Have you ever taken a photo that has a blue or orange tinge to it? It wasn't there when you took the photo, but it's definitely there on your image. That's what happens when your camera's auto white balance setting doesn't get things right. Why does it matter so much? Can I fix it later? And is it possible to set white balance yourself? The answer to all these questions are below.
Every type of light source has a different light 'temperature'. Incandescent lights have a warmer temperature than fluorescent lighting. The sunlight on a cloudy day is cooler than noon on a cloudless day, which is cooler than the warm temperature of the light coming from the setting sun.
This light causes the objects in your image to look a little warmer (orange/red colors) or cooler (blue). Our own eyes adjust to the slightly different reflected colors, so we don't notice the difference. However, your camera can't tell.
Your camera doesn’t know about the shooting conditions where you are taking your photos. Your camera can’t “see” the fact that it’s cloudy. It can’t “tell” that your indoors, outdoors, or underneath bright office lighting. It’s a computer. It doesn’t “know” anything.
However, it can guess. To guess, cameras look at the brightest thing in your image, and assumes that will be the color 'white'. It's a logical assumption. Most outdoor shots have white clouds, and indoor rooms usually have white walls. The camera then calibrates all the colors in that image using the 'white'.
However, sometimes your camera gets it wrong. Usually this is because there is no 'white' in the shot and thus no reference point. This is where your photos have an orange or blue tinge. A classic example is the photo below, from my Ask A Photo Pro product.
Image with an orange tinge, from Ask A Photo Pro.
Sometimes you need to feed your camera some extra information. One way to do this is with white balance settings. When you set your white balance to compensate for a cloudy day, you are telling your camera that the light coming into the lens has a certain temperature. The computer program inside will recognize this and correctly calibrate the photo.
White Balance Modes
Digital SLRs, and point-and-shoot models, all come with pre-set white balance modes. You can find them under the white balance settings menu. Here are a few of them and what they do:
Cloudy Day: This mode compensates for the diffuse light you get on a cloudy day. It adds more warmth to your colors, as if the sun were setting on a fall evening.
Fluorescent: A mode designed to compensate for fluorescent office lighting. It neutralizes the blue tinge you normally see in offices.
Shady: The light in shaded areas isn’t as warm or direct as sunlight. It tends to make your photos blue if you don’t use this mode.
Incandescent Lighting: This mode cancels out the harsh effect you get from lightbulbs in your home.
Auto: The default white balance setting. You aren’t telling your camera any specific information about the shooting conditions. This is the one that works in most situations, but it doesn’t do the best job.
The same scene taken with the correct white balance.
Notice how the white fur looks white now!
How To Manually Adjust Your White Balance
Preset modes are great, and they work really well most of the time, but there are some circumstances like when there are multiple different light sources, when knowing how to manually adjust your white balance will help.
None of this is difficult. You just need to carry a blank white notecard with you everywhere you go. Place the white card somewhere in your scene making sure it reflects the light from around the location. Go into your camera’s menu and choose manual white balance, then take a photo of the white card. Your camera will set it to the default “white.” Once this is done, the white you see will be the default white in your photos.
Some photographers don’t even bother to bring a white card. They just find something white and take a picture of it. A good an common example is clouds, but anything white like snow also works well. Get creative. There’s white stuff everywhere you look.
Just remember when using manual white balance to reset the white balance setting on your camera when you change locations. Otherwise your first photos will be great, but all the others after that won't look so crash hot.
Indoor Fluorescent Lights
I’m going to mention this because a few of my subscribers have been having some difficulty with it. Some indoor lights actually flicker so fast that you can’t see the light changing color. This usually happens in gymnasiums. If you’re shooting with a very fast shutter speed like 1/500s or 1/250s, your camera is taking the picture so fast that it isn’t capturing the full spectrum that the lights emit. It’s getting a slightly different colored burst of light every time.
How can you tell if this is happening to you? The key sign is a lack of consistency in colors, no matter what white balance settings you choose. It all has to do with AC electricity. As the electric current alternates through the lights, it emits different colors. No matter how hard you try, you simply won’t get any consistency, and that’s just how it is.
I wish I could offer some encouraging advice here. If you can’t use a flash indoors, it’s going to be difficult to get good pictures any way you slice it. Just know you’re doing your best in a difficult situation.
Correcting Incorrect White Balance Settings
Yes, it IS possible to correct a photo taken with the wrong white balance setting. And fortunately, it's one of the easiest things to correct. The second photo above was color corrected using a paint program.
We'll discuss how to do that in part 2.
[Thanks to Toni Moon for the photo]
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