Beginning Photography Lighting

Understanding White Balance

Understanding White Balance

What is the ideal white balance for a photograph? The answer isn’t necessarily stark white but a very slight cast that helps breathe life into your image.

White balance is one of those terms that is sometimes bandied around so much that we forget it’s meaning. Or, rather, we forget what it means in relation to creating art. White balance itself is a pretty simple concept. When you create a photograph with perfect white balance, it essentially means that the colors are showing true, as evidenced by whites within the photo that are perfectly white.

But perfect whiteness isn’t always the goal and in fact, spot-on perfect white balance, when there is absolutely no pigment of any kind in a photograph’s whites, may not even be ideal. Let me start with a quick explanation of white balance settings and how you can use them to get your images close to correct. Then we’ll discuss why perfect white balance may not be the right way to go when you are creating art.

White Balance Settings: What Do They Mean?

First of all, the key to understanding white balance is to understand how different kinds of lighting affect the white balance of a photograph — and how you can use on-camera settings to correct when the lighting isn’t just right. Here is a list of common white balance settings to help guide you:

Tungsten: Tungsten lighting, sometimes known as incandescent, is quite often a type of lighting you’ll find indoors — particularly in buildings that are still using the older filament-style incandescent lights, though these days, modern fluorescent and LED bulbs sometimes mimic the look of incandescent lighting. In tungsten or incandescent lighting, photos taken on daylight white balance settings will reflect the extreme warmth of the lighting. You’ll wind up with photos that range from yellow to orange in cast, sometimes extremely orange.

Fluorescent: Fluorescent lighting is another common type of indoor lighting. These are the tube-shaped lights found in hospitals, stores, and other large industrial buildings — and they’re not at all uncommon in homes and other private structures, either, especially the spiral fluorescent bulbs that are replacing the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs we always used to use in lamps and light fixtures. Unless fluorescent bulbs have been designed to give off a specialized color temperature, you will find that this lighting creates a very cool cast, opposite from tungsten lighting. Whites will show up as shades of pale green or blue.

Shade: This is another white balance setting that can help to alleviate cool color casts. When you’re standing in shade, the light falling through tree leaves is often tinted by the leaves themselves, thus rendering whites a very pale shade of green (or whatever color the leaves happen to be). The effect is not usually as noticeable as fluorescent or tungsten lighting but you may want to correct for it nonetheless.

Daylight: Many photographers simply leave their cameras on “auto” white balance settings to take photographs in broad daylight. This is often because they are moving between indoor and outdoor lighting situations and they don’t want to forget to change their white balance settings as locations change. However, if you plan on photographing in daylight for an extended period of time, then daylight settings can help you to alleviate the yellowish, warm tone that sunlight can give to photographs.

Flash: Flash lighting tends to be a bit cool, so this setting warms up the image to eliminate the cool, bluish or greenish tones that you may see while creating photographs with either freestanding or on-camera lighting.

Along with these settings, cameras generally come with several other white balance settings, including the auto setting, which generally doesn’t do quite as good a job as selecting a more dedicated setting — though it is convenient if you are moving around a lot. For precision white balance, look for custom settings that allow you to fine-tune the color balance depending on the strength of the color temperature of the light that you are working with.

Achieving the Perfect White Balance

Now that you know how white balance works, I think it is important to discuss what perfect white balance means. Some would have you believe that perfect white balance is exactly that: Whites that are stark white, without any sort of tint to them at all. But, if you look at images where the whites are perfectly white, those white spots often come across as blown-out highlights. They are, very often, simply blank voids in the image. Bright, and most of all, distracting.

Thus, I think it is helpful to realize that a very slight color cast, a cast in which the tint is not obvious but just barely present, is actually closer to what you should be achieving. Wherever you are sitting right now, take a moment and look around at your surroundings. Look at white objects. For example, if you are sitting at your desk and there is a piece of paper nearby, you’ll notice that that piece of paper naturally has a color cast of its own. It will reflect the color of the ambient lighting or perhaps it is sitting next to your green coffee cup and therefore has a slight green tint to it. Real life generally has a color cast and therefore, when you include a slight cast in your images, it helps bring those images to life.

And that is the solution. Perfect white balance in a photograph is not necessarily achieving perfect whites but striking the right balance, a balance in which the colors are not drastically off. You should not have overt orange or blue tones in your image but perhaps there does need to be just the barest hint of color present in order to make the imagery real. Think in terms of shades of off-white and you’ll find that these pale tones breathe life into your photography, add a sense of vibrancy that stark white simply cannot achieve.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.