White Balance is one of the most feared topics amongst beginning photographers. It’s a subject many avoid learning but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s important to understand if wanting to improve your landscape photography.
Just like many of you, it took me a long time until I dared to look into what the White Balance is and how to use it. I always left it on Automatic (AWB/ Auto White Balance) and didn’t think twice about it. After years of this, I decided to start exploring the different settings and, to my big disappointment, the results were horrible!
Why? Because I had no idea what I was doing.
I quickly built up some courage to read and dive into White Balance in photography. It didn’t take long until I realized it wasn’t nearly as scary (or difficult) as I thought for all those years.
In fact, it was pretty straight forward and it didn’t take long until I saw a drastic improvement in my image files.
You might be one of many who find this a scary subject so I’m going to keep this article as simple as possible. Hopefully, at the end of it, you’ve learned how to master White Balance like a pro and use it to improve your photography.
What is White Balance in Photography?
The short answer is that White Balance controls the overall color cast of an image. That wasn’t too difficult, was it?
Now, I promised to keep this article simple but we need to get a little more technical to really understand what it is and how you can take advantage of it in your photography.
The actual color, or temperature, of light is extremely variable which is why our eyes constantly adjust how we perceive it.
A camera, however, does not perceive light in the same way as us. That’s where the White Balance comes into the picture. We need to adjust the it based on the light surrounding us.
Take photographing inside as an example. I bet you’ve at some point noticed that these images tend to have a heavy orange color cast. You don’t necessarily notice this with your eyes (as they adapt) but the camera picks it up.
The White Balance is in that scenario adjusted to neutralize the orange color cast. However, applying the wrong settings may make things worse so it’s important to understand what settings to use at what time.
And yes, this setting can also be used in a more creative matter. Many photographers like having a color cast and adjust the White Balance for that purpose.
The Relation Between Color Temperature and Kelvin
When talking about White Balance in photography it’s important to understand the relation between Color Temperature and Kelvin; Color Temperatures are described using the Kelvin (K) scale.
In most digital cameras, the Kelvin scale ranges from 2500 to 10,000. Each of these numbers represent a warmth in color temperature. Any temperature over 5000K is considered a cold, or blueish, color and anything beneath is considered warm, or yellowish.
Bringing this into the White Balance topic is often where it gets confusing, because using a Kelvin such as 8000K will in most situations result in a heavy orange color cast. Shouldn’t it be a cold cast when all temperatures over 5000k are considered blueish?
This is because the camera uses the opposite color temperature to compensate for the surroundings. A cold Color Temperature of 8000K is neutralized by adjusting the camera’s Kelvin settings to the same value. In other words, the camera applies a warmer cast (the opposite of 8000K) to neutralize the cold tones.
That means that using a small Kelvin in the camera introduces a cold cast while a higher value introduces a warm tone.
Are you still with me? Good! That was the trickiest part.
Let’s take a closer look at how to change the White Balance in the camera and how you can use the different fixed modes to improve your photographs.
How to Change White Balance in Camera
Exactly how you adjust the White Balance depends on the camera you’re using. Each brand and model have their own ways of doing it. Most cameras have either a WB button or a WB setting that accessed from the shooting information setting.
In other cameras, typically entry-level cameras, the White Balance settings is found somewhere in the camera menus.
I suggest you look in the camera’s manual to see how it’s done for your camera.
The White Balance settings themselves are similar in the majority of digital cameras. Here you find a list of seven semi-automatic modes, one automatic mode and one manual mode.
These settings are used to neutralize colors in specific lightening scenarios using a pre-set combination of Kelvin and Tint. They do a good job in most situations but sometimes you have to manually adjust them.
Automatic White Balance Mode (AWB)
When using the Automatic White Balance Mode, you let the camera decide what Color Temperature settings to apply. It automatically adjusts the settings based on the light and color conditions surrounding you.
When I first wrote this article many years ago, I strongly recommended avoiding the Automatic Mode at all costs. It could do an ok job in some situations but quite often it struggled to deliver good results.
Camera technology has improved a lot since then and I’ll admit that this mode has gotten a lot better. I still recommend learning how to use the manual or semi-automatic modes but for most standard situations, you’ll find that this mode works just fine.
However, using automatic modes means you have no control over the result. You simply leave the Color Temperature decision up to the camera. If you’re ok with that, you can keep using this setting for daytime photography. If not, I suggest using one of the next options instead.
The Automatic Mode struggles more when dealing with low-light situations and in these cases, I don’t recommend using it.
Semi-Automatic White Balance Modes (Presets)
Most cameras have seven Semi-Automatic White Balance Modes that are used for specific light and color conditions. These presets work great for most scenarios you’ll be photographing.
Exploring with these modes is a good way to learn how different White Balance settings impact an image. I recommend starting here before moving onto Manual Mode
This tends to be the best option for photographing indoors, especially under warm tungsten lighting. The Tungsten setting is often symbolized by a little bulb. It’s used to cool down the Color Temperature in your image.
The Fluorescent setting is typically used when photographing in cool, fluorescent light and adds a slight warm color to it.
This setting is often used when the photographer is using a flash. It adds a slight warm cast as the flash tends to introduce some cool light.
The Daylight setting isn’t available in all cameras but is used for photographing outdoors in normal daylight. It’s a quite neutral setting.
A favorite amongst many landscape photographers. The Cloudy setting adds a slightly warmer cast than the Daylight setting and is to add a little “kick” to the image.
The final Semi-Automatic Mode is Shade. It introduces even more warmth than the previous settings. It’s commonly used in shaded environments as they tend to be a little colder.
How to use Manual White Balance Modes
There are two main modes of manually adjusting the White Balance: Custom White Balance and Kelvin Mode (K).
I find that the automatic and semi-automatic modes do a good job in the majority of outdoors situations but it’s still essential to know how to use manual White Balance settings. To be honest, I use the second of these modes for 90% of my photography.
Even photographers who mainly use the semi-automatic modes can benefit greatly from understanding how this works.
Custom White Balance
The first manual mode is Custom White Balance. This is more commonly used amongst studio photographers who require extreme accuracy in the Color Temperature. A neutral white card is used to achieve this accuracy.
Let’s walk through this step by step:
- Choose the ‘Custom White Balance’ or ‘Pre’ mode
- Place a neutral white object in front of the camera. A 50% grey card can also be used
- Take a picture. You haven’t actually taken an image but the camera uses this information as a reference when adjusting the Color Temperature.
- Voila! Your White Balance is now set.
There are photographers who swear by this method but I find it to be more efficient for studio photographers who require extreme accuracy.
Kelvin Mode (K)
The Kelvin Mode (K) can be considered partially manual and partially preset. It doesn’t require the use of a neutral white card and you don’t give the camera a reference to base the settings on. Instead, you choose the Kelvin and Tint to be used.
This mode works well when used in conjunction with the camera’s Live View. You can stay in control through the entire process and will see exactly what happens when you make an adjustment.
This is what I use for the majority of my photos.
Keep in mind what we talked about earlier in this article: a high Kelvin equals a cold color temperature in reality but applies a warm color cast in the camera.
It’s a bit counterinitiative in the beginning but after some trial and error you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
When to Use Manual White Balance
With the powerful automatic and semi-automatic modes available in most cameras, when do we need manually adjust the White Balance? Is there a point in learning this at all?
Yes. The semi-automatic modes might work well in most situations but there are many that require manual adjustments too.
Remember that White Balance in photography is used to neutralize the color casts surrounding us. When photographing outdoors the light and tones change quickly which means that the White Balance is adjusted accordingly.
It’s not uncommon to have a big change in Color Temperature for every few images. In other words, there’s no consistency.
The most common situations where a manual White Balance should be used is:
- For Night Photography
- For panoramic photography
- For HDR or other scenarios where you bracket images
- For time lapse photography
Automatic modes tend to struggle at night and often give an unnaturally warm cast to the images. I prefer using a cold Kelvin such as 3500K to keep my night images more natural. This is particularly the case for photographing the Northern Lights.
When photographing panoramas or bracketing multiple exposures it’s essential that the images have the same Color Temperature. For that reason, you should be using the manual mode in those scenarios too.
White Balance when Photographing in RAW
Adjusting the White Balance is a critical part of working with colors in your photography. Applying the wrong settings can have a negative impact but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope.
The Color Temperature settings aren’t embedded in the image file when photographing in the RAW format (which you should be doing). A RAW file is an uncompressed file containing minimally processed data from the sensor. That means that while the White Balance settings are attached to the file it’s not embedded in such a way that it’s irreversible. In fact, it’s a setting that you don’t even need to care about in-camera.
That being said, I recommend that you aim at getting the image-files as close to the finished product as possible. It might not harm your file to use the ‘wrong’ White Balance but it looks a lot better when importing a better-looking file. Perhaps you even find it easier to process?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when photographing in the JPEG format. These are compressed and processed files where settings such as the White Balance is integrated. You are able to make small adjustments in post-processing but not as much as with a RAW file.
How to Adjust White Balance in Post-Processing
There are many photographers who choose to ignore the White Balance settings in-camera as they aren’t integrated into the RAW file. It’s fully possible to adjust the Color Temperature at this stage of the workflow.
Adjusting the White Balance in post-processing is rather straight forward. In fact, it can be considered one of the easier adjustments you’ll make.
Let’s take a look how it’s done in three of today’s most popular photo-editors:
How to Adjust the White Balance in Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom is arguably the most popular and relied upon RAW editor on the market.
There are three main methods of changing the White Balance in Adobe Lightroom, all of whom are located at the top of the Basics Tab in the Develop Module.
#1 The White Balance Selector (W)
The White Balance Selector, or more commonly referred to as the Eye Dropper Tool, is an easy way to change the Color Temperature based on a value Lightroom is given. The tool is used to click on a neutral color in the image and Lightroom uses this as a reference to neutralize the color casts.
Ideally, the target area you pick should be 50% Red, 50% Green and 50% Blue, or as close to it as possible. The closer to this value you come, the more accurate (neutral) the results become.
Notice that the Temp and Tint sliders are adjusted directly after clicking the target point.
#2 Using White Balance Presets
The second method is to use the White Balance Presets in Lightroom. These are similar to the semi-automatic modes in your camera.
‘As Shot’ is the default preset and is based on the actual White Balance settings you used in-camera. Click on this text (or the up/down button next to it) to reveal the full list of presets.
Each of the presets adjusts the Temp and Tint sliders differently.
#3 Manually Adjust Using the Temp and Tint Sliders
The third way to change White Balance is Lightroom is by manually adjusting the Temp and Tint sliders. This is arguably the most common method.
Pull the sliders towards the left or right to adjust the Color Temperature. Here you can choose to neutralize the color cast or taking advantage of it to give a creative look to your photo.
Lightroom has made the Temp and Tint sliders easy to understand by giving them colors. Use this as a reference and see how the colors in your photo are affected when moving the sliders around.
How to Adjust the White Balance in Adobe Photoshop
Adjusting the White Balance in Adobe Photoshop is slightly more difficult than it is in Lightroom. The tools aren’t quite as simple but they are more flexible and can give better results.
#1 Use Adobe Camera RAW
The only ‘easy’ method to adjust the White Balance in Photoshop is by using Adobe Camera RAW. This tool is found by going to Filter -> Camera RAW Filter…
A new window opens and here you’re met with a similar layout and the same tools as in Adobe Lightroom. Make your adjustments here and click OK when you’re done.
#2 Use ‘Match Color’ to Neutralize Colors
While this isn’t directly a method to adjust the White Balance it’s a very efficient method of removing color casts in Photoshop.
Go to Image -> Adjustments -> Match Color… and click ‘Neutralize’ in the dialogue box that appears. This automatically removes the color cast and gives a more neutral look.
#3 Use a Color Balance Layer
The third and final method is perhaps the most powerful but it requires some practice in order to perfect. The Color Balance Adjustment Layer lets you alter the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow tones in the Highlights, Midtones and Shadows.
Combining this with the use of a Luminosity Mask can give incredible results when wanting to target specific areas of an image.
The Best White Balance for Landscape Photography
Many of you might be looking for the ‘ultimate White Balance’ that fits each and every purpose for photography. In the ideal world, that would exist but, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Different light benefits from a different setting. Sometimes that can be achieved using Auto White Balance other times it requires you to set a specific Kelvin.
But there are a few pointers that can come in handy:
Kelvin 3200-4000 is ideal for most types of night photography, either you’re photographing the Milky Way or the Northern Lights. This range does a good job of eliminating city lights or orange casts caused by light pollution. It also keeps a natural cold feel to the night sky.
Kelvin 5000-6000 is ideal for most types of ‘regular’ landscape or outdoor photography. This is a relatively neutral range that gives a slight warmth to the photos.
Kelvin 6000-7500 tends to add a little too much warmth but can be used to enhance the colors of a warm sunrise or sunset. Some experimentation can be beneficial.
The White Balance is an important subject to understand for photographers who want to improve their craft. Yet, it’s a topic that many fear looking into as it seems complicated at the first glance.
Luckily, it’s not that difficult at all. After a little trial and error, you’ll see just how easy it is to adjust the White Balance and choose the settings that are ideal for the image you’re working on.
The automatic and semi-automatic modes are great for most situations but I highly recommend that you learn how to use the Kelvin mode too. There are many situations that require the use of a manual setting.
White Balance can be used in many ways, not only to neutralize the colors. You can take advantage of this setting to give your images a creative look. Color casts aren’t always bad!
I promised at the beginning of this article that I’d keep it as simple as possible. I know there’s been a few tricky topics in here but I hope that you’ve got a better understanding of White Balance now.
Over the course of the next few days, I challenge you to explore the different semi-automatic modes to see how the different settings work in a different light.
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