Andrew Talks Photography: White Balance

If you struggle reading white on black…go here…

Colour is probably the single most important aspect of taking any image which you intend to publish in some form or other; be this on a website, or perhaps as a photograph to hang on the wall, or to print in a magazine or book. Even monochrome images require balance between the white and black constituents of the image. By all accounts, colour is a very technical subject and there are several aspects to colour management that the photographer should be aware of, the three principle ones being white balance, temperature and colour space. This article deals simply with what has become known as ‘white balance’.

White balance is basically the control of colour casts from a light source. The light source is known to have warmth or coolness and generally ranges from reds to blue (just think rainbow spectrum here, red-violet, if this will help). Thus an item or a subject which appears white to the eye in real life should appear equally as white in a digital image. Frequently it does not if the white balance is incorrect.

To take an extreme, if one was to take an image in a room with a single red light, it can be presumed that the subject, say a white piece of paper, would end up with a reddish tinge or cast. In those circumstances that would be perfectly acceptable, probably leading to a little creativity too, but what of shooting in say fluorescent light which tends to provide a blue to greenish cast on the subject. Tungsten, or incandescent, light offers a yellow cast. These would be an unnatural colour cast.

Digital cameras provide a solution to this to enable one to adjust the white balance depending on the environmental light colour or temperature. Thus there are general settings on most digital cameras to cater for bright sunlight, shade (which gives a blue cast), fluorescent light, tungsten light and even flash. Most modern DSLRs allow an ‘Auto-WB’ function which self adjusts depending on the environmental light. So when you commence a photo session, just check your camera’s white balance settings.

Many photographers work with their cameras set to Auto-WB. This is a safe bet for most, but one always takes the chance to experiment with the other settings. Wild life photographer love the early morning and later afternoon light, when reds and oranges are at play, often called golden light because it provides such great creative mood.

There is no compensating white balance here… absolutely not. But there are several hours in the day outside those golden hours, and during these times consider experimenting with setting the white balance to the ‘shade’ setting. This has a tendency to warm the image a little, and gives you a little more golden light. Some landscape photographers use the same technique.