Tips And Tricks

Controlling White Balance

By Trevor Sherwin,

White balance is one of things most people let their camera do for them. Lets face it, the camera does a pretty good job but it doesn't always get it right. White balance at it's core is the ability for your camera to neutralize colour temperatures. (either green-magenta or blue-yellow) Our eyes/brains typically tune out the colour temperature of light and to us, the world shows up the right colour through our eyes. Your camera however, has the ability to replicate what your eyes see or better yet, play around to create different moods in a photo just by changing how the colour is captured.

As we show you in part 1 of our DSLR workshops, your camera does it's best to capture the light source in a scene as white. Typically your camera gets it wrong on overcast days and in the shade which is why you have to use the white balance presets. What we're interested in for this tip is using what would be considered the "wrong" white balance setting based on what your camera thinks. FYI, one thing that helped me become a better photographer is that I realized that what the camera thinks is "right" seldom is. This goes for white balance, exposure and flash intensity to name a few.

So how do you create a mood with colour? Well lets think about what different colours represent. Cool colours like blues and purples are just that, cool. So when out in the snow, you might want to try adjusting your white balance to the cooler settings of tungsten to create a blueish tone in the photo. It's cold outside and the blue can help convey that feeling in the photograph.

White Balance Settings

Another great time to override the white balance relative to what your camera thinks is right is in golden hour light. That is the time when the sun is low on the horizon and creates wonderful warm light. (BTW, A great time to take landscapes) Unfortunately your camera will do everything it can to neutralize that wonderful golden light because it thinks the light is coming from a light bulb. In this case, we'll force our camera to use the overcast or shade white balance preset. You could use daylight too but the effect won't be as impressive because the cloudy and shade options because they add more yellow to the yellow that already exists effectively making the golden hour light even more golden.

White Balance Settings

One other time I'll suggest that you override your white balance is when you are using your flash creatively. Keep in mind that the white balance setting you are using can only balance one light source or another never two differently coloured light sources. This poses a problem when using your flash. Your flash's output colour temperature is balanced to match mid-day sunlight. This is great when you're outside on a sunny day at noon. It's not so good when you're inside with lightbulbs lighting a room. You effectively have to choose to white balance the ambient light in the background or your flash. You could light your subject properly with a yellow background (flash WB Setting) or light your subject with a very blue light from your flash with a colour corrected background. (Tungsten WB setting) What to do? First thing to do, buy some Honl flash gels webcode: 131RED016 & 131RED010. These translucent acetate sheets (they are not slimy like the stuff you put in your hair) change the colour output of your flash to match the ambient light. A quick and easy way to determine which colour to use is to take a test shot of the background without your flash using the daylight setting whatever colour it is, use that colour gel on your flash. Once you have figured out what which gel to use, attach it to your flash and choose the white balance that matches your background. This is an advanced white balance / flash technique. Join us in the Mastering Flash workshop and we'll go over this hands on in more detail.

White Balance Settings

Quick reference for what white balance setting does what relative to mid day sunlight:

  • Cloudy - Adds yellow almost identical to shade
  • Shade - Adds yellow almost identical to cloudy
  • Tungsten / Incandescent - Adds quite a bit of blue
  • Fluorescent - Adds magenta
  • Sunlight - No Change
  • Flash - Adds a hint of yellow. Always use this setting when using your flash

These are but a few examples of where you'll want to play around with your white balance. Keep in mind that playing around with white balance is completely subjective. Don't for a second think there is right and wrong when using white balance. Photography is subjective and you do what you like and what looks good to you. Unless the paying client likes it another way. LOL!

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