White balance ensures white objects come out white in your photograph, the principle being that if the white is right, all the other colors in the scene will also be accurately rendered.
All types of light – sunlight, shadows, tungsten, fluorescent etc, has a color temperature, which refers to the warmth or coolness of the light. Our eyes and brain combine very well to assess what is white under different lighting, automatically getting rid of any color cast the light may have, but DSLRs are less savvy and so need a helping hand.
Your DSLR will have a range of white balance settings and they’re all there to help you to get the whitest whites possible. Most photographers leave white balance set to Auto, which is fine. In this mode, the camera will assess the conditions and take a best guess at the white-balance setting.
There will be occasions, though, when Auto won’t achieve the right white balance for the conditions you’re shooting in. So, if you’d prefer to take matters into your own hands, turn to your DSLR’s preset options and scroll through to find the one which describes your lighting most accurately.
For instance, if you’re shooting indoors under conventional household bulbs, you should select the tungsten preset. Conversely, if you’re shooting outdoors in overcast conditions, choose the cloudy preset. Just remember to change back to Auto (or another preset) as soon as the lighting changes.
Take full control with custom White Balance
Sometimes you’ll find yourself facing a subject lit by two or more light sources, each one with a different color temperature. You could simply choose Auto white balance and let the camera figure it out, or you could create your own custom white balance setting using an A4 sheet of white paper.
DSLRs employ various methods of setting custom white balance, but essentially you should place the sheet of paper in the light for which you want to get a correct white balance reading. Take a picture of the paper, filling the frame, then tweak the settings on the camera so the paper records white. This will, in turn, be saved in the camera’s custom white balance setting and can be used for all subsequent shots taken in those same lighting conditions.
If the light changes, you’ll need to take another shot of the paper and repeat the process. If the idea of carrying sheets of paper around doesn’t appeal, there is another option – shoot using the Raw file format. Once you get the files on your computer, you have all the same white balance controls as you do on your camera, so you can use the one that best suits your image.
You can use program like Adobe Photoshop to open RAW images on your computer for manipulating the White Balance settings in post.
It’s worth remembering that white balance is there to be played with and can be used for pictorial effects. Try taking the same shot using all your camera’s white-balance settings and assessing the results. They won’t all be good, but some could add an extra dimension to your images.
Compare the various white-balance settings on your DSLR and you’ll see how the camera will correct the orange light from domestic light bulbs (fluorescent and tungsten) by adding blue. You can use these settings outdoors for a cool blue look.