the gray card and using that picture as the basis for white balance in your camera.

3 grey cards that can be used to set custom white balance
gray cards can come in a set together with white and black cards. Any of these works to set your custom white balance.

How to use a grey card to set White Balance:

  1. Select the Custom White Balance option in your camera’s menu
  2. Hold the white card in front of your camera and take a photo of it. Some cameras need to fill the whole frame with white card, others don’t. Also, if it is hard to focus with autofocus, switch to manual focus.
  3. Press the shutter button and take a photo
  4. Go to Menu > Custom White Balance and select the photo you just took as your reference photo.
  5. The camera will read the color information from this image and set the WB more accurately.

Note: The custom white balance will only work for the particular light situation you set it up. So when your lighting conditions change, you need to either do a new custom white balance or switch to WB presets.

How to correct white balance in post-processing

If you notice a color cast in your photos, you might be able to fix that in post-processing.

However, this works best if the image is taken in RAW format.

Although it is possible to modify color temperature in other formats such as JPEG, we highly recommend that you shoot in RAW. This is because in JPEG color information is burned into the pixels. Which result in hard transitions, color shifts, and wrong colors. In comparison, RAW files keep all that data and allow you to edit them later.

Almost any post-processing software should allow you to correct WB. here’s how to change WB using Lightroom.

Under the Basic panel of the Develop module you will find 3 options to fix the white balance:

Lightroom has 3 options to change your WB

1. Lightroom White Balance (WB) presets

Next to “WB:” there is a drop-down menu with different presets. They are quite similar to the white balance options in your camera.

2. Lightroom White Balance Eye Dropper

In the WB section, look for an eye dropper tool. Use this tool to pick a spot that you know has neutral colors.

A neutral color is a one that has the RGB colors (red, green and blue) similar between them. As you hover with the eyedropper over your photo, you will see the RGB of the spot. Hover around your photo looking for a spot that has neutral colors. Look for white objects such as eyes or teeth, or even grey objects such as walls.

This image is a bit too warm. It has an orange/red color cast

This wall was grey. Although it has not the exact RGB values, I picked it because I knew it should have been neutral. As you can see, the red value is higher than the others

You can see a preview in the Navigator window. Once you find the spot you want as a reference, click on it and Lightroom will correct the rest of the image accordingly.

Lightroom corrected the image. It understood that the spot I picked should have been neutral, so it removed the excess of red.

If you don’t like it, you can undo the change through the Lightroom’s History panel or using the Ctrl+Z shortcut.

3. Lightroom Temperature slider

You can change the color temperature with the Temp slider. Tghe slider itself has a color scale to help you identify the effect it will apply.

Original test images

You can move it towards the blue side (left) to cool down your image and towards the yellow side (right) to warm it up.

WB scale moved far to the left side has introduced bluish tint
Moving the WB scale to the right has made the image warmer.

Note: You can also tune the tint of the image with the Tine slider and correct possible green and magenta tints.

So what is the right white balance?

If you are wondering whether you always need to use the correct white balance in your images, the answer is No! You can use WB in creative ways.

Do you want to convey a sense of warmth in the scene? Use a preset that warms the image. It will give a yellow color cast. If you prefer to add a sense of coldness, increase the blues. Your final image might not look so natural, but it will convey your vision!

In this image I moved the temperature slider towards the blues because I liked the contrast of the blue with the pink and yellow clouds.

Over to you

Mastering the white balance will allow you to have better control over your colors. First, decide if you want to adjust the white balance straight in the camera or in post-processing. If you choose the second option, remember to shoot in RAW.

Experiment with different white balance settings to get the creative expression that you are after.

If you have any questions about WB, please leave a comment below.

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About the author

Sarah Rodríguez-Martínez

I am a self-taught photographer based in a sea-side town close to Barcelona. I love shooting portraits, yoga photography and nature. I have a lot of fun editing in Lightroom, my favorite editing software. Besides photography, I practice yoga, I am a recognized coffeeholic and I hate Mondays. You can contact me easily by both Instagram (@sarahrmphotos) and email ([email protected])

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