When it comes to getting accurate colors, nothing is better than nailing your white balance settings right on the head. If the white balance is even slightly off,it can produce a highly noticeable bluish or reddish tinge. Sometimes the tinge is desirable. It can enhance the appeal of clouds or night time photography. But if you’re going for accuracy, you’ll want the perfect white balance settings for the situation you’re shooting in. Pay attention because l’m about to show you how to strike the right balance (literally speaking) by using your camera’s manual white balance settings.
The science of white balance
To get a manual white balance setting, you have to go through a few steps. The first is to take a picture of a white piece of paper or gray card in the light that you’ll be shooting in. Next, you use that picture as a point of reference for the camera, telling it “this is the new white.”
Okay, I lied a little. You aren’t exactly telling your camera that the picture is the new white. You’re telling it what something spectrally neutral looks like. A spectrally neutral surface is any surface that appears to lack color. It reality, it doesn’t lack color. It reflects all colors, giving off a white or gray appearance. The more colors it reflects, the more white it is. The less colors it reflects, the more black it is.
Getting more into the science of it all, we need to remember that light is reflecting off everything. A blue sweatshirt is blue because it only reflects light that falls into a range of wavelengths we classify as “blue.” A white or gray surface, on the other hand, reflects light of all wavelengths. It doesn’t give any preference to one wavelength over another. That’s why we say it is spectrally neutral.
What your camera does when you set the white balance
Whenever you use preset white balance settings, your camera “assumes” one particular part of the scene is spectrally neutral. It bases this assumption off of a setting you picked. For example, if you tell your camera that the light in the room is incandescent (by using the Incandescent Scene Mode, usually depicted by the bulb icon to the right), it will assume that the the most spectrally neutral part of the scene has a slightly yellow tinge. If you tell your camera that the light in the room is fluorescent, it will assume that the same part of the scene has a slightly pink tinge and so on.
Presets are handy, but they aren’t always accurate. You can tell your camera that the light in the room is incandescent, but that doesn’t mean you’re telling it the degree to which it is incandescent. Maybe you’ve left a window open, and the light is some combination of natural and incandescent. That’s where a picture of a white sheet of paper comes in handy. It shows your camera exactly what a white surface looks like in the current light.
Professional photographers often carry gray cards with them. Gray cards are known to be a little more spectrally neutral than a piece of white paper. Of course, it all depends on the piece of paper you’re photographing. Some photographers argue that white paper is treated with a certain kind of bleach that gives it a fluorescent tinge. Grey cards are the safest bet because they are designed to be as neutral as possible.
Step 1: Take a picture of a white piece of paper or a gray card
The key to doing this correctly is to position the piece of paper or grey card in front of the most prominent light source. Generally speaking, that’s where you should also place your subject. If you still don’t know where you should place your piece of paper, just ask yourself the following. Which part of my image needs to have the most accurate colors? Place your white piece of paper in front of that part of the image. In the image above, the color of the flowers are most important to me, so that's where I placed the card.
On some cameras, you may need to fill the frame with your white piece of paper or grey card. There are two ways to accomplish this. You can either zoom in really far, or you can simply walk up to the piece of paper and fill the frame by using the zoom lens you were born with. Either way, there shouldn’t be any other colors in your reference shot. On most cameras though, just some white is enough.
Step 2: Tell your camera which neutral image corresponds to the correct white balance
It all depends on the camera make and model you’re using, but the basic process is pretty much the same. Go the main menu, pick white balance, and then pick manual. Under manual white balance, there’s an option to use a reference shot from your camera’s memory. Pick that one, and then find the image you just took. Your white balance is now calibrated for the situation right in front of you!
When do you need manual white balance?
Generally speaking, whenever you have the time for it. Still, there are certain situations where it will help you more than others. Indoor photography, under mixed lighting, is one of them. Whenever light is coming from multiple sources, and you can’t exactly pin down the most prominent of those sources, manual settings will help you out.
Bright sunny days are a good example of a time when manual white balance settings are less helpful. You know exactly where the light is coming from, and it doesn’t change all that much. You can usually tell your camera to use the “outside” white balance preset, and it does a pretty good job. Of course, a manual white balance calibration will still yield more accurate results.
Fixing it later
The other wonderful thing about the white balance setting (unlike most other camera settings) is that you can easily change it later in a paint program with almost no loss of quality of your image. If you need a little help on images you have already taken, learn how to fix the white balance in Photoshop or Picasa.
At the end of the day, you have to decide which is more important to you. Do you need more accuracy, or do you want to save yourself some time? For quick spur of the moment photos, use your camera’s presets. You can always adjust the white balance with photo editing software later. But when you want to nail down the colors right out of the gate, switch to manual mode and get a reference shot. You’ll be happy with what you see.
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