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Nailing White Balance

by Brooke Tasovac (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     

In a previous article we've discussed how to set the white balance on your camera to suit the type of light you're working in. If you've never heard of white balance before, or have never attempted to change the white balance setting from Auto on your camera, read this article first for an introduction to white balance.

If you understand how to change your white balance and want to learn to get better results with white balance every time you shoot, this article will explain how to go beyond the Auto or built in white balance presets, and nail white balance in camera using the custom setting, and in post-production using editing software. It's always best to get correct white balance in camera first if possible, rather than spending hours at the computer later, trying to fix it.

The situations when you're most likely to need to use custom white balance are:
- When you're shooting people and their skin tones aren't appearing neutral and look washed out, greyish or sallow instead
- Whenever there is something in the frame causing a colour cast that you can't remove, such as a wall paint colour or the colour of someone's clothing
- When working in any situation where the light is uneven across the scene (often indoors)
- When working with contrasting tones such as a white wedding dress and a black suit

By setting your custom white balance in these situations before you start shooting you'll be able to get consistent white balance across a wide range of photos. The exact method to set custom white balance differs between cameras but generally involves holding a white card or object in the frame, taking a photo and saving this as the setting. Be sure to hold the white card or object over the area or focal point that the camera will be focused on, because the light may vary throughout the location you are working in.

Some photographers like to have even more control than this and choose the number of degrees Kelvin in camera before they start shooting.

Degrees Kelvin is a measurement system for colour temperature, from warm to cold, starting at 1,700 degrees Kelvin for match light (warm light) and 10,000 degrees Kelvin for dark shade (cool light). Most SLR cameras allow photographers to choose the number of degrees Kelvin they would like, but it isn't really necessary because using custom white balance is usually enough to get a correct representation of colour temperature.

However, understanding degrees Kelvin becomes more important when editing RAW files after shooting, especially when you've taken a series of photos with an incorrect white balance setting and need to fix them.

In this instance you can use ACR (Adobe Camera RAW program) or Adobe Lightroom to tweak the white balance before saving the final version of the photos.

You move a temperature slider bar from the point at which the camera recorded the white balance (in the metadata) to the point at which the white balance appears more even and one colour isn't dominant. In the photo above, the yellow tones of the indoor lighting are dominating the photo, and the white balance would be best adjusted to add some cooler tones, by moving the slider bar to the left.

While most photographers tweak white balance after a shoot to get a more accurate colour temperature, some people like to use the white balance slider in post production for creative effect, which can be seen in the images below.

By selecting different white balance settings for each photo, each one has a very different look in terms of the colours. Generally photographers want a realistic look and will choose their white balance with this in mind, but some like to play up tones and hues for artistic reasons. For example, a photographer who wants to override cold light in photos taken at an indoor church wedding to get cleaner skin will choose very different settings to a photographer who wants to accentuate the warm, rusty colours in a photograph of trees and leaves in autumn. It all depends on what on what you're trying to achieve.

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