White balance. I can not tell you how many photos I’ve taken that had great lighting and a beautiful composition but everything looked blue or orange…ick!
White balance is kind of hard to understand because our eyes and brain work totally different than a camera. All light is colored but it has to be really obvious for our brains to pick up on it. A camera on the other hand is VERY sensitive to the different colors of light. Basically think of the human eye like a guy who when asked, “What color is that?” will say “Blue” quite decidedly while a camera is like a girl who when asked the same question will say, “Blue? No, I think I’d call that turquoise…or is it teal?”. You get my point:)
This is why you can peek through the lens and everything looks perfect (to your eyes) but when you see the final photos on the camera LCD screen or on a computer (through the camera’s eyes) they can look sickly and pale.
So what’s a photographer to do? First of all, don’t think about the camera as a camera. Instead, start thinking of it as an artist’s paint palette because when you use the automatic white balance setting on your camera you really are in a sense painting with light. (Photograph literally means “light picture” after all.)
For example, here’s a finished photo with a Custom white balance that I took for a contributing craft post over at HenryHappened. As you can see, there are plenty of golden warm tones but the colors are still true to real life. Great! This is what I wanted.
(A custom white balance just means that I set the white balance myself instead of using the automatic camera settings. That’s a whole blog post to itself so for now I’ll just use this picture as an example and we’ll focus on the automatic settings.)
Let’s try the same photo but this time with the camera set on Daylight. Hmm. A little too yellowy and orange, not really what I was going for. Sunlight (other than in the morning and at sunset) gives off a blue cast so my camera is expecting too much blue and tries to compensate by adding yellow light “paint” to the scene.
This one was taken on the Cloudy white balance setting. As you’ve noticed, everything on cloudy and rainy days tends to look grey/blue so on this setting the camera adds even more yellow tones. If I had taken this photo on a dreary day then this might have been perfect but I took this picture early in the morning when the light was already golden.
Oi, this one just hurts my eyes. When the white balance is set to Shade what happens? Yep, even MORE yellow because the light in shaded areas tends to be very blue. Again, think painting!
Now let’s go in the opposite direction. When you set your white balance to Tungsten the camera prepares itself for too much yellow light and pours on the blue. The most common tungsten light is your average light bulb so this would be a great setting to use indoors! Outside though it usually looks awful.
Last but not least is Fluorescent. Fluorescent lights are used in more industrial settings like warehouses or gyms and as you can tell from the camera’s attempt to “fix” things they give off lightly tinted yellow light. The camera adds just a dash of blue on this setting.
I hope this answers some of your white balance questions! This tutorial was meant to be a quick and painless introduction to white balance for the new photographer so you’ll have to forgive me for not covering everything. However, if you’ve been shooting on the automatic settings for awhile and are still getting frustrating results then please don’t fumble around like I did for months and instead go read everything you can about Custom White Balance and shooting in RAW. As always, happy shooting! :)