There are multiple white balance settings to choose from on a camera, even the ability to create a custom white balance, but what does it actually mean? White balance is the process of adjusting your camera to reproduce white accurately. By doing so, the colors we see with our eyes will be accurately reflected in the photos.
White balance is measured in Kelvin (or K for short). For the majority of photos taken, the Kelvin number will be between 2,000 and 9,000 but can be expanded beyond that. Below are some common Kelvin temperatures ranges that you'll find as presents in your camera as well as in software like Lightroom (if you are viewing a RAW image):
2000K: Candle - Exactly what you think - candlelight!
3500K: Most House Lights - Light bulbs in your lamps, unless you buy daylight specific bulbs.
4000K: Fluorescent Lights - Typically used in office buildings and hospitals.
5500K: Daylight - When the sun is high in the sky with no clouds.
6500K: Overcast - A cloudy/hazy day.
7500K: Shade - Sunny, but your subject is shaded.
9000K: Dark Shade/Shadows - Think alleyways and tunnels.
Below is an example of the same photo using different white balances. Note that color temperatures under 5500K have a blue tint to them and temperatures over 5500K have an orange tint. This will be useful later on.
The Meaning Of These Numbers
While these numbers may seem confusing, it's actually quite simple.
Imagine you walk into a room with no windows that is entirely lit by candlelight. In order to capture a proper white balance, or what our eyes are seeing, you'd need to set your camera's white balance to 2000K. If that same room were to only have fluorescent lights in it, you'd want to set your camera to 4000K. If your subject is standing in the shadows of a building, you could manually change your cameras kelvin temperature to 7500K to start.
STYLIZING YOUR PHOTOS WITH WHITE BALANCE
White Balance is something that can be altered while shooting and while in post. This comes in handy if you are wanting a warmer or cooler look to your photo.
In the image above, by just changing the white balance we can mimic the look of late early evening, sunset and early AM light by choosing different white balances.
In the scene above, the sun was the main light source but the yellow walls made everything a tad too warm. By manually changing the color temperture to 3500K, the yellow cast was diminished.
Shooting in Mixed light
We said white balance was simple, right? It is when you are shooting with one light source, like the sun. When shooting in mixed lighting scenarios, things become more complicated.
First identify the largest source of light (in an office building this may be the overhead lights or daylight if you are shooting close to windows), and then try to eliminate other sources by turning off lights or covering windows.
If this is not possible, try choosing a custom white balance that is a good in between. Specifically look at things in the scene that are white or neutral in color and choose your custom kelvin temperature off of that. You'll want to make sure that when a person is in the scene, they look true to color.
In the sidewalk scene above, there were lights on in the store behind the subject as well as various lights on and around the sidewalk from nearby stores. When balancing the color temperature for the indoor store lights, the subject went orange/green. When balancing for the sidewalk lights, the subject went too red. In manually selecting a color temperature we were able to keep the subject true to color, as well as keeping the red toning from the sidewalk lights.
Want to learn more about shooting in mixed light? Read our blog post:
4 Solutions For Mixed Lighting
Setting IN camera or IN POST
To make post production faster, you'd ideally set this in camera, however, software like Lightroom makes it extremely easy to change your white balance after the fact, especially if you are shooting RAW. When shooting RAW, you'll have several preset options you can choose in Lightroom. If you are importing a JPG, you'll only have 2 options.
Options when shooting RAW on left, when shooting JPG on right.
White balance, when you understand it, can be a really great tool for photographers. Best of all, if set while shooting, it can help speed up post production time. Is there a time when you used a custom white balance to stylize a scene? Let us know in the comments below!