Cranky Photography: The Color of Light – Learning Your White Balance Settings

Posted by: Maggie

Today’s photo tutorial is one that is pretty simple to learn and use and will make a big impact on the images you take!

When we look at a white object our eyes adjust to the lighting conditions, no matter the light, we still recognize that object as white whether we are indoors in lamp light or out in the bright sunlight. Our eyes are excellent at making this adjustment, but camera’s aren’t and the same object will appear different depending on the color of light in the scene we are shooting. This can leave our photos with a blue or yellow tint to them.

Luckily, our cameras have a setting that helps to fix that problem! The White Balance setting allows us to tell the camera what color light is available so that it can reproduce the whites in our photo as they should be. Once it gets the white right, all the other colors are adjusted accordingly, and we’re left with an image that is close to what our eyes see.

So, it’s important for you to set the white balance in your camera before you start shooting. That way you’ll get images that look fabulous straight out of the camera, without having to fix your colors with photo processing software. Using the right White Balance setting means more time shooting and less time behind that computer. If you don’t know where the white balance setting on your camera is at, now is the time to get out your camera manual. If you don’t have it anymore, you can usually find a PDF online from your camera maker

Here are some of the basic White Balance settings you’ll find on cameras:

  • Auto – this is where the camera makes a best guess about the available light. You’ll find it works much of the time,  but to get the best color I recommend choosing the setting based on what your eyes see.
  • Daylight – for using in bright sunny conditions, this will slightly cool a warm, yellow image.
  • Shade – shade is usually a little cooler, more blue, than shooting in direct sunlight so this mode will warm your image.
  • Cloudy – as with shade, this setting warms your image.
  • Tungsten – this mode is for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten/incandescent light. It generally cools down the warm, yellow color of bulb light.
  • Fluorescent – this compensates for the blue light of fluorescent bulbs and will warm up your shots.
  • Flash – the flash of a camera can be quite a cool light so flash mode will warm up your shots.
  • Custom – Many cameras also allow you to manually adjust your White Balance setting. This allows for the most accurate reading. You will need to check your camera manual on how to do this, and shoot a grey card to set the custom setting. (A grey card is a fantastic little tool that is just what it sounds like: a grey card! It is used as a neutral reference to help determine both the correct White Balance and Exposure for your shot. As great as it is, I rarely use one, it’s just one more thing to carry with you.)
  • Color Temp/Kelvin – The color temperature of light is measured in degrees Kelvin and can range from cool to warm casts of white light where candle light has a temperature of approximate 1900, tungsten photographic lights 3200, and overcast sky 6000. If you know your color temperature numbers you can set your camera by degrees of Kelvin. But honestly, I don’t know who uses Kelvin settings, I certainly would never remember what setting was for what light.

Now, that you know what to do, go forth, use the white balance settings that best describes the color of light you are shooting! I personally, have found that Auto does a fantastic job for me and gives me one less thing to think about as I’m shooting. But I’ve also found that the better the camera, the better the Auto White Balance. So give your camera’s settings a try and see what works bets for you!

Have a question for me or a suggestion for another photo lesson? Comment below!

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