White Balancing Your Photos To Get Real Colors
Our brain has a way of playing tricks on us. The eye may do the seeing, but it’s our brain that interprets that data. And sometimes it gets it all wrong. In low light, the brain likes to fill in missing details, making you believe that something is there, when it’s really not. Sometimes the spaces painted different colors may appear to be different when they’re actually not. And the way our brain tries to understand moving objects is far from perfect. As photographers, possibly the most annoying trick that our brain likes to play is that it makes us believe that blue or yellow is really white.
What is White?
What we see and what our camera records is based entirely on available light. Surfaces – regardless of their color – is reflected differently under different colors of light. And so a “white” paint chip will look very different under different light sources. Some light sources may not even contain the right colors in order to be reflected. And so we need to compensate for that when we are shooting, or at least when we are processing our photos. So perhaps we should better understand what white light truly is. Unfortunately, white isn’t so clearly defined in the world of light.
We measure the color of light – or more accurately the color temperature of light – using the Kelvin scale. “White” light is actually a whole range of light within that scale ranging from 2,700 – 10,000 K. Now that’s a bit hard to conceptualize, so for illustration I blatantly ripped the tag off of a light bulb package featuring the new standardized label from the LED Lighting Facts program, which can be seen here at right. “Warm White” is a narrow band of light between 2,700 and 3,000 Kelvin. “Neutral White” (or what the lamp manufacturers like to call “Bright White”) is between 3,000 K and 4,500 K. “Cool White” is a very wide band ranging from 4,5000 K to 10,000 K (and you will note the tag is deficient). Some of you are probably surprised to see that daylight is, in fact, a “Cool White” light.
I wish I could say that only the color of the light was all that mattered. That would surely make this much simpler. But as much of our light is reflected, it can also acquire colors from those surfaces. Most often, this falls along the green to magenta access of the color circle and is most often referred to as “Tint”. So in order to truly balance a photograph, we will need to adjust both the color temperature and the tint.
So why does this matter? It matters because anything within that range of light could be seen by the human eye as “White” under the right circumstances. A white sheet of paper will be translated to your brain as white in warm white, cool white and anything in between. In other words, your brain is automatically making white balance adjustments on the fly. Pretty awesome, isn’t it? But that’s really our problem, because our camera doesn’t see it that way. If you take a photograph using automatic white balance in broad daylight – even an overcast day – you will notice that it has a bluish cast when you go to look at it in post. Many people – even those who have been photographing for years – falsely believe that their electronics have a blue biased. That’s technically a misnomer. In truth, it’s just not seeing the light the same way that your brain interprets the light. Of course the real problem is that our photos are not being seen in the same sort of light in which the photograph was taken, and so we need to overcompensate for that fact when we process our images. So let’s figure out how to fix it.
White Balancing Basics
First and foremost, you must realize that we cannot trust any single component in our processing chain. We can change the white balance before we even take the picture on our cameras. Our monitors are going to have a color bias as well, sometimes varying between manufacturers or even within the same product line. And the printer surely isn’t going to reproduce the colors as you, your camera or your monitor represents it. The solution is to calibrate everything. There are many products out on the market that help you do just that. Some are designed to get a neutral white balance at the time you take the photograph. Some help you calibrate your monitor so what you’re looking at is a true representation of color, allowing you to adjust accordingly. There are even products designed to eliminate the need to pre-balance your camera at all. And finally, printer manufacturers profile their printers so that at least your exported photos will match what you see on your screen. At the very least, you should consider some sort of color correction tool for your monitor so at least you can be sure that what you see is accurate. For the balance of this article, I am going to assume that you have done this at least.
[Editor's Note: We can't reveal too much right now, but we are currently reviewing some of these products and you can expect to see them in coming weeks.]
Next, we need to know what to adjust. There are two components that you’ll need to tweak: Color Temperature (“Temp”) and the Color Tint (“Tint”). The human eye is far more sensitive to blues, so don’t be surprised to find that you may make some drastic adjustments using the Temp slider. On the other hand, the adjustments you make using the Tint slider are going to be fairly subtle. I’ll be using Lightroom (and a somewhat dated version at that) in my demonstration here. But it’s important to note that while the actual process may vary, you can carry these principals into just about any photo editing program.
How I White Balance
As with all of my demonstrations, I preface by stating that my process is just one of many ways. You may find my process appropriate for your needs. You may need to tweak. But again, there are other ways to go about doing this, I am just illustrating using my own process. Moving on…
Step 1: Adjust Exposure
Exposure in and of itself is not directly related to white balance. But dialing in your exposure will help you to visualize how the white balance affects your image. Remember, exposure is a matter of preference (there is no single perfect exposure), so the idea is just to get it close to where you want it to tell your story. You may need to readjust later, so don’t get carried away with it at this point. The shot shown here at right is the photo we’ll use for our demonstration. This is how it came direct from camera. I’m happy with the exposure as I shot it, so I won’t be making any adjustments at this point. For the record, the camera was set to use Auto White Balance (AWB), which is common for when I’m shooting on the street. The camera chose 4750 for the Temp and +9 for the Tint. I think the tint is pretty close, but the color looks a little blue, in my opinion.
Step 2: Adjust Color Temperature
As I mentioned, our eyes are most sensitive to blue light. So adjusting for color temperature is a good place to start. I think the designers at Adobe agree because in the White Balance section in Lightroom, Temp is listed first. But I digress. Sometimes, your camera gets it right. You may tweak a little and decide that you need to revert back to the original setting. But I personally find that most of the time, I need to adjust accordingly. When shooting inside, I find that my shots are too warm and I slide towards the blue. Outdoors, it’s the opposite. In this case, the shot was taken under an overcast sky. I find that clouds eat a lot of the warm light, so I find myself sliding farther towards the yellow end of the spectrum. I adjust mostly by increments of 500. The Kelvin scale is so broad that if you’re off by 50 K or so, you won’t notice it. Of course some scenes may require finer adjustments, but again…the 500 K increment is a great place to start.
Step 3: Adjust Tint
Tint is sometimes very difficult to dial in. Personally, I find myself making very subtle adjustments in tint. Many times, I find that I don’t make any adjustments. I generally try to use tint to correct for obvious problem spots. When shooting architecture, like I am here, tint anomalies will be more obvious in the neutral colored facades. In my photo, I feel that the stone on the building in the background has a slightly greenish cast. However, my adjustments were fairly small. I only increased the Tint by +6. If your shooting something very specific and colorful, like flowers, you may find that your Tint adjustments are more dramatic. So the example here is where we stand right now: 6,200 K and +15 Tint.
Step 4: You’re Not Done
White Balancing will change your perception of your photos. So you can expect some give and take in your editing (this is always the case). Remember at the beginning where I was happy with the exposure? Well I decided I wasn’t after I balanced the shot. My adjustment was minimal, only about +0.20. That may seem like splitting hairs, but I felt that after white balancing, it was a necessary tweak to bring out more of the detail in those windows in the background. If it wasn’t overcast and the sky was nice and blue, this may not have been necessary. Of course you’ll want to go down all of your Tone settings (Exposure, Fill Light, Blacks, etc) and tweak as necessary. And don’t be surprised if you’re going back to tweak the White Balance as well. It’s all hand-in-hand.
What About Auto Settings?
Automatic settings are, as always, a great place to start. But you shouldn’t depend on them. Auto is not perfect and it won’t always get colors entirely accurate. But aside from that, Auto does not take into consideration your own style. I tend to keep my photos a little cooler than the automatic presets want. So I am always tweaking. That said, if you want to warm up a shot, one of the simplest and easiest ways to do it is to use a Daylight or Cloudy preset.
You may have an eye dropper icon somewhere in your software (Lightroom has it, as does Photoshop). Sometimes you have three options: Black, White and Medium Grey. These are quick-select options and they work very well. There is a prerequisite, however: You need to have a known color within the shot. This works very well with white balancing cards or similar systems (there are many great products on the market). When you’re shooting in a studio, there’s no reason not to utilize such a system. But it’s not convenient – or even feasible – if you’re shooting out in the wild like I often do.
Final Thoughts (This is only a base)
I like to start with White Balance. It is the canvas for the rest of your work. But even where I left off above is nowhere close to where I want to end up. In my finished image, I have cropped out the edge of the building on the right, I boosted the Clarity, I introduced some minimal vignetting and I even used a Graduated Filter to reduce some of the aforementioned Clarity within the meadow area in the foreground. I even used some split toning to get more of a reddish hue for that building in the background. Try as I might, I wasn’t too happy with controlling it just by White Balance. I found that I was much happier tweaking for only the highlights, and split toning was the way to go there. But that’s a discussion for another day, perhaps. In the end, my photo will look like this one at right.
I’m taking more of a realism approach here. Some may choose to go more of a Lomography approach where they may intentionally go off balance with their White Balancing. It’s all subjective and you are the artist, so you can do what you want. My technique is simply a basis for your work.