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How to Set White Balance Manually - An Easy, Comprehensive Tutorial

Thursday, January 10, 2013

NOTE: This post is the first in a series of photography tutorials. Copying of the content without permission of the author is forbidden. All the photos in the tutorials also belong to the author. Thank you for your cooperation.
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         Although White Balance is one of the key concepts in photography, many amateur (and even some expert photographers) fail to take it into consideration when they tune up their camera settings for a special shot.

Using my experience, I must suggest that it is essential to always set a correct white balance MANUALLY; no matter how smart your camera is. Even if your camera is an expensive Canon, Nikon, Sony or Pentax model, it's still only an electonic device with very limited intelligence. Stop relying on auto white balance and you'll cross a milestone. Knowing how to set correct white balance manually works wonders for most beginner photographers: It is infact one of the basic elements that diffemtiates rookies and pros.

This tutorial will elaborate all aspects of setting white balance in detail.

This picture depicts how proper white balance selection makes a marked difference in the overall look of the photo.

     We will now proceed with a brief discussion of the various aspects of white balance and how to use them.

What is White Balance?

         White Balance, in simple terms, is the correction of the incorrect color casts that result in a photographic misrepresentation in shades of the neutral colors (particularly white).

Why is it necessary to set white balance?

         In short, the selection of the correct white balance manually in a given type of lighting is necessary in order to keep the colors as realistic and accurate as possible.
         The human eyes are well adapted to the accurate differentiation and perception of white color, regardless of the lighting situations. Cameras, on the other hand, lack the power of such accurate color perception. For this reason, in tricky lighting situations, they often tend to be mistaken in their perception of the correct shade of neutral colors such as white or grey. When this happens, the image either has a particular color cast to it; ranging from extreme red to extreme blue. Photos with a reddish color cast are often referred to as “warm” while those with a bluish color cast are said to be “cool”.

         You may often have found your images to have such color casts. Some images might have an overall bluish tint while others may contain a generalized yellow or orange tint. This happens when you fail to select the correct white balance in your photos. Understanding the underlying concepts of white balance selection can help you get images with accurate color reproduction and without annoying colors casts.

A photo of flowers with blue color cast. (Simulated)

Color cast removed through proper white balance selection. Color depiction is now accurate.


Understanding Color Temperature in relation to White Balance


         White light is not a single, color but is rather a mixture of several colors (violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red) . PURE white light is produced through an equal proportion of all these colors, which is very rare indeed. White light often tends to have a slightly blue or a slightly red shade. This shade of white light is frequently described on a scale referred to as “color temperature”. Color temperature is expressed in the unit “K” (kelvin). Values below 5000 K represent a reddish shade of white while those above 5000 K represent a bluish shade of white color. 5000 K itself can be roughly considered neutral white light. This is further depicted in the graph below. It can be seen that at 5000 K, the relative intensity of the all the wavelengths (from 400-800 nm) is fairly equal. At 9000 K, the intensity of the shorter wavelengths (that constitute violet/blue colors) is much higher than that of the longer wavelengths (that make up red). As a result, light of a color temperature of 9000 K is quite blue in color. In the same way, light at 3000 K is red/orange in color. 

        Now, you might be wondering why we describe a shade of COLOR through the unit of TEMPERATURE instead of the traditional unit of light WAVELENGTH. There is a simple explanation for that. If you are familiar with physics, you might have heard the term “blackbody”. Blackbody is a hypothetical object that is capable of fully absorbing all the electromagnetic radiation (including light) that fall on it. Pure blackbodies do not exist but there are objects that behave like blackbodies at high temperature. The reference object in physics is a platinum wire - but not everyone may be familiar with this, so for the purpose of comprehension, let’s consider the simple example of metallic iron heated to a very high temperature during forgery. As the temperature of iron rises, it first becomes  red in color and later it becomes white. The color of white also undergoes changes at different temperatures. Hence, in our photographic color temperature scale,  we don’t actually describe the color in relation to temperature itself; rather we compare the color of any kind of white light to the shade of white that a blackbody would emit if it was heated at that particular temperature.

         The importance of using color temperature lies in the fact that various light sources and lighting conditions closely resemble the various shades of white color emitted by blackbodies at different temperatures.

         The following table shows some of the light sources/lighting conditions with their corresponding color temperatures. The values of color temperatures are common averages and are subject to variation.

  

Light source/Lighting condition
Color temperature
Match stick flame
1500 – 1700 K
Candle light
1500 – 2000 K
Sunrise/Sunset
2000 – 4000 K
Household tungesten bulbs/Incandescent lamps
2700 – 3300 K
Fluorescent lamps
3500 – 5000 K
Daylight (Clear sky)/electronic flash
5500 – 6000 K
Day light (Cloudy)
6500 – 7500 K
Heavily cloudy sky
8000 – 10000 K
LCD Screen
6000 – 11000 K
Clear blue poleward sky
15000 – 27000 K

How to use White Balance Presets

          Most of the modern cameras do not require you to manually fiddle with the color temperature and are equipped with a number of white balance presets. These presets cover the commonly encountered light sources and lighting conditions. The ones included in most cameras, in order of increasing color temperature, are Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade. Some cameras also allow you to further control the extent of these presets (e.g. -5 to +5 or so).

         The following table contains a list of white balance presets with an explanation of when to use them.
WB Presets
Use
AUTO
When this preset is selected, the camera automatically determines the best white balance for the photos. Although it is fairly good in most situations, it fails to give a correct color representation in many photos. Furthermore, it is ALWAYS recommended to use manual white balance whenever possible because in most cameras, the AUTO mode does not allow the white balance to go to any “extremes” in order to keep the tone an average for most situations.
Shade
The light in shady environments generally has a blue color cast. This preset aims to remove that color cast.
Cloudy
This preset, as the name indicates, warms the colors sufficiently to remove the deep blue color cast produced under an overcast sky. The photos produced have a warm, deep look.
Flash
This preset aims to remove the blue color cast produced by most camera and electronic flashes.
Daylight
This preset is used when shooting in daylight. It removes the cool color casts that can sometimes form in such conditions and creates a warm look in the photos.
Fluorescent
This preset is used when the environment is lit by fluorescent lighting. Fluorescent light generally creates a blue color cast. This preset serves to neutralize the blue to produce accurate colors.
Tungsten/
Incandescent
This preset is for indoors used when the environment is lit by a tungsten bulb which produces yellow light. This preset removes the resultant yellow cast in order to keep the colors as accurate as possible.

Advantage of using RAW format (from the WB perspective)

          Many DSLR’s and some other high-end cameras allow you to render image in RAW format. The use of RAW format has a great advantage from the perspective of white balance. RAW format allows you to capture the photo first and then apply a white balance of your choice AFTER the photo has been taken.
(It is also worth mentioning that white balance can also be changed in JPEG images through editing and post-processing. However, the results produced by RAW images are much more impressive).

Examples: Auto vs. Manual white balance




          As mentioned earlier, manually selecting the correct white balance ALWAYS has better results than using Auto White Balance. When auto mode is selected, the tricky colors and lighting often trick the camera into selecting an incorrect white balance. For example, if the image already has too much red, the camera might think that there is enough warmth in the photo and will therefore create a bluish cast in the photo.

          The following examples show how the correct use of white balance can significantly improve your images.



          Consider the following photo that I captured in overcast daylight but with Auto WB. It has a slightly blue cast on it.






        
Here is the same flower which I captured after properly tuning the white balance. The image now shows much more accurate and impressive colors. 


        

In some instances (especially in silhouette shots & sunset/sunrise shots), you may require a deep red/blue shade in the photo which is usually impossible to achieve without manual selection of proper white balance.


        

 The following photographs illustrate the proper use of white balance.




I hope this tutorial gave you a good understanding about the principles of color temperature and white balance. The take home message is that you must always set the correct white balance manually, no matter how smart your camera is: It definitely isn't smarter than you, right?

Best of luck! :)

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