White balance refers to the color of the main light source and how it renders the overall color accuracy of the photograph. If you’re unhappy with some of your images because they seem too orange/yellow or cyan/blue, this mini lesson will help you.
The concept of needing to change a camera setting to obtain proper color balance in a photo is difficult for many amateur photographers to understand.
You may ask, “Why bother with the camera controls or colored gels if colors look okay to me when I view the scene in real life?”
Your eyes compensate for various light sources and make everything look normal, but your camera does not. Your camera needs to be adjusted to the color of the light. Unless you make some white balance adjustment to ‘neutralize’ the color, photos taken under various light sources will have strong color shifts.
The following photo illustrates how dramatically different the color of daylight is from the incandescent/tungsten room lamps, yet we would never notice this with our eyes.
Many cameras have ‘automatic white balance,’ (WB) and the newer models may improve the image quality under many conditions, but the best results come from manually adjusting the white balance.
For the purpose of this lesson, let’s think of the various colors of light on a scale from red (warm) to blue (cold). Most cameras have a set of simple choices in the white balance menu, represented by five or six icons: Candle, tungsten light bulb, sunlight, electronic flash, and fluorescent lamps.
By setting the WB on the proper icon in your camera’s menu, the color of your photos will be greatly improved. Below we see a series of photos that compare ‘without and with’ WB corrections. The following shots were taken with a point-and-shoot camera.
Note: If you’re shooting in the JPEG format, as most of us do, it’s always better to shoot with the proper WB setting than to correct the photos later. Why? Because JPEG compression throws away a lot of color information. This is something that all cameras do to reduce the size of the JPEG picture file. As a result of the compression, there may not be enough extra color information to make a correction in postproduction.
If you’re asking whether your camera is shooting in JPEG format, the answer is yes. All digital cameras are delivered in the JPEG setting and unless you’ve changed that format setting, you are in JPEG!
If the general WB icon settings discussed above don’t provide you with the degree of accuracy you desire, there’s another procedure that will solve the problem of color casts:
If your camera offers a WB setting feature, you can manually adjust your WB by photographing a white or gray “target reference subject.” In this case we’re using the Photoflex QuikDisc® product. You can use a calibrated gray or white card, but the collapsible 12” QuikDisc is convenient because it fits into a camera bag.
Camera models with this WB feature vary in their method, but the basic procedure is the same: Enable the WB setting mode in your menu, fill the frame with your QuikDisc and take the shot. This method provides your camera with an accurate white subject and neutralizes all color casts. The camera will remember the setting until you disable it, shoot a new reference, or shut the camera off. Consult your camera manual for the step-by-step method.
This method is the easiest, but it only works if your camera allows you to take photos in the RAW format.
Set your camera in the RAW format mode for your session. For your first shot, take a photo with the QuikDisc in the scene. If you move to a new location, take another shot that displays the QuikDisc before you continue shooting. This method will give you an accurate color reference at the beginning of every series of shots. You can use the images with the QuikDisc reference in them to correct the WB of your photos after you load them onto your computer.
Here’s a split screen example of a test shot taken in RAW mode under tungsten lights with no WB correction. The color is severely shifted to the red end of the spectrum. The right side of the example shows the result after correcting the color. (I describe how to make the color correction later in this lesson.)
Why does this work in RAW and not in JPEG? Images taken in RAW contain a wide spectrum of color information, allowing accurate white balance adjustments to be made in postproduction with any photo software that reads RAW format.
The software CD that came with your camera will have a simple RAW convertor and application for you to make color adjustments to your photos. For more advanced features, Photoshop Elements is a reasonably priced software program that I recommend to my students.
Correcting the color in post production:
If you’re able to open all the photos from each lighting situation at once, using Photoshop, Adobe Bridge, LightRoom or Aperture, you’ll be able to apply one correction to the entire batch.
Click on “Select All” in the upper left of the window so your adjustment will apply to all the shots in the session. Use the White Balance Tool to click on the QuikDisc in the photo.
After making the white balance correction, press DONE to save your changes.
Printing your RAW image.
“What can I do with the RAW file? Photofinishing labs only print from JPEG!”
Yes, that’s true. You will have to make a JPEG copy of your corrected image if you want to print it, or send it by email to others that do not have the RAW conversion software. Although this seems like a series of redundant steps, the improved results will payoff in the end. Most professional photographers shoot in RAW and make postproduction file conversions as a normal part of their workflow. This is just another reminder that computers do not save time.
Whether you have a point-and-shoot camera or a sophisticated DSLR, your photos will be improved when you understand and use the WHITE BALANCE controls. We hope this information helps.
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Jeffery Jay Luhn and Team Photoflex