Photography 101 – White, white, baby…

No, that’s not a reference to Jim Carrey’s Saturday Night Live performance of Vanilla Ice’s timeless classic…

I’m talking about White Balance.

Now, to those of you who know little or nothing about filming or photography (don’t worry, that’s nothing to be ashamed about – I was once there too!), this means absolutely nothing. So this is where I’m going to start this guide from – the absolute basics!

Colour Temperature Scale borrowed from the Media College website
Colour Temperature ChartIgnore the numbers on the left hand side of that image for now- that kind of information is really more for professionals, and isn’t something that the rest of us need to focus on. Instead, check out the coloured bar and the labels next to it.

This is what white balance is all about.

My explanation may not be technically correct (so apologies to any who plan on screaming at me that it’s wrong), but I’m just going to try and explain this as simply as possible without getting technical so that anyone can understand this.

All light has a temperature/colour, which casts a tint over what you see. Early morning and late afternoon tend to cast a dull, yellowy tint, and your average indoor house light or lamp has a horrid orange glow (those of you who have shot in this lighting will be all to familiar with the orange colour it casts through the photo).

According to the chart, the best time of day to shoot is a little after lunch – I try and do any photographing between the hours of roughly 1 and 3 (depending on weather and season), as this is generally when you have ‘white light’, or light that just highlights without adding much in the way of a colour tint over what you see/photograph. However, this doesn’t always pan out – it may be a rainy and overcast day, or I haven’t cooked something that can wait to be photographed at that time. What then?

This is when our cameras white balance function comes into play.

Most, if not all, point-and-shoot digital cameras come with at least 4 different white balance options – AWB (Auto White Balance), Sunlight, Cloudy and Tungsten. However, many cameras also have a 5th option, something that you will come to absolutely love – CWB (Custom White Balance). You can use the custom option to ‘show’ your camera what the colour white (and white objects) look like in the lighting that you are currently under, and it will try to adjust all the colours accordingly, to try and make the scene look as realistic as possible!

YAY! Well, it sounds YAY in theory… but in reality, it’s not perfect (and really, is anything?). To illustrate how each of these settings works, I’ve taken the following shots for you.

All shots were taken in a dim indoor room with mediocre tungsten overhead lights. In the shots is a plain little apple on a piece of white cardboard.

Indoor shot, under lights with daylight white balance setting Sunlight setting Indoor shot, under lights with Tungsten white balance setting Tungsten setting
Indoor shot, under lights with cloudy white balance setting Cloudy setting Indoor shot, under lights with AutoWhiteBalance white balance setting Auto White Balance setting
Indoor shot, under lights with Fluorescent white balance setting Fluorescent setting Indoor shot, under lights with CustomWhiteBalance white balance setting Custom White Balance setting

Now, you can see that while the Tungsten & Fluorescent settings comes close, it is the Auto White Balance and Custom White Balance shots that come the closest to establishing a nice, neutral white tone to the background and colour. Whilst the Auto White Balance shot is brighter, the Custom White Balance has the best balance of neutral white tone and realistic colours.

(Bear in mind that I do realize that its a rather crap shot – there’s quite a few other things on functions on the camera that need to be fiddled with to get the best shot, but I’m only focusing on white balance and not touching anything else so that we can see just what each function does).

Since I don’t know what model camera you’re using, I can’t tell you how exactly to use the custom white balance function – you will have to refer to your cameras operating/user manual for that. However, what you will definitely need in order to set your custom white balance is a piece of white cardboard – for example, the back of a white business card.

Not quite a business card...
Or, in my case, my public transport ticket!

Ideally, you would have a white balance card specially made for photographers at (if memory serves me correctly) 18% grey – but these guides are meant to be working with what you have, so as long as you have a bright, white piece of cardboard, you should be fine. Bear in mind that any colour in the white (e.g. if it is off-white like mine and not pure white) will cast that colour throughout the picture, so just try and carry a bright white one in your wallet so its on you at all times! Otherwise, be prepared to sit down and spend some time learning post-production (aka photoshop/photo editing) skills :P

Now, if you don’t have the ability to set a custom white balance, unfortunately you will have to work with either the auto white balance or other presets, taking a photo with each different setting to try and find the most neutral/natural one for that particular situation. However, don’t fret too much about getting it absolutely perfect, as when we get to the post-production guides in a few week’s time, I’ll show you how to take an image like that custom white balance apple, and turn it into…

Ta-da!

this! :D Quite a bit of difference, huh? Not perfect – but from the original to this in less than a few minutes isn’t too shabby :)

If you’ve got any questions, requests, or found this helpful, then please let me know in the comments so I can get your feedback for the following guides!

Also, if you enjoyed reading this and think that your own readers/community members/friends would benefit from this and the upcoming guides, spread the word and point ‘em in this direction :) I’ll do my best to keep these as clear, simple and easy-to-understand as possible!

Come back next week for a guide on how to manage bright/dull light and exposure :)

[tags]photography, beginner, white balance, cameras, point and shoot, guides[/tags]

Comments

  1. Very cool! I just found your site and am reading at work. I wish my camera wasn’t at home!

  2. :lol: You are a godsend! I can see my frustration level is going to dramatically go down after these readings

  3. Hi, I’m going to Australia — Melbourne, actually — so I bought a point and shoot today, as I think carrying my DSLR is going to be impractical. So glad to find your tutorial so I can get good food shots Down Under. Even thought the point and shoots I have have much higher pixels than my old 6 pixel DSLR, the pics come out grainy. I hope to learn some tips from you. Thank you!

  4. @marguerite – Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you’ve found this information helpful :) Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment and let me know :)

    @tasteofbeirut – Aww shucks! :) I’m just glad that others are able to benefit from the information I’ve had to learn myself :)

    @Ninette – The grainy pictures are probably an issue stemming from a combination of high ISO and the larger pixel count on the smaller sensor (point and shoots generally have far smaller sensors than dSLRs). I hope that you’ve managed to sort out this issue from my ISO post :)

  5. Thanks so much for your help! You explain things in such a nice conversational way.

    AND I just located the AWB setting and I can’t wait to try it out and hopefully improve my photography. Thanks!

  6. My pleasure! I hope my tips come in handy for you :)

  7. I have just started to try my hand at food photography – and my pics have been turning out like your beef strog – 4 months in photo. But after reading just this first lesson I have already learnt something and can’t to read more. Thank you so much!

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