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White Balance in Photography

Learn ​all ​about ​white ​balance ​and ​photography

The easiest way to describe white balance is by way of colour temperature. This in itself is a way of measuring the quality and intensity of a light source. It is based on the ratio of blue and red light hitting the sensor, with the green light being ignored.

White Balance

You may sometimes see a red or yellow cast in your images when shooting indoors with natural light? This is caused by using the incorrect white balance. To correct these casts in Photoshop, go here.

The unit for measuring this ratio between red and blue is known as degree Kelvin or K. Therefore, a light scenario with a higher colour temperature such as bright, sunny blue skies has more "blue" lights and a higher Kelvin Value. Whereas a light with a much lower colour temperature such as a candle flame, has a lower Kelvin value with more "red" lights.

The following values are approximate but should give you an idea of how this is seen in most photographic situations.

Light Source

Colour Temp in K

Clear Blue Sky

9,000 to 15,000

Overcast Sky

6,000 to 8,000

Noon Sun and Clear Sky

6,500

Sunlight Average

5,400 to 6,000

Electronic Flash

5,400 to 6,000

Household Lighting

2,500 to 3,000

200-Watt Bulb

2,980

100-Watt Bulb

2,900

75-Watt Bulb

2,820

60-Watt Bulb

2,800

40-Watt Bulb

2,650

Candle Flame

1,200 to 1,500

Our human eye is perfect at adjusting to these fluctuations and will see a piece of white paper, for example, as white. This is whether you look at it outside in bright sunshine or inside by candlelight.

Your camera, on the other hand, will have more difficulty

When using emulsion films, you have a choice of using daylight or tungsten sensitivity. With digital, most adjustments need to be or can be made "in-camera".

Most digital cameras have built-in sensors or "Auto White Balance" to measure the current colour temperature. It will then use an algorithm to process the image correctly.

The final result may very well be close to what we see with our eyes. However, the algorithms being used may not be accurate enough to make every situation or image correct. If you or the camera set the temperature or WB incorrectly, you will notice some colour shift or "cast" in your pictures.

For example, say you are shooting indoors under normal household lights but set your white balance to that of outdoors. Your camera will expect excessive blue light, less red and adjust accordingly. However, the light from most bulbs has a low colour temperature or "K" value thereby having more red light than blue.

The resulting image will have a reddish or yellow appearance. This can be corrected by either going to manual (white balance) on your camera, and reducing the WB setting until correct. Or playing around with the colours in an editing program during post processing (more on that later).

Similarly, if you set the camera's white balance temperature low to around 2,500 and take a shot outdoors, the camera will expect more "red" light and adjust its algorithms accordingly. Of course, the actual scene has more blue light and less red and the result will be an image with a cool, blue look to it.

The beauty of digital photography means that you can…

  • check
    Take a test shot
  • check
    Check the white balance
  • check
    Adjust accordingly
  • check
    Take another shot
  • check
    Delete all tests
  • check
    Get the picture right

...which takes no time at all and costs nothing!

For most situations, your cameras AWB (Auto-White-Balance) mode is good enough. Any minor fluctuations can be dealt with during post-processing. However, there may be times when you need to get out of your "comfort zone" and go manual. Lastly, shoot RAW if you don't already. It is so much easier to correct differences in a Raw editing program.

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