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New Photographer? Here's What You Should Know About White Balance

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 6 min read
When it comes to photography, one of the most important things you can do is set the white balance. When you white balance your camera, you’re essentially telling the camera what white looks like. As humans, our eyes compensate for different lighting conditions and adjust our perception of color accordingly. Your camera needs a little help to make the adjustment and needs you to tell it what white is. Once the camera has a basis for white, it can determine what other colors are based on that setting. Whenever you change locations or lighting conditions, you should adjust your white balance settings as well. While you can do some tweaking to white balance in editing software later on, making the adjustments beforehand will ensure your photo looks its best from the start. veniceCanal-wb Different white balance settings have a dramatic effect on the end result of your images.

Setting Your White Balance

White balance settings are found in the menu of your camera. Their exact location varies a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model, but it is almost always located in the same menu where you adjust your ISO and other camera settings. Within the white balance menu, you’ll have a few different options. Each option has its advantages, as well as its drawbacks.

Auto White Balance

Most cameras have an automatic white balance setting. If your camera is in auto mode, then white balance will likely be set automatically. If you’re shooting manually, you can opt to use an automatic white balance setting. If you don’t have a ton of time or aren’t particularly confident with adjusting your camera’s white balance, then you can just set it and forget it with auto mode. The colors will likely not be as good as if you set white balance on your own, especially in unique lighting conditions. However, your camera can do an decent job of adjusting itself on its own.

White Balance Presets

Much like the “scene settings” found on many cameras to accommodate different types of photography, most cameras have a number of built-in white balance settings as well. With scene settings, you’re telling the camera what kind of photo you’re about to take (such as sports or portrait), while with white balance settings, you’re telling the camera where all the action is taking place Lighting-specific white balance settings are most often things like “daylight” for taking pictures outdoors, “cloudy,” “fluorescent,” and “tungsten.” If you’re not sure what setting to pick, try a few different ones, and then go back to the option that you think took the best photo.

Custom White Balance

Many cameras also have a custom white balance feature that allows you to tell your camera what the white in your scene looks like. To do this, go to the “Custom White Balance” setting within your camera, and then point your camera at a well-lit, completely white surface. A piece of white copy paper or a wall can often do the trick. The key is making sure there are no shadows on what you’re using, that you can fill the entire frame with it, and that what you’ve chosen is pure white. This is a situation where using any off-white colored wall will make a huge difference.

Kelvin is Cool: The Case for Going Manual

I’ve personally tried every white balance method above, but eventually decided that setting my white balance manually is my favorite option. So instead of choosing a preset like “Shade”, I manually dial in a kelvin setting such as “5000.” There are lots of reasons not to do this: It’s difficult to get used to, you constantly have to update it as you move around, and the idea that you can’t always trust that what you’re seeing on the back of the camera will reflect the end result on your computer screen. I’ve admittedly seen several photographers much better than myself recommend shooting 100% auto all the time. All that being said, I’m a control freak and find that the pros of manual white balance outweigh the cons. The more that you make yourself use a manual kelvin setting, the more you’ll begin to appreciate and understand different lighting temperatures. Even when you’re not shooting, you’ll find yourself thinking about the light in a given room and what white balance setting you’d use to shoot it. Once you get to this point, I guarantee that using “Auto” White Balance will frustrate you to no end. For me, having my camera guess the white balance every time, and change it from photo to photo even though the conditions are the same, is simply unacceptable. By contrast, being able to dial it in manually and intentionally control the mood in-camera is awesome.

Shoot in RAW

Whether you’re manually or automatically setting your white balance, it’s critical that you shoot in RAW. I hated this advice as a new photographer. Shooting in RAW is expensive! RAW photos take up way more space on your card and require you to buy more hard drives to store all your photos on. So why bother? The answer is that shooting in RAW captures much more data than shooting in JPG, making it much easier to manipulate the photo in the post-processing stage. For one of my first client shoots, I used auto white balance and shot in JPG, which was a terrible combination. All of the photos turned out way too blue, and no matter what I did in Lightroom, they never looked quite right. When you shoot in RAW, white balance mistakes are much easier to fix, which is why many photographers don’t even bother manually adjusting these settings in-camera.

Think About Skin Tones

When you’re taking photos of people, one of your most important white balance goals is to consider skin tones. Achieving natural skin tones isn’t always possible or even desirable, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s something to shoot for. Always ask yourself whether your white balance choice is making your subject’s skin look realistic or awkwardly unnatural.

The Most Important Thing You’re not Doing

New photographers have so much to learn with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. that white balance often takes a back seat. Unfortunately, proper color balance is one of the most critical attributes of “professional” looking photos, making white balance much more important than you might intuitively think. Put some time into becoming a white balance expert and the result will be dramatically improved photos. It’s well worth the effort!
Header image created using Berlin Windows, Blue, and Blackout Noon – Vintage Stencil.
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