Tech of the month: White Balance

This month, I want to work on getting the color cast of my images right from the start, and as always, I invite you to learn with me. Go to the end of this post to read how you can participate in this month’s photo blogging event. The event is open to any type of digital photographer from iPhone to DSLR!

Morning light is more yellow than the bright sky at noon, and late afternoon light may have a reddish touch to it. A white object will look different on a cloudy day than on a sunny day, and neon lights may give it a blueish cast. Thinking about white balance means thinking about how we want to show these colors in a jpeg image or on a print. Choosing to correct for the shade or temperature of the light or not is a creative choice and will impact the look of our images.

In some situations, we might want a subject that we know to be white to also look really white on our images. Say we want to present a product or think of snow maybe.


Manual white balance, Olympus OM-D EM10 with Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II R @ 14mm (28mm equivalent), F3.5, 1/60

I took the image above for our post about the Magnum Contact Sheets exhibition in Berlin with the goal to represent colors as close as possible to the conditions inside the gallery. To achieve this, I worked on the white balance for this picture. I also used a manual white balance to photograph the first snow we had this winter.

Snow, inspired by Van Gogh's almond blossom images and captured with manual white balance setting - Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm (90mm equivalent) prime lens, f2.8, 1/2500

Snow, inspired by Van Gogh’s almond blossom images and captured with manual white balance setting – Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm (90mm equivalent) prime lens, f2.8, 1/2500

Setting the white balance is equivalent to telling the camera, hey, look, this is white. Most of the time, we do not need to do this and using the automatic white balance will work just fine. To first order, using the automatic setting is equivalent to telling the camera that the brightest spot in the image is white.

A pub in Amsterdam - Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm/F1.8 @ 45mm (90mm equivalent), F1.8, 1/80 and automatic white balance

A pub in Amsterdam – Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm/F1.8 @ 45mm (90mm equivalent), F1.8, 1/80 and automatic white balance

Above is an example for an image where automatic white balance works well. In daylight, the exterior of this little pub in Amsterdam is white, as is the bright part of the Heineken sign. At night, the pub is illuminated by a soft yellowish light and the Heineken sign is turned on too. Since the Heineken sign is brighter than the wall, the camera has decided that the white in the sign is white and the other is not. The result is a pleasing image that truly captures the warmth of the light shining on this pub. It works as an image because we all know the effect of light bulbs on a white wall at night. If we were all aliens from a planet with multiple suns and had no idea about artificial light, this image would probably make us believe that the wall of this pub was yellow.

If the Heineken sign had not been there, the pub itself may have been the brightest part of the image and the camera would have tried to compensate its yellow cast. This would not have been the effect I wanted, and I would have had to something against it. The same may happen when you photograph during sunrise or sunset: you will probably not want to compensate for the nice colors that are produced by the light of the low sun. Nearly monochromatic images are another case where you might want to do something about the white balance. In an image with very cold colors, the automatic white balance might try to make the image warmer and vice versa – probably not want you wanted if you were attracted by the shades of the color in the first place.

In most cameras, there is a menu item called WB that will grant you access to the white balance settings. Many cameras have a number of readymade white balance settings for different situations from sunny weather to fluorescent indoor light, usually denoted with little pictograms like light bulbs and suns. In my camera, depending on which of these programs I choose, I end up with a completely different image.

Below is a photo gallery featuring images of an assembly of mostly red items, all taken with the same camera (Olympus OM-D EM10 with Panasonic Lumix 20mm/F1.7) but using different white balance settings. A slide show will open if you click one of the images. The light is a mixture of incandescent indoor light and warm candle light.

The first picture was taken with automatic white balance and the next six were all taken with different settings provided by the camera. Among these, the image taken with the setting for incandescent light is the one that most truly represents the colors of the items in this picture. From a creative point of view, it is not the most pleasing however. The last image was taken with manual or locked white balance.

Manual white balance is set by recording an image under the same light conditions but with a white object inside the image. If your camera allows, you can store the automatic white balance settings calculated for this image and use them to take the next image without the white object. Professional photographers carry special cards to do this, I use a postcard instead.

I invite you to try using white balance too. All you need to do is to take a photo using a white balance setting of your creative choice, write a post that includes the image and a little explanation about what you did and create a pingback to this article. If you like, you can also leave a link to your post in the comments section. Your post can be about anything you like – make it all about white balance or include your image in another post as you like. iPhone users can check out this article to learn what they can do with their cameras. Submissions are accepted until January 31, 2015.

A diamond maker in Amsterdam - Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm/F1.8 prime lens @ 45mm (90mm equivalent) F2.5, 1/15, manual white balance

A diamond maker in Amsterdam – Olympus OM-D EM10 with M.Zuiko 45mm/F1.8 prime lens @ 45mm (90mm equivalent) F2.5, 1/15, manual white balance

More photography on perelincolors:

Tech of the month: Aperture priority and depth of field
Tech of the month: Focus
Akiba Contact Sheets
Books we like: Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography

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13 thoughts on “Tech of the month: White Balance

  1. justmytravelblog

    Very informative post, great work – white balance is a great pleasure to play with in the digital space – do you shoot RAW? I find these days I prefer to set a neutral fixed white balance and then bulk correct/adjust in Adobe Camera Raw when processing images but it can also be fun playing around with the presets to create unique exposures.


  2. Gen

    So interesting and educational! I’d heard about white balance but paid it no attention. Thank you so much for sharing! Your photos are beautifully resplendent.


  3. twinbutterfly

    I love your ‘Tech of the Month’ series – all posts are very inspiring and have great tips. My favourite part is that you are sharing your skills and knowledge while you are still learning the craft yourself – it’s a very refreshing and engaging concept.

    I’ve always been very snap-happy and last year decided to do something about learning the more ‘techie’ ins and outs through an online photography enthusiasts’ course, rather than continue to rely on my (admittedly really quite awesome) camera’s auto settings. Your posts help validate what I’ve learned so far, and provide even further inspiration as I continue learning.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sprytely50

    Many Thanks for the tip. I will have to investigate what settings my Sony H50 has. I ****rarely**** remember to check this when I shoot. Shame on me!! (OK it`s on Auto.)


  5. Pingback: Abruzzo Road Trip: Campo Imperatore | perelincolors

  6. Pingback: Tech of the month: Panoramas | perelincolors

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