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White Balance – Not Just For Laundry Anymore!

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

White Balance

More and more digital cameras are allowing you to customize your “White Balance”. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Probably wondering if you strayed off into the brighter laundry newsletter, but rest assured, you’re still in the right place.

White Balance is basically the color “temperature” adjustment for light (note this really has nothing to do with how hot the object producing the light may or may not be—it’s not the same kind of temp :-). This temperature is expressed as a Kelvin (K) value. Low numbers are nice “warm” colors (red / orange), whereas higher numbers are “cooler” (more bluish).

To give you a rough idea of the Kelvin “temperatures” of some typical lighting conditions, have a look-see at this:

Candlelight – 1500K

Incandescent Lamps – 2600-3000K

“White” fluorescent – 4000K

Daylight – 5200-5600K

Overcast Sky – 6500-7500K

Blue Sky – 9000-12000K

Note the above numbers are rough and a different chart will likely give you slightly different numbers. Frankly, it’s all academic and in the real world of birthday party pictures it really doesn’t matter all that much—just wanted to give you a little background.

Now, if you look at a sheet of white paper under any of the lighting conditions mentioned above, it’ll still look white to you (well, unless you catch the paper on fire with the candle, then it’ll be a more brownish / black). Our eyes tend to make white objects look white, regardless of whether the actual light source is another color. We have a built-in auto white balance control that no camera can match.

Since digital cameras record things as they really are (OK, more or less :-), they run an adjustment (white balance) to make objects appear, well, the color you see them as. Most do this via an “auto” white balance setting. Normally this does a great job of making objects look the color they should—instead of the color of the light hitting them. Confused? Read on.

For example, let’s say you take a photo in your living room with no flash—the incandescent light bulbs screwed into your lamps are the only light source. If no white balance adjustment were applied, the photo would have a very orange look to it. However, the camera can tell the type of light source and corrects the white balance accordingly. When you see the final photo, all the colors look the way they should.

If auto white balance is so wonderful, why mess with the rest of the settings? Cuz they’re on the menu and by golly, you paid for ’em :-)

Actually, the only time you really need to mess with the other settings is if you shoot an image where the colors are way off. Maybe you shoot a waterfall under cloudy skies and it turns out way too blue. Just match the white balance with the type of light and re-shoot (some cameras can correct the image you just took). The new image should look much better.

Bad white balance:

Good white balance:

You’ll normally find white balance setting icons instead of names, but they should includes such favorites as:


And others—all depends on your camera (check your instruction manual for what icon goes for what and exactly how to change settings)

If that’s all there is to it, so why did I tell you all about color temps in the first place? That’s what I was wondering about too. Then I remembered—it’s mainly so you can impress all your buddies :-)

Oh, wait, yeah, and some cameras actually let you adjust the white balance by temp number rather than scene type. You can choose the correct color temp for the scene you’re shooting and make fancy, fine-tuned adjustments.

If you do this, make sure you mention in a voice the entire crowd can here, “Yeah, the light temp is around 6300 Kelvin, so I’m going to adjust my white balance accordingly.” On second thought, experience reminds me that you get less in the strange-looks department if that information isn’t broadcast.

So, next time you shoot a picture and the color seems way off, try readjusting that white balance. You might find the fix is only a button away.

~ Steve

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