Understanding Digital Cameras white Balance

I don’t intend to dig deeply into color theory in this article on the theory of digital camera’s white balance; there are semester-long classes at the university for that, so we will need to take some things at face value. However, we need to understand that light – any light – has a color cast to it. We prefer the color cast of daylight, and we tend to use this as a standard.

We prefer the color cast of daylight (5500 degrees Kalvin) and we tend to use this as a standard.

What is White Balance?

The next thing we need to know is that the very best white balance tool in the world is between our ears. Our eyes look at scenes under various light colors, yet our brains quickly adjust the information to make whites white and gray. For example, I am under fluorescent lighting looking at a white sheet of paper right now. I know that the fluorescent lights have a greenish color cast and this piece of paper appears slightly light olive under them. However, my brain filters out that color cast, and the paper is snow white.

Color of paper
When we look at a white piece of paper in any light condition, our brains fool us into thinking it is pure white but in reality is can be many shades of white.

In each of these lightbulbs, there is a different color of light, from warm to cool.  We expect no less white balance magic from our cameras when it comes to the pictures we take.

The color of light

The same image can look different depending on the White Balance setting.  There are two simple ways to tackle the white balance problem when shooting a picture. The first is to leave the DSLR camera in its factory set AWB setting, which stands for ‘Auto White Balance.’ Engineers who know a lot about white balance have programmed the camera to handle the problem with decent efficiency.

The second way to attack color cast caused by off-color light is to overpower it with pure white light, such as flash. Therefore, the camera flash has been designed to produce light recorded as white.

Use studio flash to set color of light
We all prefer the natural color of daylight. Studio lighting is designed to recreate natural daylight.

So we have two simple techniques to help prevent a poor color cast in our images. And the first technique requires that you do nothing, leave the camera set as it came from the factory; how simple is that?  If it were that easy and automatic, this would be a short article, wouldn’t it? Then it should come as no surprise that the simple methods don’t always work that well. The AWB settings programmed into your camera are best guesses made by brilliant people who never have to shoot a picture in your specific living room.

The flash in your camera loses its ability to overpower badly colored room lighting as the distance between the camera and the subject increases. The clean white flashlight is overpowering for only about four to seven feet, with most built-n flashes on DSLRs or any compact camera.

At this point, we can stop and catch our breath as we get a feeling for the digital camera’s white balance functionality. But, of course, when it comes to the 90% of people shooting family pictures in their living room, well, they don’t care if colors are ever so slightly off in their photographs. But what if you are picky, or the event is essential, or if you intend to show off your pictures? How do you overcome white balance problems?

There are several white balance settings on many compact and all DSLR cameras to choose between. In addition, there are settings for incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, shady spots, cloudy days, camera flash, and more.

If AWB is automatic, these other white balance settings are semi-automatic. The photographer must choose to use these alternate settings, but a different set of program instructions is in charge after that. White balance issues are controlled automatically but biased for the specific situation.

The first step toward better colors in your pictures is using these alternate white balance settings. There is a word of caution, though; these settings don’t automatically revert to AWB after turning off the camera. The photographer must know what white balance setting is being used, or there will be a problem. Usually, what happens is that the last time the camera was set for incandescent lights and not changed back to AWB, now outside on a sunny day, all of the pictures are blue! So use the alternate white balance settings but learn what your camera tells you on its LCD screen!

A significant advantage in white balance control is the DSLR group of cameras. With the more advanced digital cameras white balance controls available in a DSLR, the photographer can easily create and use their white balance setting. In addition, tools such as white balance lens caps or filters, white or gray cards, and even three-dimensional control targets allow the DSLR photographer quick access to a better white balance setup.

Now here is the thing about white balance control ‘you have to want to do it. It is always an extra step or two before shooting and post-processing. However, the results can significantly improve color, especially skin tone. When whites sparkle, people’s eyes look more precise and sharper in a photo. Wedding dresses look snowy rather than dingy. Colors in the surrounding environment look crisp and not muddy.

Learning to exercise control over a digital camera’s white balance is an intermediate skill; it isn’t challenging to master, and it will improve your images noticeably. If you are a compact camera shooter, learn to use your camera’s built-in alternate white balance modes. If you are a DSLR shooter, do the same and learn how to use a white balance target or set a custom white balance with a WB lens cap or filter. AWB auto white balance is pretty good, but it only takes a little effort to take a step toward spectacular.

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