Everything You Need to Know About When and How to Creatively Use White Balance

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Everything You Need to Know About When and How to Creatively Use White Balance

What is White Balance, and how can I use it creatively to make my photos pop?  Before we get too far into adjusting our white balance settings, let’s remember that photography is an art form, and as such, cannot be defined by what is “right” or “wrong.”  

Swan shown with several white balance adjustments

Yes, there are certain rules to follow to get you started, but it is always important to remember that breaking those rules is part of the fun!  One way we can break the rules and create fantastic artwork in photography is by adjusting White Balance.  But before we can do that, we need to know what white balance is.

What is White Balance?

Camera-Wiki.org defines White Balance this way: 

White Balance is an adjustment in electronic and film imaging that corrects for the color balance of the lighting – so that white objects appear white rather than colored (for example) yellow when lit by tungsten filament lights or excessively blue under sunlight.

In other words, adjusting white balance can change photos to have them appear more yellow or blue (temperature), green or magenta (tint). 

Read More from my friends at TangibleDay:  Simple Tips for Fixing White Balance

Did you know that all light is color?  It’s true.  Look around you, and you will start to recognize what colors you see in the light.  For example, sunset is usually made up of yellows, oranges, reds…  Warm colors.  Winter scenery is usually made up of blues, greens, purples…  cool colors.  The rule is true inside, too.  Old-fashioned lightbulbs are usually quite yellow in color (called Tungsten).  Fluorescent lighting is usually blueish in color.

Unless you are specifically looking for these colors, your eyes will adjust and not even process that you’re seeing them.  As a photographer, you have the ability to control the result and make an image that conveys the temperature you prefer.

Take a look at this photo of my little dog, Reba, who was warming herself in a sunbeam near the fireplace.  This is the image SOOC (straight out of the camera).

READ MORE:  Ten Need-to-Know Photography Terms for the Beginner 

Sleeping dog with neutral white balance

How would you edit this?  Warm or cool?

Sleeping dog with warm white balance

Here it is nicely warmed up.  The feeling of warmth gives an overall cozy appeal to the photo.  Now, imagine what would happen if I adjusted the photo to a cool temp?

Sleeping dog with cool white balance

Not as cozy, is it?  In fact, it’s not very appealing.  Poor Reba looks like she could use some oxygen!  Yikes!

You can see by this example that sometimes the edit fits the subject as we saw it in real life, and for very good reason.  So then, why would we want to change the white balance?  Isn’t it best to always go for tones representing exactly what we see with the naked eye?  The answer is… sometimes.

Why adjust White Balance?

We adjust White Balance for two reasons.  First, to get the tones as close to what we really see as possible.  Second, to be creative and push the limits of what you see!  Sometimes it is more exciting and creative to really shift your white balance for effect.

When photographing people, you want a fairly accurate white balance to achieve the “perfect” skin tone.  However, there are always exceptions to every rule.  Perhaps you want the photo to convey a sense of warmth.  Or the room in which you’re hanging the photo is decorated in a series of cool temps and blues.  Maybe you want your photo to match the style of the room.  There is no “right” way to handle White Balance.

In this photo of my son and grandson, you can see that the skin tones are acceptable in all 3.  If you look at the white of the little guy’s shirt, you can see that there’s a definite difference in warm and cool tones.  Which do you prefer?  Creative choice can work here.  My client chose the warmer version to match the tones in her home.  None of these edits are wrong.  They are all wonderful for different reasons.

A Side Note about RAW

Before we get to the next important subject, allow me a moment to talk about the importance of capturing your images in RAW.  When you shoot in RAW, you have the freedom to make amazing changes to your photo (not only White Balance, by the way).  What is RAW?  RAW images are digital files that contain the exact data from the camera’s sensor.  RAW files are much bigger than JPG files, but because they are not compressed like JPG images, they contain a lot more data, which means a lot more room for you to adjust your images and make your own creative decisions, including white balance.

To set your camera up to save your images in RAW, go into the menu and look for the “Quality” or “Photo Quality” setting.  Most modern cameras allow you to choose RAW, JPEG, or both.

Now – once you are set up to shoot in RAW, even if you don’t get your white balance exactly how you want it in camera, then you have all the information you need stored in that file to make your adjustment in post-processing!

Read More from my friends at SeeImagery:  10 Photography Tips for Beginners

Now back to our regularly scheduled post

Where were we?  Oh yes – there is no wrong result when adjusting White Balance.  Some photographers aim for a technically correct look, while others prefer a more artistic take on their end photo.  Here is where the rule-breaking gets fun!

Take a look at this photo of this little daisy.  What time of year do you think this photo was taken?

Tiny daisy with neutral white balance

Maybe summer?  How about this edit?

Tiny Daisy with warm white balance

Fall?  Why?  The warm tones feel like fall with its yellowing leaves and cozy feel.

And now?

Tiny daisy with cool white balance

Spring.  Cool tones give the feeling of cool air and spring brightness.  See what a difference a simple white balance adjustment can do for this basic image?  Powerful, isn’t it?  Can you imagine a beach photo that looks warm like the Caribbean, and then the same photo cooled down to give the effect of an Alaskan winter scene?

Now that you see how much power there is in this tool let’s talk about how to do it!

Related: How $16 Will Solve All of Your White Balance Problems

How to adjust White Balance?

In Camera

You can adjust your white balance both in-camera and in post-processing.  If you are a planner and think ahead about how you want your image to look, you can set your white balance right in the camera before you shoot.  Find the WB button on the body of your camera.  Pressing that takes you right to the White Balance menu.

If you don’t have a WB button, no worries!  Just open your camera’s menu and find the setting for White Balance.  Don’t be afraid to dig out your camera’s manual to help you find this setting.  Once you get to that menu, you’ll see some choices listed:  Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash.  These settings are fairly self-explanatory.  The only one I wasn’t sure I understood when I first started was the “Tungsten” setting.  Tungsten refers to the old-fashioned, standard lightbulb.  Basically, indoors when there’s not fluorescent light or not much daylight.

If you set your camera to one of these settings, it will automatically apply a White Balance for that scenario.  For example, if you are in your parents’ basement shooting photos of a birthday party and there’s no daylight and just lamplight, then use the Tungsten setting.  The camera will know that you are in Tungsten light, which is very warm and yellow-y, and will add a blue tint to your image to offset the yellow.  Make sense?  Great!

You can always set your White Balance in a way that gives you a creative result.  In other words, you don’t have to use the WB matching your actual scenario.  For example, If you are shooting in the evening before sunset and you want the cool, blue look of Blue Hour, then go ahead and set that camera on Tungsten, which will add the blue cast to your image, even though there’s not a tungsten bulb in sight!  There are endless opportunities here for creative effect!

Read More from my friends at Simple Photo Tips:  Setting White Balance Manually

Chart showing various white balance setting adjustments
Here is an example of what kind of effect each setting has on your image.

Now, what happens if you don’t set up ahead of time or when you get back to your computer, you see that the color is not exactly what you’d like?  Good news!  You have another option!  You can adjust your White Balance in post-processing.

What is post-processing?  Basically, this term refers to editing.  If you do not have a program for editing, you are missing out in a big way on making your photos the best they can be!  I highly recommend Adobe’s Creative Cloud.  For a reasonable monthly fee, you can use both Lightroom and Photoshop!

Read all about The Power of Editing – Taking A Photo from Average to Astounding!

In Post-Processing

You can always change your settings once you open your image in Lightroom.  There are 3 simple ways to adjust White Balance.

First, you can use the eyedropper.  The eyedropper is located under the Develop tab in the Basic menu.  It looks like this: 

A LR screenshot with arrow to eyedropper for adjusting white balance settings

Once you click on the dropper, drag it across the image to find an area of the image to get the desired effect.  Watch in the upper left corner of your screen to see a small preview of what your image will look like when you click.  As you move the dropper around the image, you can see how the colors change.

Lightroom Screenshot with swan and arrow pointing to preview window

Eyedropper not for you?  Go ahead and try the sliders that show up to the right of the eyedropper tool.

LR Screenshot with arrow pointing to sliders tools for adjusting white balance settings

Give them a slide to the left and right and see what happens.  This time you can see a real-time preview as you make adjustments. 

Finally, you can always go back and use the white balance presets in the drop-down menu.  Look familiar?  Of course, they do!  That’s because they are the same choices you had in-camera.  Now you can click on them here and see similar results.

LR Screenshot showing preset menu for adjusting White Balance settings

The very best way to fine-tune these tools and how to use them is to practice.  When you have some free time, go ahead and play with these tools in Lightroom.  Once you get familiar with them, using them will be second-nature!

My final tip and this goes for any editing you do, not just white balance, is to take a little time to let your edit settle.  Make your changes, walk away from the computer, make a cup of coffee (or hey – wine is always good when editing, too), and then re-visit after you’ve had a minute to take your mind off of the image.  When you return to your image, you may be surprised at what you find.  You may love it.  You may also find that you’re not quite done and need to make a few more adjustments.

Wrapping it Up!

Remember when you are setting and adjusting your White Balance that photography and the results are subjective!  If your eye likes it, then it’s just right.  Sometimes the best way to treat a photo is to get the colors exactly as your eye saw them when you took the photo.  And sometimes, the best way to treat a photo is to throw caution to the wind and toss the rules out the window. 

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  The Dalai Lama

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