6 : White Balance


The Color of Light

Photography often requires us to make the best of whatever light is available, even if it’s not ideal. Depending on the light, you may find that your images have an unwanted color cast. The most common example of this is tungsten or incandescent lighting, which is given off by common household light bulbs. When illuminated by this kind of light, images will take on an unnaturally orange color. This lighting problem, along with color casts from other light sources, can be corrected by adjusting your camera’s white balance settings. This week, you'll be taking your camera off Auto White Balance to practice shooting in many different lighting conditions: indoor, outdoor, sun, shade, artificial light, flash and/or florescent. 

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The standard settings for all cameras are illustrated above. The purpose of each setting is to balance out an existing color cast. The “shade” setting, for example, adds yellow to your picture. Shooting in the shade would typically result in a blue-ish image, so the yellow compensates for the blue, ultimately showing whites as they are. Fluorescent lights create a greenish cast, which is neutralized with added magenta when the white balance is set to "fluorescent". The “Auto” setting works by analyzing all the colors in an image and determining an average white balance. The drawback is that this method can be unreliable in situations where there is extreme lighting or no actual white for the camera to use as a reference.


Kelvin is the measurement of color temperature. Kelvin is the proper name for how “warm” or “cold” something appears based on the light it emits or reflects. Its not as complicated as it sounds! In addition to presets that adjust Kelvin for “Shade”, “Sun”, “Light bulbs”, many cameras offer the ability to set the white balance manually using a numerical amount. Light that is warm and glowing, such as candlelight, requires a low Kelvin setting. Light that is cool such as in the dark shade of a building, requires a higher Kelvin number. With a bit of practice, setting the temperature is as easy as the turn of a dial and results in even greater control over your white balance.

Note: Not all cameras offer a Kelvin white balance setting. If yours does, you'll see it as one of the white balance options in your camera's menu. It's represented as a "K".

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  • There are occasions when choosing the “wrong” white balance can actually enhance the artistry of your image. Over-emphasizing the warm or cool tones of your shot can give it drama. Instead of trying to balance the temperature with your white balance settings, the photographer can chose to purposely exaggerate them. If you're already comfortable with adjusting your camera's white balance setting, take your knowledge further by breaking the rules for an artistic effect. 

Creative Prompts

  • Photograph a person at night in a room lit with normal household lightbulbs. Can you get skin tones that aren't orange?
  • Add warmth to a shot taken at sunset by using your Kelvin settings.
  • Find a building with sides in both direct sunlight and full shade. Shoot against both sides and compare results.

Share your images!

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