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Simple tips to
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Tips for Better Pictures

Today's e-tip:

How getting the
White Balance
right can improve your pictures

White Balance is a concept that was first used by the motion picture industry, but can have a PROFOUND effect on digital photography. Getting the white balance correct can help your pictures look much better.

Correctly using White Balance to improve you Pictures

Color & Light
Everything you look at is being lit by some kind of light, and photography is all about 'light' (the word 'photography' comes from the Greek, meaning "drawing with light").  Great pictures are can be taken of mundane subjects, if the light is right and great subjects can look bad if lit by poor light.

As humans, we are saddled with a disadvantage in photography: our brains. Our brain "translates" color for us, even when we don't want it to. In normal every-day life, this works to our advantage. We see things as we expect to see them. But digital camera sensors don't have our brain. Instead, they see things literally. So, when you look at a scene, you do NOT see it as your camera does.

White Balance is a method of trying to "bridge" this gap - to allow us to "correct" what the camera sees so it resembles what our eyes see. Our cameras try to do this automatically for us, but it doesn't always work very well!  Our camera looks at the brightest object in a scene and "assumes" it's white. Then it figures out what color adjustment it needs to make to the scene to make that brightest area look white. Sometimes it works well; but often it doesn't.
White Balance on a cloudy day
Cloudy days can be difficult to get the colors right!
The TECHNICAL side of Color
Color is measured by a "temperature" scale called 'Kelvin' (K). The Kelvin scale is an absolute temperature scale using absolute zero as its starting point. When you heat a piece of steel, it changes color as it gets hotter: from black to red to yellow to white to blue. The Kelvin scale is based on this. Here is a scale of the Kelvin temperature range.

Kelvin Scale

The sensor in our camera, as is with daylight-balanced film, assumes that mid-day sun (it was actually measured at the Smithsonian institute on the Summer Solstice at noon) is 5200 degrees K.

The White Balance adjustment on your camera corrects for any deviation from 5200 degrees K (i.e., mid-day sun).

White Balance Settings
White balance can get confusing, but there is an extremely easy way of handling it (with a caveat - but we'll get to that later).

Note: The following applies to JPEG (not RAW) images only:

AUTO & Manual White Balance: By default, all digital cameras use a white balance setting called "AUTO". This is what I explained above, where the camera detects the brightest color in the scene and makes color adjustments in the image to FORCE that color to be white. This ajustment also changes every color in the image, so if it's not correct, every color in the image turns out wrong. Unfortunately, it's not always the right adjustment, because the color it detected may not actually be pure white. There are other issues in doing this as well, that makes it nothing more than a "guess".

Digital cameras also have other "manual" white balance settings, that often include:
  • Tungsten
  • Warm Fluorescent
  • Cool Fluorescent
  • Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • etc.
These manual settings are almost always better than the "AUTO" white balance setting, if selected properly.

Here are 3 JPEG images of the same color chart. They were all taken with the same light source - a tungsten bulb. The top image shows how it should look (more on that later). The bottom-right image was taken the White Balance set to "Tungsten" and the one on the bottom-left was taken with "AUTO" white balance. The bottom two images are JPEGs directly from the camera. (click on the image below for a larger view)
Kelvin Scale
White Balance image

There's a big difference between the top image and the bottom images. Colors are more vibrant when they are correct.

The bottom images each have a tint to them (click the image to enlarge it and then compare the gray patches to easily see this).

The image taken with tungsten white balance is better than the "Auto" white balance, but both are tinted incorrectly.

From this, you can deduce that setting the white balance to a manual setting is better than using "Auto". But, it comes with a price: it's VERY easy to forget that you set the manual white balance to "tungsten" after you've gone outdoors to take pictures in daylight.  That means your "outdoor" pictures will all look completely wrong!

Here's an enlargement of the first-3 patches of white, 20% gray & 40% gray. You can easily see the color differences here. (click for a larger image)

White Balance image

Measuring the Color of the Light
You can also have most digital cameras "measure" the color of the light. You'll need to refer to your camera manual or our CheatSheet to see how to do it, but it's just a matter of setting your camera up to do the measurement and then placing a neutral white or gray object (an 18% gray target works well - US customers can see one at the bottom of this eTip) in the same light as your subject, and then take a picture of that object (depending on the camera, you may have to fill the frame with the white or gray object). The camera will then measure the light color and set the white balance for the exact lighting that you're using. There are also 3rd party objects you can use to do this measurement.

The KISS Principle
There is a design principle called "KISS" - in case you haven't heard of it before, it stands for "Keep it Simple, Stupid!" The principle states that most things work best if they are kept simple. KISS is especially effective for photography. If you have to think of too many things, you'll either miss the picture or get it wrong. Hence, we believe the best approach to White Balance is to keep it simple.

Sometimes the seemingly more difficult solution is the simplest!
Not ALL digital pictures need to have the white balance set when you take the picture. As a matter of fact, you can take a picture on a sunny day with the white balance set to tungsten light and have it come out perfect EVERY time! It's just a matter of deciding whether you want to set the white balance BEFORE you take the picture or AFTER.

At the time you're taking the picture, you don't often have a lot of time, nor are you always likely to remember, to set the white balance. But after you take it, you have the time to decide how it should have been set.

Sound like magic?? It's not.

Most digital SLR cameras, and many digital point-and-shoot cameras allow you to shoot RAW images. I'd be willing to bet that 3/4 of everyone reading that last sentence, just got a overwhelming feeling of fear!  Fear not. RAW images are MUCH easier to shoot, although they do require a very small effort AFTER the picture is taken. Somehow, in our training sessions, people really seem to fear RAW images. RAW images are MUCH simpler to take and don't require a lot of settings (as JPEG images do). Since everything the sensor captures is stored in the RAW file, you can make the settings later. We like to shoot BOTH RAW and JPEG. That way we can use the JPEG image if we want, but always have the ability to use the RAW image to get the best image.

If you have a program like Photoshop Elements, Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other program that can process RAW images, you're no more than a few clicks away from great images, that are much easier to take because you don't have to worry about White Balance, or a number of other adjustments that include sharpness, color saturation, hue, contrast, etc., etc. Personally, I don't spend more than about 40 seconds on 90% of the RAW images that I process. 

If you look at the 3 color-patch images above, the top image was taken as a RAW image, where I set the white balance AFTER the fact. It was just a matter of two mouse clicks (the "White Balance Tool" and the "Auto" link). It didn't take more than 5 or 6 seconds, and gave me perfectly corrected color.

If you insist on shooting JPEGs, and I understand the reasons for that, you will need to make sure your white balance is set properly. You may also want to look at our eTip on Getting JPEG Images Right.

There are many reasons to shoot RAW - white balance is only one of them. Often, when I look at JPEG pictures that people take, I immediately see what's wrong with them - it's almost always poor color, poor contrast & poor sharpness. All things that could be so easily corrected with a couple of mouse clicks with a RAW image.

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