White balance (sometimes called color balance) is necessary because different light sources produce different colors. Sunlight, for instance, is blue. Incandescent light (many light bulbs) are yellow and orange. Fluorescent lights are frequently green. Why don’t we see this with our eyes? We do. But our brains correct automatically to make most room lighting appear “neutral” to our eyes. Cameras can’t do that, so an orange light looks orange and a blue light looks blue. This is fine if you’ve set the camera’s white balance to match the source, but if not, you’ll experience prominent color shifts. That’s how we end up with yellow pictures indoors.
The color of a light source is measured by temperature. (Without getting too far into the weeds, think of it as the many colors in the flames of a campfire. Different colors—blue, red, yellow, white—represent different temperatures.) Specifically, color temperatures are measured in degrees Kelvin, or ˚K. Higher color temperatures are the cool blues of sky and shade; lower temperatures are the warm oranges and reds of sunsets and candlelight. Bearing in mind that every source is a little bit different, and light modifiers such as clouds and softboxes can also impact the color, two prominent color temperatures for photography are 3200 ˚K for tungsten (incandescent) sources and 5600 ˚K for daylight and flash.
Knowing these color temperatures, as well as the precise color temperature of your own light source, lets you dial in the exact white balance in camera to make the light appear neutral on the scene.
So what are the White Balance options of your camera? A few are fairly standard: Manual, Automatic, Custom and Presets that include flash, daylight, indoor, shade, cloudy and often more. Here’s how they work.
Presets – A white balance preset, such as daylight, flash or tungsten, is easy enough to figure out. Simply match the preset to the type of lighting you’re working in and your pictures will generally appear to have the correct color. It’s essentially a shortcut to many popular color temperature settings, though manual settings allow for more precision by dialing in exact temperatures to match the scene.
Manual – A manual white balance is set by dialing in the exact color temperature of the light source. Shooting outside on a normal sunny day? You’ll be safe to dial in a 5600˚K manual white balance to get to neutral. The same goes for a flash in a studio setting. With an LED light, however, you might be able to dial in a specific color temperature on the source, which you can then match exactly by dialing in the same number in your camera’s manual white balance.
Shooting indoors used to be easy because practically every indoor light was about 3200˚K tungsten. And while that’s still a good place to start, indoor lighting now includes LEDs and color adjusted fluorescents that could be anywhere from 2800˚K to 5200˚K. You can check the bulbs for an exact number or use a handheld color meter (like a light meter but specifically for measuring color balance) to determine the exact color temperature. Or you can skip these steps and simply set a custom white balance.
Custom – A custom white balance setting is the ideal way to ensure your white balance is perfectly matched to the light falling on the subject. The process is a little different depending on the camera, but in general, it involves photographing a neutral gray or white subject (a white card, for instance) and filling the frame with it, then telling the camera to use that frame as the custom white balance reference. This is the ideal way to dial in the white balance specifically for the light hitting your subject, which is affected by bouncing around a blue room, or passing through a yellowing umbrella. No matter the color temperature, custom white balance ensures accuracy—until the light changes, when you’ve got to set a new custom white balance.
Automatic – Automatic white balance (AWB) sounds great, and in practice, in changing lighting situations, it’s an ideal way to get close on every exposure without stopping to change the white balance. The only downside is it’s not likely to be quite as accurate as a manually dialed in white balance, and it can be fooled by the colors in the scene or intense lighting hues (sunset glow, for instance), but it’s going to get darn close in most situations. If your indoor pictures look too yellow and you’re using automatic white balance, consider dialing in a specific color temperature or using a preset.
A Note About Color Shifts
Sometimes you may not actually want to neutralize the light in your scene as it would take away a beautiful color. A sunset, for instance, is the most obvious example. That golden, late-day glow is immensely appealing, so why eliminate it? If you set a custom white balance based on that orange light, you’ll likely be disappointed as you’ve effectively corrected for that warm shift and eliminated the glow completely. (Auto white balance might also attempt to neutralize some of this warmth.) In order to retain the warmth of a sunset when shooting outdoors, use a daylight preset to ensure the warm light stays warm.
Similarly, you may sometimes want to deliberately use the “wrong” white balance. If you wanted to fake a warm sunset light, for instance, you could turn up the kelvin temperature to 6500˚K or higher and watch as the light gets warmer. Likewise, if you set your camera to a tungsten preset when working outdoors, you’re likely to make pictures that look very blue. If that’s the look you’re going for, great. It’s only when you don’t want those shifts that you’ll want to ensure white balance accuracy.
Finally, another option for fine-tuning white balance is available in some cameras such as the Fujifilm X-Pro2. Along with the aforementioned white balance options, the X-Pro2 offers a feature called White Balance Shift. In whatever white balance mode you’re working, the X-Pro2 offers the option to dial in a color shift—a little or a lot—using a grid of red and blue colors.
To use it, choose any white balance setting and the colorful grid will appear on the LCD. Using the directional controls on the back of the camera, scroll to the position on the grid that reflects the color shift you’d like. By moving up and down, left and right, you can dial in plus or minus red and blue shifts. This provides tinting options in blues, reds, yellows, greens, cyans and magentas. A little goes a long way, but for creative color usage, or just to slightly tweak a white balance based on what you see before your eyes, this functionality offers a convenient option for fine-tuning white balance.