White balance is pretty straight forward, as far as photography concepts go, but this doesn't mean it's any less important to understand its uses. That is why in this post we'll cover how it works, and how it can be used in your photography.
As its name implies, white balance is used to make the whites in your photography actually look white. It has a much larger impact on your image overall though, as adjusting this setting will change how all of the colors in your photographs look.
There are two parts to white balance: temperature and tint. Temperature is most closely associated to white balance as it is based on the Kelvin scale, an absolute temperature scale (0°K is the coldest matter can be).
If you heat up any material, like metal, it will begin to glow. When an object is giving off light because of its temperature, it is it is called black body radiation. This is the same type of light stars give off. Light produced this way goes through a set spectrum as the temperature increases, from red to white to blue, which is where we get the temperature scale for white balance.
Different lighting situations will alter the way things appear. Our brains do a good job of correcting these differences, but if you pay close attention you can notice that objects that look pure white in daylight will look yellow under incandescent light, and they will look slightly blueish in the shade.
Our cameras are not as good as our brains at perceiving the "correct" temperature of the light. By adjusting your settings you can correct for this difference in color, and "balance" your photographs so they look how we see the world.
Tint is set on a similar spectrum, but it ranges from magenta to green instead. By adjusting the tint of a photograph you can correct for the more subtle changes in color due to various differences in the light. It is less likely you will need to adjust tint, but it is always there if you need it!
In Camera Settings
On auto our cameras do an okay job correcting for different scenarios, but they can easily make mistakes. This is why there are other presets to ensure you get correct color.
These presets are named to make it easy to understand which situation to use them for, so instead of describing each of them I will show the effect they have on an image taken in daylight, as well as a proper scenario for each.
There are also two options to select a custom white balance. The first, Kelvin, lets you change the actual Kelvin setting of the image.
The other, called Custom, uses a picture you take of a neutral gray object in the light you are working with (ideally a grey card). Your camera then uses this photo to choose the correct balance. This is helpful if you are shooting in a difficult light scenario, and none of the presets are quite correct.
Now, as a final comment: none of this matters if you shoot in RAW. I will discuss the pros and cons of shooting RAW in due time, but for now know that it saves all of the original data from your image. This allows you to make big changes in the white balance while editing. Of course, if you're shooting with a phone or in Jpeg mode you won't have as much leeway, making it even more important to get the right white balance at the time of capture.
Correct white balance is important for making sure you photos don't look gross. A poorly balanced image will turn viewers off, and i certainly would hate to have someone dislike my work for such a simple reason.
Keep in mind though, that just because it is important to have good color balance doesn't mean you always have to have perfectly white whites. Color balance can be used creatively as well. For more on that be sure to check out my past post on using color in your photography to build mood. See you next time!