Master White Balance Like a Pro
White Balance… Probably one of the most feared topics amongst beginning photographers. A topic many avoids, yet an important topic in order to improve your landscape photography. I know you might find this topic scary, so I’ll keep this article as simple as possible.
Just like many of you, it took me a long time until I first dared look into the topic of White Balance. I would just leave it on automatic (AWB/ Auto White Balance) and not worry more about it. It took me years before I began experiencing with the White Balance and the first results were horrible! Why? Because I had no idea what I was doing.
You wouldn’t build a house without knowing anything about carpentry, would you?
I quickly built up some courage and began reading about the topic and I quickly realized it wasn’t nearly as scary (or difficult) as I thought. In fact, it was pretty straight forward and it didn’t take long until I saw a drastic improvement in my RAW files.
Since you can adjust the White Balance in post production (at least if you use the RAW format) it’s not essential that you get it correct in the camera. However, I’m a strong believer in making the image look as good as possible SOOC (Straight out of the Camera) and I believe it’s important to fully understand your camera. Lets talk a little about what White Balance is and how you can use it to improve your landscape photography.
Let’s look at what White Balance is and how you can use it to improve your landscape photography:
What is White Balance?
In very simple words: White Balance controls the overall color cast/color balance of your image. That wasn’t hard, was it?
I promised to keep this article simple but we do need to get a little more technical for you to really understand what White Balance is and how you can use it to improve your photography.
The actual color (temperature) of light is extremely variable. The human eye constantly adjusts how we perceive light, actually, the fact that we don’t see the heavy colourcast is quite incredible. A camera, however, does not perceive light in the same way we do. This is why we need to adjust the White Balance accordingly to the light that surrounds us. I bet you have taken pictures inside that turns out to be more or less orange. You don’t necessarily notice the orange temperature with your eyes but the camera does.
Adjusting the White Balance is done differently from camera to camera. While most settings are similar, I suggest you look in your camera’s manual to see specifically how it’s done in your model.
Preset White Balance Modes
Most cameras have seven preset White Balance modes plus manual mode. Using one of these presets will be fine for the majority of the scenarios you’re in. Still, as I mentioned, I believe understanding how it works is important if you wish to take your photography to the next level. That doesn’t mean that I don’t use these preset settings myself.
In fact, I recommend exploring the preset modes before jumping into the manual mode as it is a great way to learn how the different White Balances impact an image.
Auto White Balance (AWB)
The camera automatically adjusts the White Balance according to the current lighting situation. AWB does a good job in most cases but in more challenging situations it begins to struggle. Typically, it has a harder time finding the correct settings in low light situations and indoors.
I recommend avoiding the automatic mode, though, as the other options are better.
When photographing indoors, especially under tungsten lighting, this is the best option. Often symbolized by a little bulb, the Tungsten setting cools down the colours in your image.
This will warm up your shots. Typically used when photographing in cool, fluorescent light.
Not all cameras have this mode but it is for photographing outdoors in normal daylight.
Cloudy is the most popular setting for landscape photographers. It warms up the shot a bit more than the Daylight setting and is known for adding a little “kick” to the image.
Also warms your image up a little as the flash of your camera tends to throw some extra cool light.
The light in shade is normally a little cooler than in the daylight, so this mode will add some warmth to your image.
Manual White Balance
Manually setting your White Balance is a good idea when shooting in rapidly changing lighting conditions. The light’s intensity varies throughout the day and the camera is not intelligent enough to set the perfect White Balance every time. You can tell your camera what the color white looks like by using a white object, such as a cardboard, as a reference point.
Let’s walk through this step by step:
1. Choose the “pre” mode
2. Place a white object in front of the camera. It could also be a 50% grey card
3. Take a picture. Note that you are not actually taking an image but the camera has stored the settings saying what you just took a picture of was the color white.
4. Voila! Your White Balance is now set.
Kelvin Mode (K)
I consider the Kelvin mode to be partially manual and partially preset. Kelvin mode is what I use for most of my images. The great part is that it functions with Live View, so you can stay in control throughout the process.
When you’re in Kelvin mode you can easily adjust the temperature up and down until you find what works best for that situation.
After spending countless hours outside with the camera under all types of light, I’ve learned to see roughly what Kelvin will give the best results in the given light.
Now, this wasn’t as scary as you thought, right?
Digital Camera World has created a brilliant Colour Temperature Scale that you can use for further explanation.
I challenge you to take a couple shots using the different modes we have talked about above. Start with Auto White Balance and work your way through all the presets until you try manual mode. Can you see the difference?
What preset or mode have you used most during the last year? Let us know in the comments below!