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Using White Balance as a Creative Tool

Camera makes a particular color by mixing primary colors; in each source of light (sunlight, sodium vapor, fluorescent lamp etc.) the proportion of primary colors are present different proportions; this makes the mixing out of order and same subject shot in different lighting sources appear in varying shades. 

While human eye automatically adjusts to all kinds of light; a camera sensor can’t do this by itself. Manipulating the color combination for exact rendition of result is ‘White balancing’; a must if you intend to reproduce colours accurately in your photographs.  

In the days of film; for rendering colors accurately under artificial lights; one had to mount color compensating filters on to the lens, simply choosing the right color filter of right strength could not solve the issue; moreover these filters absorbed a lot of light. All these brought in a whole set of exposure variables to the shooting process; especially when the light levels were low.

Of late, technology has come to the aid of photographers to instantly do the job of white balancing by the press of a button. The setting to manipulate white balance in camera is one of the magic tools that enable the photographer to control the filtering of light without mounting anything on the lens.

People who have started photography in the digital age will not see it as a big deal; just a Change in setting could do the job, cool. In order to truly appreciate the full value of this feature; one should shoot films in complex lighting situations. 

A flash back to the good old ‘film days’; even changing the ISO was not done by pressing a button or rotating a dial. For higher ISO’s one had to load another roll film with a higher ISO rating.  Most professionals when working on important assignments used to take Polaroid shots to confirm that their exposure and white balance were right.

Using White Balance As a Creative Tool

The standard temperature of light is measured in terms of Kelvin. And in order to render colors accurately you need to use the matching Kelvin temperature settings to the light source like the following;

    • Daylight : for shooting in daylight
    • Fluorescent: for shooting under fluorescent lights, it will take away the greenish cast that otherwise appear in the images.
    • Tungsten: for shooing under tungsten lights, it will take away the orange color cast and so on.

When working under complex lighting; where you are not sure about which preset to use; the digital cameras allow you to set custom white balance. This can be done either by dialing in the Kelvin value or by setting a custom white balance from an image. Read more on setting custom white balance here.

Where one’s creative talents so demand; accuracy in rendering colors may not be a priority; in such cases white balance can be deliberately offset to either warm up or cool down our pictures  and thus make certain scenes more pleasant in their particular ambiance. We don’t work for the sake of white balance but for pictures that can catch every eye-ball.

Reminding once more; back in the film days, most photographers had an 81A filter which they used to slightly warm up their images, in this digital era you could achieve the same result by slightly increasing the Kelvin setting or choosing a slightly warmer white balance preset.

 For example when shooting under daylight, setting the white balance to shade or cloudy will adequately warm-up the images. Yeah you guessed it right; this tip could come in handy to increase the saturation of your sunrise/sunset pictures. Similarly when shooting in overcast conditions, shifting the camera to a lower Kelvin setting could emphasize the coldness of the scene with some extra blue provided by white balance setting.

 An easy way to remember it is, the higher the temperature value, the cooler or more bluish the light and lower the temperature value, the warmer or more orange/yellow the light.

White Balance Tips

The ability to set white balance as we wish is equivalent to having a bag of filters, a whole bunch of them, it is a versatile tool so use it for control or for effect. These tips will show how you can capture more compelling images irrespective of the available light source:

Avoid Using the Auto Setting

The main purpose of the auto white balance mode is to render colors accurately, so you might be wondering why I would recommend not using it. The reason is using the auto white balance setting may result in a best- guess situation; where the camera’s sensor tries to guess the temperature of the light.

Often the guess-work may be right but many times it fails; also a slight shift in the camera perspective may make it to set white balance from a different white; it finds in the frame and thus could result in uneven response from frame to frame.

using white balance to render colours accurately
The picture above was captured with a white balance setting of 5000K rendering accurate colours.

If rendering colors in accordance with your perspective; first know the temperature of the light you are working with; use the right preset and dial in Kelvin settings manually for finer control. Using a grey card to set the custom white balance delivers the ultimate result.

Using White Balance As Warming Filter

To warm up your images dial in a higher number on the Kelvin scale. The higher the number the warmer the image will be.

For example if you are shooting in daylight and using  5500 K and need to warm up your images a bit, dial in 6000 k or higher depending upon how warm you need your images to be.

Using White Balance As Warming Filter
The Picture above was captured by setting white balance to 6000K slightly warming up the scene and enhancing the golden tint of sunlight during sunset.

Using White Balance As Cooling Filter

To cool down your images dial in a lower number on the Kelvin scale. The lower the number the cooler the images will appear.

For example if you are shooting in daylight and using  5500 K and need to warm up your images a bit, dial in 4500 k or lower depending upon how cool you need your images to be.

Using White Balance As Cooling Filter
The picture above was captured by setting white balance to 4000K cooling down the entire scene. The warm glow of the setting sunlight is gone from the picture, Had it been a stormy evening with rain clouds this would have been a much better option.

Get it right on spot; 

Photoshop is a good tool and it could save you a lot of trouble by letting you to correct some of the errors that you might have committed on the spot, but remember the more you tweak the images, the more it will affect the quality of the picture. In short; setting the white balance right at the spot is the best way.

Always Shoot RAW

RAW is the best file format available and it lets you choose any white balance post production, it also provides more control over correcting exposure errors. Most of the image editing software has built-in raw converter, hence you no longer need special software to work on raw files.

To make things easier modern digital cameras also have a RAW + JPEG function that allows to capture RAW and JPEG versions of the image simultaneously.  But always remember even if you are shooting in RAW it helps to capture the scene in the right white balance setting.

All artists wish their creations to be the best in the crowd; but technical as well as artistic excellence alone can make a picture stand out; a superb picture is not just born; it is to be delivered taking much pain; only those who are ready to take pains can deliver!

Have a good day. 
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