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Design & Style

How to Adjust White Balance in Photography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

One of the hardest parts of being a photographer is taking photographs that capture correct lighting and color balance. Learning how to adjust your camera’s white balance settings in order to account for changing lighting conditions is very important for any amateur photographer. White balance and color temperature might sound like complicated concepts, but once you learn a bit of the theory behind them the process of adjusting color on your camera is a relatively simple one that will pay massive dividends in the long run.

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What Is White Balance?

White balance determines the relative color scale and color temperature that will be reflected in a given photograph. White balance needs to be adjusted and accounted for to ensure that your photographs convey accurate colors depending on the lighting conditions and white balance varies slightly depending on if you are working in digital photography or film photography. In film photography, the white balance is determined by the film stock you are using. With a DSLR or other comparable digital cameras, the camera white balance is adjustable and can be changed by the photographer by adjusting a camera’s white balance settings.

What Is Color Temperature?

Understanding white balance requires that you have a working knowledge of color temperature. Color temperature is simply a way of measuring the hue of different light sources. Color temperature is measured in degrees kelvin. The kelvin scale is also used to measure temperature but for our purposes we will only reference it with regards to color temperature. Visible color temperature can range from about 1700 kelvin to 12000 kelvin with infrared and ultraviolet light falling outside of this. When you’re adjusting your camera white balance, you’re accounting for the different color temperatures that present themselves in different locations and different lighting situations.

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How to Manually Adjust Your Camera’s White Balance

All professional-grade cameras (and even most entry-level models), give you the ability to manually adjust your white balance. One way to get the right color balance is to use a gray card or white card to ensure you’re getting the correct white balance. One of the advantages of this technique it is essentially the same regardless of what kind of camera you’re using, whether it be a Canon or Nikon or any other reputable brand. Similarly, the white or gray card method can be used under any lighting conditions whether you are shooting using Sony artificial lighting, in incandescent light or outside under an overcast sky.

Here’s how to use this method to adjust your camera’s white balance:

  1. Take a photo of a blank card. To adjust your camera’s white balance via the white or gray card method, you need are a simple white or gray card that you will place in front of your camera so that it fills the entire frame as you adjust your camera settings. Take a photo of the card.
  2. Adjust your settings. After you’ve taken a photo of the blank card, open your camera’s white balance settings. Choose the image you’ve just taken and set your camera’s white balance using this image.
  3. Take your photos with the new settings. If you’ve taken the picture under the exact same conditions that you will be shooting under, then your camera should have the correct white balance for any subsequent pictures you take.

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How to Automatically Adjust Your Camera’s White Balance

The simplest way to set white balance is to let your camera do all the work by using automatic white balance mode (AWB). If you’re shooting something casually or don’t have time to set custom white balance settings, auto white balance mode will attempt to gauge the correct white balance settings using camera sensors and make balance adjustments as the lighting changes. Though auto white balance can be used in a pinch, professional photographers generally opt to adjust white balance themselves.

How to Adjust Your Photo’s White Balance in Post-Processing

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Using professional quality photo editing software is a great way to see how your pictures would appear under different white balance settings that you may have neglected to try during your actual shoot. Making editing adjustments in post-production software like Photoshop or Lightroom allows you to adjust the raw files of your images. These adjustments can generally fix any sort of lighting issues, whether it be ambient lighting or candlelight that appears too warm or an overly blue sky in an outdoor image.

6 White Balance Presets on Your Camera

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Most cameras come with several white balance presets to choose depending on what type of conditions your shooting under. Using a preset white balance is a great way to quickly adjust white balance, but you should always experiment and review test photos to make sure that your images are coming out correctly colored. The following are standard white balance presets found on most cameras:

  1. Daylight: As the name would imply, this preset is best used in relatively sunny daylight conditions. Your camera will account for moderate warm light that usually appears in daylight photographs with a moderate amount of sunlight and adjust white balance accordingly.
  2. Shade: Your camera will add warm tones to these images assuming that the shade has blocked some of the warmth that would otherwise come through during a sunny outdoor shoot.
  3. Cloudy: The clouds setting should be used on an overcast day to warm up photographs. If you’re shooting on a cloudy day, you may notice that your photographs are coming back much cooler and bluer than normal. Switching to cloudy mode can help add warm tones back into your shots.
  4. Tungsten: This mode should be used when your shooting using lights equipped with tungsten bulbs. Tungsten light generally adds warmth to an image so your camera will compensate by adding cool tones back into your images.
  5. Fluorescent light: Fluorescent mode will add warmth because fluorescent light bulbs produce a cooler light.
  6. Flash: Similar to fluorescent mode, the flash white balance preset will add warm tones because flash generally produces a cooler light.

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