Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What the ... White Balance?

What the ... White Balance? | Boost Your Photography

White balance is an often-overlooked aspect of photography. Many, many of us are guilty of simply adopting a "set it and forget it" approach to white balance, relying on auto white balance and our camera's ability to interpret a scene and choose an appropriate white balance. For many situations, your camera's auto white balance will do a decent job. But if you really want full creative control over your photograph, it is important to understand white balance and how to use it to truly capture the photograph that you are after.

What is White Balance?

We tend to think of light as white, even though we have all seen the science demonstration of a prism and how white light is actually the full rainbow of colors. Our eyes look at a white piece of paper, and we see it as white, whether we are standing outside in full sun, in dappled shade, or indoors under fluorescent tube lights. Our cameras, however, are less flexible.

If you take a photograph of a white piece of paper, you may find that it looks white in daylight, blue in the shade, and yellow indoors. This difference is referred to the 'color temperature' of the light, and it is measured in K or Kelvins. If you want the whites in your photograph to look white, then you need to shoot with a white balance that matches the situation of the photograph.

Canon has several different white balance options, other than Auto: Daylight (5200K), Cloudy (6000K), Shade (7000K), Tungsten (3200K), Fluorecent (4000K), Flash, and Custom. The photograph above demonstrates what each of these different white balance options look like for a single photograph.

(Quick aside: if you shoot in JPEG, white balance is an unchangeable part of the final image file. If you shoot in RAW, however, the RAW file contains information that allows you to use software, like Photoshop, to change the white balance in post-processing, while still maintaining all the original information recorded for the photograph. The sunset photograph above is a composite of all the white balance options from a single RAW file.)

Cloudy white balance works well for sunset shots.
The cloudy and shade white balance settings are considered "warmer" than daylight or tungsten, which means that they tend to bring out more orange and yellow tones in a photograph. Cloudy and shade settings can work extremely well during the 'Golden Hour,' the approximately hour-long period before-and-after sunrise and sunset, when the sun rays lend a much more golden tone to the morning or evening light. The cloudy setting is also popular with landscape photographs, as it can add a golden tone to non-golden hour photographs. Read a few landscape photography books, and you will find that many well-known landscape photographers use cloudy as their default white balance setting.

Indoor White Balance

White balance can also make a huge difference with your indoor photographs. Common sources of indoor lighting (halogens, compact fluorescents, etc.) do not contain the full spectrum of white light, like sunlight, and often impart an awkward yellow tone to indoor photographs. Knowing the type of lighting you are using allows you to choose an appropriate white balance setting, like fluorescent, to compensate for this issue.

Use White Balance to Correct for Color Cast | Boost Your Photography
Get the how to on this shot: Fizzy Photography

Think about the lighting for the particular scene you are photographing, and consider changing your white balance to match the scene at hand. Shooting indoors? Consider fluorescent. Using your on-camera flash? Consider flash. Shooting a sunrise, sunset, or other scene with golden tones? Consider cloudy or shade. Better yet? Consider shooting in RAW and adjusting your white balance to your preference.

Want to get your white balance exact? You can use a gray card to set the white balance manually. If there is enough interest, you can expect a future post on the topic of custom white balances.

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