How to use the White Balance Setting on your Camera

Left: Unbalanced Right: Balanced
Source: Wikipedia

What is White Balance?

Humans have been equipped with amazing eyes.  You can literally detect one single photon of light with your little peepers.  Amazing, right?  The sun shines a spectacularly bright blue (ya, not yellow) while incandescent light bulbs put off a bright red color.  Our eyes auto-magically adjust so that these colors all balance out the way they ought to.  White balance is the calibration inside your camera so that your camera also see’s these colors and records them correctly when you snap your picture.  It’s a simple idea, if you can get your camera to see true white in a scene then all the other colors will be rendered properly as well.

White Balance Presets

Auto:  Your camera does the heavy lifting and goes shot by shot to try to get as accurate colors as it can.  Usually works well but not always perfect in difficult lighting like indoors or when there are multiple light sources.

Fluorescent:  This warms your shots up to compensate for the “cool” light given off by the fluorescent bulbs.

Tungsten:  This is generally used to cool down shots as well, it’s used when the lighting is bulb lighting (or incandescent).

Daylight/Sunny:  More and more cameras are getting this setting, it sets things pretty close to the default setting on your camera but as you probably guessed it tries to compensate for the bright blue given off by the sun.

Cloudy:  Slightly warmer mode than the sunny mode.

Shade:  Also a little warmer in its settings to make up for the blue light in shade.

Flash:  Your flash is considered a cool light so this setting compensates by warming the shot up a touch.

Manual White Balance Adjustment

This is where knowing your camera and it’s settings will really pay off.  If you dig down into your menu you will find the setting to manually adjust your white balance so your camera knows what true white is and can adjust all other colors accordingly.  Most of the time you probably won’t have to venture off the automatic path but it pays to know what to do if you’re just not getting accurate colors.

There are a number of grey cards on the market, these are the baseline that your camera will use to judge what the true colors are.  You must get your grey card in the frame with the subject you are shooting so that any light reflecting off your subject will be reflecting off the grey card as well.  Once your grey card is in position get into your camera and tell it you are manually adjusting white balance and then focus on the grey card (you must have the focal point on the card) and snap the shot.  Done!  Now your camera knows what the true colors look like at that distance with all the different colors of light reflecting off your subject.

Note:  The added time you take to manually set your white balance will drastically decrease the time you’d have to spend post processing to adjust the colors of your picture.  If you’ve been following any of my tips you are aware that I’m a huge fan of trying to get the picture right the first time and avoid having to make any adjustments at all.

Here are some different  products to help you attain manual white balance:

ExpoDisc Neutral White Balance Filter

Source: Amazon.com

The ExpoDisc Neutral White Balance Filter is probably the easiest way to set your white balance and most efficient if you’re using it frequently.  If you want to shoot landscapes then this is the only options because you’re not going to have someone hold your grey card five miles away while you set your white balance manually.  This filter goes on the end of your lens/filters while you manually set your white balance, no grey card needed.

Source: Amazon.com

Note:  when purchasing an ExpoDisc always buy the size that fits your largest lens so that you can use it on your smaller lenses as well and not have to buy multiple filters.  (you’d just hold it up to the smaller lenses).

Pro’s

  • Fastest way to set white balance
  • Very consistent
  • Durable (wont get bent in your camera bag)
  • Small and easy to travel with
  • Hand calibrated

Con’s

  • Expensive: $70

Head over to Amazon.com and check it out, read some reviews.

Polaroid Pocket-Sized Digital Grey Card Set

The Polaroid Pocket-Sized Digital Grey Card Set is the least expensive and great for someone just getting into using manual white balance.  Pretty straight forward to use, just hold it up with your subject and set your white balance by following your cameras instructions.

Source: Amazon.com

Pro’s

  • Cheap: $9
  • Simple to use
  • Comes with black and white card as well (you’ll probably never use them)
  • Small enough to transport fairly easy

Con’s

  • Flimsy
  • Comes with white and black cards you’ll probably never use
  • Hard to use if your shooting something other than portrait (landscape photography will need a filter like above)

Note:  When your starting out I would suggest you start with these cards because of how inexpensive they are.  Once you get shooting and are shooting in more diverse locations you will need the ExpoDisc filter from above.

Head over to Amazon.com and check them out for yourself.

As with anything, get shooting and practice manual and auto white balance modes.  See what works for you.

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