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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Creative White Balance

Control the relative color tonalities in your photos to create a better sense of mood and atmosphere

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Setting your white balance is an essential part of the creative photography process. The "best" white balance isn't always the one your camera selects—or, for that matter, it isn't always the one that removes color casts, either.
Olympic National Park, Washington State, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L Mark II, ISO 100, ƒ/11, 0.3 sec.

Most of us use automatic white balance, letting our cameras choose the proper color balance for our photographs. Your camera is actually pretty smart, and probably gets it "right" more often than not. The reason I say "right" in quotes is because color balance is in many ways subjective, and what you determine to be the best color balance for your photos will depend in large part on your personal tastes and artistic goals. Accordingly, there's no reason to feel constrained by the settings your camera chooses, especially when shooting RAW format, which allows penalty-free white balance adjustment during the image-processing phase. In fact, white balance is an important creative tool for photographers, one that too often gets overlooked. I'll often deviate from the choices my camera makes to more closely match the colors of the scene as perceived by my eye—although sometimes I'll change color balance for purely creative reasons.

What Is White Balance?
White balance is a process that determines how color is interpreted in a digital photograph. Visible light is made up of a spectrum of different colors. Although daylight in the middle of the day is considered to be more or less "neutral"—all colors of the spectrum are equally represented—other light sources transmit more light of a certain color than others. For example, fluorescent light has a different color than sunset light. White balancing is a process of altering the colors of a photograph to account for the color bias of a given light source, in an effort to make the colors in the photograph look like they were shot in neutral light. When you change your white balance, you're telling your camera to change the way it sees color. With film, photographers used color-correcting filters to change color balance, or they changed film, selecting an emulsion balanced for the type of light they were shooting (for example, using tungsten-balanced film for shooting indoors with tungsten lights). With digital cameras, you can easily alter color balance by casually spinning a dial to change the white balance setting (or, even easier, you can let the camera make decisions about color by selecting the Automatic setting). Basically, we finally have a "smart" capture medium capable of adjusting to variable light—or to the artistic whims of the photographer.

White balance is measured using the Kelvin (K) color temperature scale (named after the famous scientist Lord Kelvin). Daylight from the middle of the day is considered to be "neutral" because at that time the entire visible spectrum is lit with roughly equal amounts of all colors. Digital camera white balance also uses the Kelvin scale, with most cameras using 5200K-5500K as their neutral daylight setting. Assigning a white balance with a lower color temperature makes the image look progressively cooler, whereas a higher color temperature setting makes an image look progressively warmer. Cameras have several preset white balances so you don't have to think about numbers if you don't want to, but it's a good idea to understand the numbers even if you use the presets. See the example of the various preset white balance settings in action.

From left to right: Tungsten (2850K); Fluorescent (3800K); Daylight/Flash (5500K); Overcast (6500K); Shade (7500K).
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1⁄400 sec.; the Daylight preset is my preferred setting, in this case

It's important to understand that these settings aren't absolute. They're relative to the light illuminating your scene; simply setting your camera to the Daylight preset won't make a photo look like it was taken in neutral daylight. If you don't match your white balance to your light, you end up with a color mismatch. For example, if shooting in neutral daylight, you need to select the Daylight preset to make the colors look neutral; if you're shooting inside using fluorescent lights, you need to select the Fluorescent setting; and so on. The image of the stream taken in Olympic National Park illustrates this concept. The stream was in the shade on a clear, sunny day, and therefore lit primarily by light reflecting from the blue sky above. When I set my white balance to Daylight (the image on the left), the camera didn't correct for the abundance of blue light and the image was rendered with a blue color cast. To keep the colors in the image neutrally balanced, I chose the Shade preset (the image on the right). This made the image warmer, removing the blue color cast.


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