Taking photos and having them come out with a strange color cast can be frustrating. Here are a few ways to ensure proper white balance both before and after taking a picture

Getting Proper White Balance for Pictures and Video

Written by Martin Douglas.

Have you ever taken a photo and wondered why it had a funny tint or color to it? Maybe it appeared a bit blue, or there was an orange tint to the whole thing. You probably also noticed that what was white when you took the photo doesn't always appear white in the final product. Whether you're shooting video or taking a photo, those issues with color are due to the white balance. For the professionals, such color tinting is done on purpose to set a mood or to give the piece a certain feeling since color plays into our emotions. For the novice though, it can be an issue of frustration when we're trying to get our project to look a certain way and the colors continue to come out with these odd tints.

So why do the colors not match up to what we actually see when taking a picture or shooting video? In simple terms it has to do with lighting and the temperature different lights give off. Our eyes adjust naturally to the temperature of light so colors appear as they are. White appears white and so on. The camera though can't quite make these adjustments itself. Lights that are a cooler temperature will thus have a blue tint, and lights that are hotter will tend to appear orange or yellow in photos.

There are several ways to fix this and eliminate the color tints, either within the camera itself, or after the image is taken and imported into a photo editing program. Which way to go depends on the camera you're using or what you have on hand. The main concept is to counter the tint by using a color on the opposite side of the color wheel, something that most of us might remember from school. A photo that contains an orange or yellowish tint would be corrected by using the cooler blues and greens, and vice versa.

Setting White Balance in Camera

Every camera is a bit different in its settings, so setting it in camera will likely require you to grab your owners manual and check out the section on white balance. While manually setting the camera might take a bit more knowledge, most digital cameras do have modes that help in making some adjustments.

Preset White Balance Settings

The majority of cameras, particularly the newer ones, have the following white balance settings to handle tint issues.

  • Auto - This is the camera's best guess as to correcting the white balance, which will automatically adjust for each photo. In most cases it's reliable, or at least really close. Depending on the lighting though and how complicated the setup, it may not be completely dependable.
  • Daylight/Sunny - Not all cameras have this setting but if present you'll use this when shooting in natural sunlight or fairly normal settings.
  • Cloudy - Cloud cover usually brings with it a slightly blue tint. This setting warms it up a bit with orange/yellow to remove it.
  • Shade - Like the cloud setting, this too warms the color of photos since lighting in shade is generally cooler in nature.
  • Flash - The flash in a camera tends to be a cooler color. This setting brings some warmth back to them.
  • Tungsten - This setting is most useful for indoors when shooting under tungsten (incandescent) lighting. IE bulb lighting. Without it you'll notice the orange cast to your photos. This setting cools it.
  • Fluorescent - These lights tend to be cool when shot, and when shooting under them you'll want to use this setting which warms them up.

Manually Setting White Balance

In most cases the presets above will get you fairly accurate results. Some of the higher end cameras, particularly DSLRs, that have become more affordable also offer the option to manually set the white balance. While the way to set white balance can vary slightly from camera to camera, it usually involves snapping a picture of an object that is already white which gives the camera a point of reference for what constitutes white in the photo. The camera then adjusts to keep that object white along with correcting the other colors.

As an example of setting white balance manually in camera, on the D7000 camera I currently own I'd go into the white balance setting, put the white object in front of the subject, zoom in from where I'm intending to snap the photo from so the white object fills the screen, and then snap a picture. The camera adjusts based on the lighting of the object and now has a reference of what is supposed to be white with the current lighting for all of the future photos.

You'll want to place this reference at the focal point of what you're shooting an image of, and also be aware of lighting changes that may happen while you are shooting. If the lighting changes you may have to readjust it. For instance, setting the white balance this way on a sunny day, and then shooting without realizing that clouds have come in overhead and changed the lighting can effect the white balance if you're not paying attention. Also moving the subject even a few feet away into an area that has shade would require manually reshooting your white object to reset the white balance. Remember that white balance setting will stay in place for future photos until it's changed, turned off, or a preset is selected. I've made the mistake myself of setting it this way, ending a shoot or changing locations, and forgetting to readjust it for the next set of photos. It does not make for a fun time in the editing room.

What type of object can you use to set the proper white balance? Some people use a non-reflective white sheet of paper, and in most cases this works. I've also heard of people zooming in on things in the picture that are white and setting white balance that way. Even if it's not perfect it can get you really close. Do keep in mind that if you're using a piece of white paper, it can yellow over time which can throw of the settings slightly. Plus there are different shades of white which can throw white balance off a bit. It is a quick way to get white balance though when you have nothing else on hand.

My personal preference is to use a WhiBal card. These cards are fairly cheap and will last much longer than a piece of paper. Some are cardboard, although there are also plastic versions which I prefer. You'll want to find one that is certified neutral. They also come in different sizes that make them easier to haul around with your equipment. You'll also find several cards that contain grey, white, and black colors all on the same card. Currently, I use a WhiBal G7 White Balance Studio Card. While they can be used to manually set white balance in cameras, I prefer to use them to set white balance later in a photo editing program as we'll discuss next.

Setting White Balance in a Photo Editing Program

This is my preferred way to set white balance as I don't have to worry about forgetting to manually reset white balance in camera when lighting changes during a shoot. You merely take a photo while holding something white in frame on the focal point of the image.

Once you have the picture with the white object you can start snapping other photos without it as you normally would. Just make sure that if the lighting changes, you grab the card and snap another photo with it in frame, then you can resume your shoot. That's the only thing you have to remember, similar to manually setting white balance within the camera.

Once you're done you load your photos onto the computer for editing. Most programs such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and even Camera Raw have a white balance setting. Clicking on that will give you an icon that looks like an eyedropper. From there open the picture with the card in the photo, click on the WhiBal card, or whichever white object you used, and the editing program will adjust the white balance for you. Editing programs usually do a great job of doing this, and you can make minor adjustments if it does happen to be off slightly.

You may be thinking, "That's great, but how do I get that white balance on other photos?". Like your camera, you'll have to check the manual of the editing program you're using, but any decent photo editing program will have a way to apply those settings to the other photos. There are various tutorials on Youtube for popular photo editing programs on how to do this, along with discussions about using the white card vs grey card for setting white balance. These settings can also be applied to video in the same manner, and there are various video and websites that discuss that too. Just make sure that you grab the new photo with the WhiBal card in it for each set you started under different lighting, and apply it to those photos taken in that same set of light.

Finally, be creative! Remember proper white balance isn't needed for every photo or video, and photographers and video people often use the color casts to create different moods in their work. Getting an odd tint to a photo isn't the end of the world, and many do it on purpose to get what they're looking for. A lot of filmmakers and photographers even use gels over their lighting to create those color casts. It is nice though to have a WhiBal card in frame though just incase the look doesn't come out the way you would have hoped for. At least then you can set a base for your work, and adjust it manually later if the need arises.

Martin Douglas

About Martin Douglas

The author of The Bewitching novels. Besides writing, Martin Douglas also spends his time acting, making films, and working on graphic design and video FX. When he's not working on the creative and fun stuff he can often be found in a Coffee house. His other talents include web design and several programming and scripting languages.

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