The Ultimate Guide to Understanding White Balance!

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If you find understanding white balance to be a mysterious concept, you are not alone. Many do. The numbers and settings used in setting white balance can be a little confusing if you aren’t familiar with them. In addition, white balance is not something we notice in our day-to-day lives. It is something that our camera picks up that we really never notice. In this article, I will try to help you make sense of it.

Fortunately, modern cameras and software like Lightroom make it very simple to adjust the white balance of your pictures. Even better, you get more than one opportunity to make it right.

What is White Balance?

All light has color. You don’t notice it because your eyes adjust to it remarkably fast. Your camera, on the other hand, picks up the different colors every time.

Some light is warm in color. As an example, think of candlelight and the warm glow it emits. Conversely, other light is cool and looks bluer. A cloudy or shady day will cause your pictures to look more blue. Applying a correction so that our pictures make these colors look normal is what setting the white balance is all about.

You will see temperature values associated with white balance. These are degrees in Kelvin scale. The scale for photographers runs from about 2000 degrees, which is a very warm or yellow value, to around 9000 degrees, which is a very cool or blue shade.

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You don’t need to know any of the specific temperature values, but I wanted to show you how some common settings line up on the temperature scale. You will see many of these settings again in your camera menu and in Lightroom.

In addition to the temperature scale, white balance is also the degree to which the picture is green or red (magenta). This is referred to as tint. There is no set scale for measuring this shift, but I wanted to mention it now since it will come up again later.

Getting White Balance Right in Camera

There are three ways you can set the white balance in your camera. Will cover them from easiest to most complicated.

Before we do, there is one preliminary item to address. You are probably familiar with the benefits of taking RAW files, and the ability to set the white balance is one such reason. Yes, it is possible to set the white balance of a JPEG file, but you will have a lot more options and latitude if you shoot in RAW. If you haven’t already, set your camera to take RAW files and you will have an easier time setting the white balance later.

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Auto Mode

The easiest way to set the white balance in your camera is to go into your camera’s menu and change the white balance setting to Auto.

You might be waiting for me to tell you that you should not do this, but this is one area where using the automatic setting is not necessarily a bad idea. Yes, you are ceding some control over your pictures to your camera and your camera will sometimes gets it wrong. Nevertheless, using Auto is a perfectly viable option for two reasons:

  1. You camera will get it right (or very close) much of the time, and
  2. Even where the camera doesn’t set the white balance you want, as we will see later, it is a very simple thing to adjust in Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw, if you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements).

Should you use auto white balance? If you are the sort of photographer that moves around and deals with changing light, then this will be a good option for you.

Using the Presets

The second way to set the white balance in your camera is to use one of the presets available in the camera’s white balance menu. Your camera will have settings labeled “Daylight,” “Cloudy,” “Shade,” “Tungsten,” etc. Just choose the most applicable setting.

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Should you use the presets instead of Auto? Candidly, I almost always use Auto white balance because I move around quite a bit and generally face changing light conditions. If you are photographing in one place where the light is stable, however, using a preset might benefit you. It will keep your camera from possibly choosing a completely inappropriate white balance in Auto.

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If you do use presets, it is important to change the white balance setting when you move to a different location or lighting condition. This is an easy thing to forget. If you do forget, you may end up with pictures with completely inappropriate white balance.

Get Cole’s FREE Lightroom Presets

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Custom White Balance

Finally, if you want to make sure that you nail the white balance you can set it yourself using a custom setting in the menu. You do this by taking a picture of something that is neutral in color and then setting your white balance based on that.

The best way to do this is to get a  gray card. This is just a piece of cardboard that is colored a neutral grey, which your camera will use to get the white balance. If you don’t have a grey card, you can just use a white sheet of paper.

To set the custom white balance, follow these steps:

  1. Take a picture of your grey card or white piece of paper. Fill the frame with your grey card and try to get it in the same light as your subject.
  2. Set a custom white balance based on this picture in your camera’s menu. For Nikons this is called Preset Manual and for Canons it is called Custom White Balance.
  3. Select the picture you want the camera to use to set the white balance (this will be the picture of the gray card or white piece of paper that you just took).
  4. Go into your camera’s white balance options and set it to Custom.

Now your white balance will be set based on this neutral object.

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This is a good technique to use if you are taking many pictures of a similar subject and constant lightning. Doing so will get the white balance right in camera, and you shouldn’t have to make any changes in to the white balance in post-processing. As with the presets, don’t forget to change the white balance as you move or light conditions change.

Setting White Balance in Lightroom

Now you have the picture and you are ready to set the white balance (or perhaps just tweak it) in Lightroom. Just as there are three different options for setting the white balance in camera, Lightroom offers three different ways to set white balance. We will go through each of them.

First I should introduce you to the white balance controls in Lightroom. They are in the Develop module and are the top tools on the right side. The controls look like this:

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The controls really boils down to two settings:

  • Temperature: as set forth above, this is the degree to which your picture looks more blue on the one hand or yellow on the other.
  • Tint: I mentioned at the outset that part of white balance is the degree to which your picture looks green on the one hand or magenta (red) on the other. In Lightroom (or ACR) this is referred to as Tint, and there is a slider that controls it directly underneath the Temperature slider.

The two sliders let you set the white balance directly. In a moment, you’re going to learn about ways that Lightroom makes it easy to set the white balance (the eyedropper and the presets), but they boil down to ways to change these two sliders.

Using the Eyedropper

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Caption: I used a neutral density filter on this shot, and it left a red cast to the picture. Setting the white balance using the eyedropper tool eliminated the color cast.

The most powerful and precise method for setting the white balance of your picture in Lightroom is also perhaps the easiest to use. It is the eyedropper near the white balance sliders.

To use it, all you do is click the eyedropper on a neutral color and light room will automatically set the white balance for you. It is really easy. Here are the specific steps for using this powerful tool:

  1. Click on the eyedropper.
  2. Move to a neutral color within your picture. I find that white works best, but gray and black work as well.
  3. Click on the neutral color.
  4. If you don’t like how it looks, just find a different spot and click again.

That’s it. Lightroom does the rest (notice how the Temp and Tint sliders move as you use the eyedropper).

You will find that much of the time Lightroom does a really good job of selling the white balance with this simple click. This is a really powerful tool, and to make sure you are comfortable using it, check out Cole’s video that walks you through the process:

If the white balance looks right to you after using the eyedropper, you are all set and nothing further is needed. You can also tweak the white balance with the sliders.

Using the Lightroom Presets

Just as your camera has presets for setting white balance, Lightroom has presets as well. In fact, Lightroom’s presets will be very similar to those in your camera.

The choices will be things like daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, etc. If your picture was taken in one of these conditions, just select the preset and Lightroom will set a white balance for that general condition. From there, you can still use the sliders to tweak the white balance to make it look the way you want.

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Don’t worry about messing up your picture either. You’ll notice there is a preset for As Shot. If you are unhappy with the way the picture looks after applying the preset (or after using the eyedropper tool) and you want to return to the way your picture started, just select the As Shot preset and it will take you back.

When might you use the presets? You might use them if the eyedropper tool is not working for you for some reason, such as when you cannot find a suitable neutral color to use to set it. These presets will get you close and you can tweak it from there.

Automatic Setting

You can also leave the matter of setting the white balance entirely to Lightroom. To do so, just go into the presets and select Auto. In doing so, Lightroom will analyze the picture and select what it believes to be the proper white balance. You can tweak it from there using the Temp and Tint sliders.

Honestly, you will probably not use the Auto setting much. It is, however, useful as a gauge to see what Lightroom thinks the white balance ought to be. It is like a second opinion that you can check, but it should rarely be used as your final setting.

Conclusion

You have a lot of options when it comes to white balance. You can set it while shooting, in Lightroom, or both.

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You now know all the options, but let’s conclude with the best ways to set the white balance.

While you are out photographing, if you are facing changing light conditions or you just don’t want to worry about white balance, use Auto. It actually goes a nice job most of the time, and you can always fix it in Lightroom later. If, on the other hand, you want to get white balance right in camera, set a custom white balance. It may seem cumbersome now, but with a little practice you will be able to do it quickly.

When it comes to setting the white balance in Lightroom, the best option is almost always to use the eyedropper tool. Use it and then tweak with the Temp and Tint sliders.

Finally, don’t obsess over white balance. I have talked a lot about getting white balance “right,” and to be sure there are settings that make your photos look more natural, but ultimately it is a matter of your individual preference. You can get a few opinions from Lightroom (using the eyedropper, presets, and auto setting), and you may want to check all of them, but once you do, set the white balance however looks best to you.