Trevor Waldron
Trevor Waldron

What is White Balance, and what use is it?

For many the White Balance control on a digital camera (DSLR) is one of those irritating under-the-bonnet thingies that's best ignored. For others it's an essential feature to achieve realism with anything from a wild landscape to a close portrait, or ultimately a creative tool to enhance the ’mood ’ of an image

So what does it do?

White balance lets the photographer shoot a sheet of white paper and have it look white in the finished image. Basic maybe, but essential because a white surface will pick up the colour of prevailing light - when the sky is blue, white paper will look pale blue and photograph that way

What’s wrong with that?

Well not only white objects get tainted by the blue, but all the colours of a scene or a subject. Colours ultimately have an emotional effect - blue makes things look ’cold’. That can kill the glow of a golden autumn, or turn a beige limestone crag into a lifeless grey slab.

Camera control - white balance set to cloudys

Why don’t we see it like that?

Actually we do, but the human eye corrects for it. We know paper is white, so even if it looks blue our cognition system compensates. Similarly at home in the evening, light from an incandescent or tungsten lamp is actually yellow - even if it seems white - which makes subjects look muddy when photographed.

So how does White Balance fix it?

Digital cameras detect a prevailing colour cast and correct it by adding a complementary colour. Rather similar to slide film users who have to assess colour balance themselves then use a coloured filter to correct for it. By the way RAW file users prefer to handle the image exactly as it was captured, then use software to refine white balance.

That’s it?

Not quite! Firstly, I might want a frosty scene to look even bluer so it looks really cold, or to shift a weak sunset to a warmer colour. That’s where we can take charge as photographers and make our own settings rather than leave our very smart camera to do what it thinks best - which may not be what we want at all.

Camera control - white balance set to tungsten

You may need to adjust the white balance or any colour cast. More often than not you will probably want to sharpen your image or remove dust and dirt spots. Lastly, and certainly not least, cropping an image can dramatically alter the final impact of your photo.

How can I control White Balance?

Typically via a dedicated white balance button and control wheel, or via a menu. Usually there are presets for typical light conditions - sunny, cloudy or shade when outdoors; tungsten, fluorescent or flash for indoors. The photographer simply makes the appropriate setting based on prevailing light conditions to achieve valuable creative control of coloration and mood. Alternatively fine-tuning can be done with a ’custom’ setting which lets the photographer take a test shot of a neutral grey card so that the camera can assess the colour of prevailing light. Further, many cameras have a ’colour temperature’ setting - to give a warmer or cooler look. But the great thing is that the effects can clearly be seen on the camera viewing screen or after downloading.

How can I learn more?

Just look up White Balance in the camera’s user guide if you’re not familiar with it. Then play. Seriously, take a bunch of shots using different settings in different light conditions, and carefully review them. See what setting gives which results, and look especially for the qualities of warmth and coolness mentioned above. Also of course there are some great short workshops, including my own, which explain key camera controls and the creative use of light and colour, as well as providing the opportunity to experiment and learn with guidance. Meanwhile, have fun checking your balance!

© Trevor Waldron