A brief introduction to White Balance

November 3, 2009

Stephen Hawking should probably write about White Balance. It’s more his field, and sometimes seems as complicated. Regardless, let’s soldier on.

Phottix White Balance Lens Cap

Phottix White Balance Lens Cap

You’ve seen it in your camera settings: White Balance (WB). Do you know what it is and how it works? Not many casual photographers do. It’s like voodoo: complicated and fraught with peril.

Let’s make it simple, and forget the physics mumbo-jumbo. We’ll say this: Different types of light will color your digital images differently. Sunlight will give your photos a certain tint, just as fluorescent lights will make images greener.

Human eyes adjust to different lighting sources so white balance is not an issue. Not so with digital cameras or camcorders.

Each type of light has a different temperature. These temperatures are rated in degrees Kelvin. Different temperatures have different effects on your images. Using your camera’s white balance function compensates for these different temperatures and helps provides correct, pleasing, and balanced images.

Most point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs have a white balance function. You can set the camera’s white balance and the way it compensates for lighting conditions. Most models have an AWB or auto white balance function. If selected, the camera will adapt when lighting changes.

Or, you can set the white balance using your camera presets. Most cameras have white balance settings for daylight, shade, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten, and flash. Most have a custom function as well, allowing you to set your own white balance.

TopL White Balance set to fluorescent, Bottom: Set to Shade WB preset

Top: White Balance set to fluorescent, Bottom: Set to Shade WB preset

Shoot RAW

WB can be easily changed if you are shooting in a RAW format. Raw processors from Adobe, Canon, Nikon, and others, allow you to change white balance settings, one of the many great things about the RAW format.

Changing WB if shooting JPGs is a little more difficult – you will have to make changes in Adobe Photoshop or other imaging applications. This can range from simple to devilishly difficult.

As was said above, it’s like voodoo. You can shoot RAW and make changes later or shoot JPG and hope for the best using the camera’s AWB feature.

Or, JPG shooters, you can use your camera’s custom white balance function.

Setting Custom White Balance on your DSLR

There are many ways to do this, let’s discuss 2. A Phottix White Balance Lens Cap can be used to set a custom WB level in your camera. It’s easy to do. With the Phottix White Balance Lens Cap over your lens, turn off your autofocus, point your camera towards your subject, and take a photo.

Setting a custom white balance level is different for each camera. Essentially, the camera will process the photo taken with the WB lens cap over the lens and use those computations for correcting the white balance.

There are drawbacks: Your white balance is only set for the lighting conditions you photographed and processed. If you change locations: A different room with different lights or move from inside to outside, you will need to set another custom WB.

Gray cards are another way to set custom white balance. An 18% gray card is photographed and processed in camera, similar to the Phottix White Balance Lens Cap. The benefit of this being that if you are shooting RAW you can use the gray card image to set WB levels when post-processing. This is a great way to ensure your RAW images are properly balanced.

A gray card has the same disadvantages as the Phottix White Balance Lens Cap but is also handicapped by its physical size. Do you want to carry around an 8” x 10” gray card? That would become tattered very quickly. Also, to be effective, you must shoot the entire card for in-camera custom WB settings. A Phottix White Balance Lens Cap is much easier to use.

The above is only a brief intro to the mysteries of white balance. Consult your camera’s manual for more information. If you don’t already, consider shooting in RAW format

Joe Oberman November 26, 2011 at 5:31 pm

An idiot can locate the white balance settings on any digital camera, so now… how does one apply a taken photo using a gray or white card to the custom WB settings, which by the way can be adjusted. I have yet to read or visually see anyone produce photos with the camera’s custom WB settings being adjusted. That would be how to use and setting up one’s camera for proper white balance.

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