White Balance in Photography: The Essential Guide

by John Stapel

The essential guide to white balance in photography

What is white balance in photography? And how can it enhance your images?

In this article, I’m going to share everything you ever wanted to know about white balance, including:

  • The white balance camera settings you should use for consistently good results
  • How white balance can instantly improve your shots
  • How you can use white balance for gorgeous creative effects in your photos

I’m also going to explain key related terms, such as color temperature, white balance presets, and more.

Fortunately, while white balance might seem like a difficult topic, it’s actually pretty darn easy to understand. So I promise you: by the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll be an absolute WB expert!

Let’s get started.

What is white balance in photography?

White balance refers to the process of removing or neutralizing color casts in your images.

It’s about taking an image like this, full of distorted, too-blue colors:

blue pear without white balancing

And adding warm colors until you balance out the color cast, so you get a final result like this:

pear with proper white balancing

You see, most light sources produce a color cast. And while our eyes are pretty good at correcting for this in real time, a camera captures the subject as it looks in life: sometimes neutral, yes, but sometimes very blue (as in the pear photo above) and sometimes very yellow (as in the pear photo below). In both the blue and the yellow cases, white balancing is necessary to create a neutral image.

Here’s a too-yellow pear photo, which requires significant white balancing:

pear with a warm color cast

Note that, during the white balancing process, you’re technically adjusting the colors along two spectrums:

  • The blue-yellow spectrum, also known as the color temperature
  • The green-magenta spectrum, also known as the color tint

In general, natural light only requires correction along the blue-yellow spectrum, but certain types of artificial lighting may produce a noticeable color tint, in which case you’ll need to correct for that, too.

Color temperature, explained

The bulk of white balancing in photography consists of color temperature correction. You’re correcting for a cast produced by the color temperature of the light, which lies along the blue-yellow spectrum.

Photographers refer to different color temperatures using the Kelvin scale. Warmer color temperatures, such as those produced by a candle flame or a setting sun, have a low Kelvin value, such as 3000 K. Neutral color temperatures, such as midday sunlight, have a medium Kelvin value – around 5000 K. And cooler color temperatures, produced by clouds or shade, have a high Kelvin value of 6000 K and beyond.

Cooler light has a high Kelvin value? Warmer light has a low Kelvin value?

Yes, you read that right, and it can be confusing, especially if you’ve never encountered the color temperature scale before. But you’ll get used to it over time (and it can help to think of the color temperatures as simply the opposite of what you’d expect).

Why is white balance important?

Color casts cause a couple of problems in photography.

First, they prevent you from capturing accurate, true colors in a scene. If you want to photograph a beautiful red sunset exactly as it appears to your eye, you’ll need to neutralize any color casts; otherwise, your image won’t match the real-life conditions you experienced.

This can also be an issue if you’re doing product photography or real-estate photography, where the goal is to portray the subject as true to life as possible.

Second, color casts tend to look bad. They can mess with portrait skin tones, they can create muddy shadows and sickly highlights, and they can create unwanted moods in your photos.

As I explain later in this article, you can use a color cast for creative effect – but it’s important that you do this carefully and deliberately, rather than as a failure to properly white balance a scene. Make sense?

The two white balancing methods

You can adjust the white balance of your images in two broad ways:

  1. In camera, before taking a shot
  2. Afterward, in post-processing

Both approaches can work, but there are some important caveats to keep in mind:

In-camera white balancing

Most cameras allow you to adjust your white balance settings before ever taking a photo.

For instance, you can select a white balance preset (such as Tungsten, Flash, Cloudy, etc.), which allows your camera to roughly understand and compensate for the lighting conditions.

Some cameras also allow for a custom white balance. Here, you simply dial in a Kelvin value (remember the color temperature scale I shared above?). A high Kelvin value will balance out cooler light and a low Kelvin value will balance out warmer light.

Your camera may even be capable of white balancing off a gray card. Put the gray card in front of your camera, select the right function in the menu, take a picture, and – voila! – your camera will create an accurate color temperature profile of the scene.

But while these white balance options allow you to handle color casts in the field, they come with some drawbacks:

  1. Unless you’re in an enclosed environment, the light will likely change over the course of your shoot. You’ll need to periodically update your white balance preset or redo the gray card process as the sun goes behind clouds, as it sets, etc.
  2. White balance presets, while easy to use, are only approximate. They often won’t produce a perfect result.
  3. If you’re shooting action from a distance, taking a gray card reading is impossible.

That’s why some photographers prefer a different method of white balancing:

White balancing while editing

White balancing in post-processing is pretty simple:

Just set your camera to its Auto White Balance function when out shooting.

Then, when you get back home, open your photos in your editing program of choice.

Most editors offer a similar process, which involves using the white balance eyedropper to identify a neutral tone and fine tuning via the Temperature and Tint sliders. (Below, I give a step-by-step process for white balancing photos in Lightroom.)

You can white balance each photo individually, or you can create a white balance adjustment for one (or a handful) of photos, then sync the adjustment across the entire set.

After-the-fact white balancing is nice, but like in-camera white balancing, there are a few points you need to keep in mind.

  1. You’ll need to set aside extra time in post-processing to do your white balancing. And while you can save time with batch processing and presets, if you’re capturing lots of images under different lighting conditions, you may prefer the relative ease of in-camera white balancing.
  2. Unless you take photos with a gray card in the frame, you may struggle to get a perfect white balance result with editing. In many cases, that’s fine – the color cast may be barely perceptible – but if you’re photographing products, your client may require literally perfect colors.
  3. For complete white balancing flexibility in editing, you must shoot in RAW. While JPEGs allow for some white balance adjustments, you’ll be limited an often-unacceptable amount – whereas RAW files let you completely set and reset the white balance.

So while post-processing and in-camera white balancing are both serviceable, you’ll ultimately need to choose the option that works best for you.

How to white balance using presets

While white balance presets aren’t the most accurate way to color correct, they’re an easy way to get started (and if you’re simply capturing photos to share on social media, they may be all you require).

Simply pull up your in-camera white balance menu. You should see several presets, such as:

  • Sunny, which works for mid-morning and mid-afternoon sun
  • Shade, which works for scenarios with heavy shade (e.g., portraits under a tree)
  • Cloudy, which works for outdoor scenes featuring overcast lighting
  • Flash, which works for scenes lit by standard off-camera speedlights and pop-up flashes
  • Incandescent, which works for indoor scenes lit by standard warm bulbs
  • Fluorescent, which works for indoor scenes lit by fluorescent bulbs

Then pick the preset that most closely matches the lighting conditions you’re experiencing and start taking photos! You will need to pay close attention to the light as you continue shooting; if it changes significantly, you should switch presets to reflect the new conditions.

How to white balance your photos in Lightroom

Lightroom color correction is a quick and painless process.

First, open an image in the Develop module, then find the WB section on the right-hand side:

adjusting the white balance in Lightroom

Next, select the Eyedropper icon:

the Eyedropper tool in Lightroom

Then click on a part of your image that should look a neutral gray or white. (Don’t be afraid to click in a few different places, especially if you’re not sure what counts as “neutral.”)

hoving the Eyedropper tool over the subject

If you can’t find a neutral area to sample, or you don’t like the results, you can always head over to the Temp and Tint sliders:

white balance temperature and tint

You probably won’t need to adjust the Tint slider much, but feel free to drag the Temp slider back and forth until you get a neutral image.

A white-balanced photo of a pear in Lightroom

How to creatively use white balance for different effects

While it’s always important to start by color correcting your photos, you can sometimes enhance images by deliberately pushing the white balance in the wrong direction. This generally works best when applied in a post-processing program, not in camera (though you can technically do it either way).

The idea here is simple:

By applying a too-cold white balance to your photos, you can create a somber, moody effect.

And by applying a too-warm white balance to your photos, you can create a welcoming, inviting, even nostalgic effect.

I don’t recommend you push the white balance too far – at some point, your photos may look unnatural – but a bit of cool or warm color is often nice when added carefully.

Note that you can also use an “incorrect” white balance to exaggerate the conditions of the scene. Adding cool hues will give images a shady or night effect, while adding warm hues will give images a sunrise or sunset effect. Again, use this technique with care. It’s easy to go overboard and end up with garish, unpleasant results.

White balance in photography: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to start adjusting the white balance in your photos – and you can even push the white balance for artistic results.

So go out with your camera. Practice working with white balance. And make your images shine!

White Balance in Photography: The Essential Guide