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White Balance Explained (for Beginners)

White Balance is a concept commonly misunderstood by beginners. Simply put, white balance is a digital camera setting that allows the colors in your photos to appear accurately. White balance gets it’s name because if a photo has correct white balance, things that are white in reality appear white in the photo. All other colors appear accurately too – blacks are pure black and gray are pure gray with no other colors mixed in.

Why do we need white balance? Many don’t realize it, but different light sources produce different colored light. For example, household light bulbs contain a gas called tungsten which produces an orange colored light. Fluorescent bulbs produce a greenish colored light.

You’ve probably seen photos with incorrect white balance that were taken indoor without a flash. These photos tend to take on either a green or orange tint depending on what kind of lights are in the room. This happens because the camera sees the world differently than the human eye. While our eyes are able to automatically correct colors accurately, the camera is not as intelligent. The best way to illustrate the concept of white balance is with real world photos.

The photo on the left was taken in auto white balance mode in a kitchen that has flourescent lights. Notice the green tint on the white counter tops and the black stove. The photo on the right was taken in a bathroom lit by tungsten light bulbs – notice the orange tint throughout the entire photo.

How do we get colors to appear correctly without looking too green or too orange? See the example below:

Auto White Balance Tungsten White Balance
Orange Cast Correct WB

The photos of the memory card above were lit by a regular light bulb (tungsten light). In the photo that was taken using auto white balance (left) the whites and blacks have an orange cast. In the second photo (right) the tungsten white balance option on my camera was selected before I took the picture. Notice how in this second photo all of the colors apear more accurately. White is much closer to true white and the blacks are true black (without the orange tint). Colors are represented correctly when the camera’s white balance setting matches the main light source in the photograph (tungsten light source and tungsten white balance in this case).

Correct white balance is important for many reasons. In portrait photography skin tones need to appear accurately because greenish or yellowish skin tones look unnatural. In product photography it is important for the colors to appear accurate so that the consumer knows exactly what he is getting. Also, when taking multiple photos of one thing it’s important to have consistent white balance so that the colors in the photos all match.

The table below shows how daylight, tungsten, and Flourescent light look when photographed in 3 different white balance modes. When the light source and the white balance setting are matched properly, the main light source appears white in the photograph. Note that if you start in the top left corner and move diagonally to the right and down you will see images that more or less have correct white balance.

Tungsten WB Fluorescent WB Daylight WB
Light Source
Light Source
Daylight (cloudy)
Light Source

Also notice how if you are in tungsten or fluorescent WB settings daylight appears blue or purple.

So what white balance should you use? In order to get the most faithful color representation you should use the SAME white balance mode as your MAIN source of light. For example, if your house is lit by 5 fluorescent lights and and one regular light bulb – you should set your camera to fluorescent white balance. If you are inside during daytime and all the windows are open and only one light bulb is on, you should probably use the daylight white balance. Experiment and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learning to use white balance properly takes a lot of practice. Also, after shooting in a custom white balance mode, make sure to change the WB back to auto when you are done or you might get some interesting looking photos the next time you shoot!

Good luck and happy shooting!

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