White Balance Demystified


White balance can be set in your camera before you take the picture, or it can be set later, when you edit the photograph on your computer.

If you shoot JPEGs, then you have to set the white balance on your camera (see discussion of White Balance Cards for how to do this). If you shoot RAW, then you have the freedom to choose when to set white balance. Even if you set it in the camera, a RAW file can have its color balance changed later, in post-processing, without losing image quality.

I strongly recommend shooting RAW and setting your white balance when you edit your photos. The procedure for setting the white balance on the camera accurately is cumbersome, and must be done anytime that the light changes. In addition, RAW files can be processed to recover highlight and shadow details that would be lost on a JPEG if you photograph in contrasty light.

I have a video tutorial on YouTube showing how to adjust white balance in post processing. It uses Lightroom CC, but the same tools are found in most RAW conversion software, including Photoshop, Capture One, and the software that camera makers include with their cameras.


White Balance Controls In Photo Editing Software

The screenshot on the right shows the white balance controls in Adobe Lightroom. Most photo editing programs have the same set of controls; so although I am using Lightroom for this tutorial, you should be able to use this information regardless of what software you use.



There is a drop-down menu with several presets to choose from. When you first open a file, it will default to "As Shot." If the colors in the photo look perfect on your screen, then you can leave it like this; the other white balance controls I'm going to discuss won't be needed.


White Balance controls in Adobe Lightroom.


Most of the time, however, the As Shot color will need changed to get proper white balance. There are presets for several different types of light, and an "Auto" setting.

If you choose Auto, then Lightroom will give you the white balance settings that it think are correct for the image. Basically the same thing as the Auto White Balance mode on your camera, though Lightroom's auto calculations often give different results than the camera's auto mode did.

I rarely use the presets in Lightroom for different light sources. The actual color of Daylight or a particular artificial light source can vary from the standards software companies used to create these presets, so they often give poor results.


The Eyedropper

The next tool looks like an Eyedropper. To use the eyedropper, you find something white or neutral gray ( a medium or light gray works best) in the photograph and click on it with the eyedropper. Lightroom then changes the white balance settings to make that thing you clicked on look perfectly neutral in tone, without a color cast. This works very well with some photographs, but there are a lot of things that can trip it up.

Many white or gray objects in the real world are not perfectly neutral in color. White and gray paints often have a subtle cool or warm tone to them. This will throw off the software's calculations. If you click on a cool white tone, then Lightroom will assume the light in the scene was cool and will warm everything up to compensate. This results in a picture that looks yellow or red! Clicking on a warm-toned white or gray results in a blue-tinted picture. Snow is an example of a white sublect that is not truly white. Snow usually has a cooler tint that our eyes do not perceive, and this results in a rendering of the overall photo that is too warm.


White Balance Sliders

Lastly, there are the fully-manual white balance controls: The sliders. You'll see that there are actually two sliders. The top one is labeled "Temp" and the other is labeled "Tint." There are two color balances that have to be set to dial in your white balance. Temp, which controls "Color Temperature," corrects a photo that is too red or too blue. Tint corrects a photo that is too green or too magenta. There are also manual input boxes where you can type in exact numbers. These are useful if you use a Color Meter (more on that later).

When adjusting the sliders, it is usually best to start with the color temperature slider. Get the photo as close to perfect as you can with it, then adjust the green/magenta slider if necessary. The green/magenta slider will be especially important when photographing under fluorescent or LED lights, as these light sources are often too green. Increasing magenta corrects that issue.


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©2018 Christopher Crawford