Until you started taking photos, you may not have even been aware of such a thing as white balance. That's because in the real world, white balance is a function of your brain. Our brains are pretty good at white balance, actually, so good that many photographers have to train themselves to consciously understand what our brains just do for us behind the scenes, every single day.
However, your camera isn't as smart. Fortunately, there is an easy way to make sure you don't get a color 'cast' in your photos.
unbalanced quartet by Flickr user theilr
What is white balance?
Generally speaking, white balance is that thing that went wrong when you tried to take a photo indoors without a flash. You know how everybody in that shot looked like they were suffering from some sort of strange stomach ailment? That's because those incandescent lights illuminating most indoor scenes are not white, they are yellow. And although your eyes don't see it that way, your camera does.
Your eyes are actually very good at compensating for the different colors that are present in light. If you put on a white T-shirt, for example, and then you go stand outside, your shirt is actually going to have a little bit of a bluish cast under the natural light. Your eyes don't perceive it that way, though, because they're very good at discarding the blue information in the light and interpreting the T-shirt as white. The same thing is true when you walk into a room lit by incandescent light. Now your T-shirt has a yellow cast, but you still perceive it as white.
Your camera, on the other hand, just sees the yellow. It doesn't have the brainpower necessary to disregard all that extra information about color temperature. You have to tell it to do that, or it's always going to render the scene exactly as it sees it.
Rascal Up Close by Flickr user pmeidinger
White balance is directly related to color temperature, and is measured on a Kelvin scale. I'm copying that information below just in case you're interested, but you don't really need to memorize all of the values. What you do need to know is what cast each individual type of light creates. Incandescent lights, for example, are warmer in temperature than daylight is. Daylight, on the other hand, has a bluish cast – this actually becomes more prominent when you're standing in the shade. Fluorescent light (depending on the type) can make everything look green. And that golden hour light that we all know and love at either end of the day also has a yellowish or reddish cast.
If you want to adjust for a color cast in the existing light, you need to add the opposite color. For example, if you don't want that orange cast that you get under incandescent light, you need to add blue to the scene to balance it out. This sounds complicated, but camera manufacturers have given you a pretty simple way of doing it. Your camera's white balance function will let you choose the specific types of lighting conditions, and then the camera will automatically make those adjustments for you. For a decent all-around solution, you can just choose auto white balance, but be aware that this setting has its drawbacks. Your auto white balance setting isn't always going to get it right—the best it can do is guess. So for more precise control, use those individual presents. Just make sure you don't forget to switch back when the lighting conditions change.
Now you may think this all sounds a little too easy, and that's because it is. The only time this is going to be a perfect solution is when you've got a situation where there is only one kind of light. Let's say, for example, that you're shooting a photo indoors. You've got strong light coming through a window, but you also have a few incandescent lights turned on inside the house. This is what you call "mixed" lighting conditions. You can't use any of your presets to deal with this problem because your presets are only designed to work with a single type of lighting at any one time, and even then there can be slight differences between what the camera expects and what the light actually looks like. Likewise, your auto setting is going to be pretty hopeless because it's just not very good at guessing, especially when there are a lot of different kinds of competing light sources. So what can you do? The easy solution is to just turn off those incandescent lights. You're probably not adding awful lot of light anyway, so turning off the incandescents is going to make your life a lot easier. But in situations where you don't have control over the light, you will have to set your white balance manually.
Now I wish I could tell you exactly how to do this with your camera, but all cameras are different. Instead, I'm going to give you a brief rundown on how to manually set your white balance on a Canon or Nikon DSLR. If that's not what you have, hopefully you'll still get a pretty good idea about the procedure, but do check your camera's manual, too, and walk through it on your own.
For any camera
To set your camera's white balance, you need a special tool—never fear, it's not anything expensive and you should be able to buy one at any camera shop, or failing that, on Amazon.com. You can use either a photographer's white card or a gray card, but you do have to have the genuine article. In a pinch, you can take a reading off a white wall or a piece of white paper, but be aware that your readings won't be exactly right, because most walls and even pieces of paper aren't really a true white.
On a Nikon:
The first thing you have to do is place your white or gray card in the scene you plan to photograph. Now press the MENU button and select "White Balance" in the shooting menu. Now select "Preset manual" from the white balance options. Finally, select "measure." Your camera may pop up a window asking if you want to overwrite existing preset data—say "yes."
Now look into your viewfinder for a flashing "pre." (Note that some Nikons let you choose this mode via the button at the top of the camera—just select "pre" and then hold down the white balance button until "pre" begins flashing.) You've got a few seconds to frame that white or gray card—make sure it fills the viewfinder. No need to focus—just press the shutter button all the way down. You won't see a photo on your memory card—the image goes straight into the camera. Now you should see "Gd" flashing in the viewfinder instead of "Pre." This indicates that your custom white balance has been set, and that it should be accurate for as long as you continue to shoot in those conditions.
white balance button d700 by Flickr user www.tintypephotoapp.com
On a Canon:
Start by placing your white or gray card in the scene you want to photograph. Now set your camera to P, Tv, Av, or A-DEP mode. Most Canons won't allow you to set a custom white balance if you're in one of the fully automatic modes. Select the auto white balance setting, and put your camera into manual focus mode. Fill the frame with your white or gray card. Check your exposure as if you were actually concerned about getting a good photo of your white or gray card. If you have to, make adjustments to your ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
Now take a picture of the card. Go to "Shooting Menu 2" and highlight "Custom White Balance." Press "set." You should see that gray card image in your display. Press "set" to select. You may have to press "set" a few more times to confirm that you really want to use that photo for your custom white balance, but once you've worked your way out of the menu you should be ready to go. Your camera will use your new custom setting until you switch back to one of the auto modes—and it will save it until you overwrite it with another photo, that way if you are in a similar situation you can skip the white card part and go straight to your custom setting.
Creative white balance
Now that you've read all of that, it may surprise you to learn that you don't always have to get the white balance right. No? Try using white balance creatively—for example, you can make a red sunset even redder by selecting the "cloudy" white balance setting. When you choose the cloudy white balance setting, your camera thinks it has to compensate for a slightly bluish cast, which is typical on overcast days. So it adds red to the scene, which is going to make that already red sunset an even more brilliant shade of crimson. It works in the opposite direction too—try selecting the "incandescent" white balance setting just after the sun goes down, and those blue-hour blues will become even deeper.
Munnar Sunrise by Flickr user pangalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold
As I was saying, all cameras have different ways of doing this—even among Nikons and Canons you're probably going to find a lot of variation. Definitely check your manual if my little tutorial takes you in the wrong direction. Mastering white balance is a really good skill to have, so you need to have a solid understanding of all the tools your camera gives you.
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