White Balance Demystified


The ability to set the white balance of your photographs is one of the most powerful tools available to digital photographers. White balance means setting the overall color balance of a photograph so that your subject will look natural, with the colors of objects in the photograph being close to what they look like on the real thing.


Why Is It Necessary?

Shouldn't a digital camera simply record colors as they are, without the need to adjust them? It would be great if they could, but they can't. The problem is that the color of anything that we look at is influenced by the color of the light that illuminates it. If the light is cool in color, your photograph will look blue; if the light is warm in color, your photograph will look red, yellow, or orange.

This is actually a problem that predates digital photography. Film manufacturers designed their color films to reproduce color accurately under normal mid-day daylight. When photographs were made under artificial lights, they had a strong color cast because artificial lights usually produce a different color of light than that produced by the sun.

We don't notice these color differences when we view the world through our own eyes because our brain can compensate for it, automatically setting the white balance of our eyes. Film doesn't have a brain; it records the actual color of the light that exposes it. Digital sensors also record the actual color of the light that hits the sensor. Because there is a computer inside a digital camera, there is an "Auto White Balance" mode, where the camera tries to compensate for the color of the light and give you a photograph with good color. As we'll see, this system is imperfect.


Example photograph with correct white balance.

The photograph above was shot with ordinary incandescent household light bulbs. I adjusted its white balance to the correct values. Notice that the colored squares on the Xrite Colorchecker chart look natural. The grays and whites are neutral and the colors look normal. In actuality, incandescent bulbs produce very red light, as the example below shows.


Example photograph showing the red color balance of a photo shot under incandescent light bulbs.

This the uncorrected photograph, shot under incandescent light with my camera's white balance setting at "Daylight." This is what you would get shooting daylight-balanced color film with incandescent light. The colors are terrible. Everything has shifted to a strong reddish color balance.


Example photo shot under incandescent light using a digital camera set to Auto White Balance.

What about the "Auto White Balance" mode; the one where the camera is supposed to set the white balance, as our brain does with our eyes? As you can see, it doesn't work too well! The results are better than the uncorrected version above, but the colors are still way off.


Are All Digital Cameras Like That?

These examples were made with a Canon 5DmkII. I have used several other digital cameras over the years, and my experience has been that the Auto White Balance mode on most digital cameras works fairly well under daylight; and works poorly under most artificial light sources such as incandescent bulbs, fluorescents, and LEDs.

That doesn't mean that you cannot photograph under these light sources. You can, and you can get beautiful color from them, if you know how to set the white balance for your photos. That's what this tutorial will show you.


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