White Balance – Digital Photography Tip of the Week

Last week I reviewed Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, a must have for amateur digital photographers. This week I will discuss white balance, how it will affect your photos, why it does, and how you can take advantage of this feature in your camera.

Light as we see it is typically white. That is because our brains are able to process the colours of the light and adjust what we see to what we are expecting to see. A good way to test this is to put on a pair colour tinted sunglasses. After a few minutes, the colour cast we saw when we first put the glasses on will have disappeared as your brain adjusts for what we know to be true colour. Unfortunately, film and digital cameras are not so lucky. They see the colours as they are. The following photo shows very well how the colour of light can affect a photograph.

Colour of Light. Click to view full size image

When I looked at the scene, the street lights all appeared to be the same colour, but on the photograph, the colour of the lights were varied, orange, yellow and green. This is the colour shift due to the colour temperature of the lights. Morning light and late evening light is typically a warm light, while mid-afternoon light is usually cooler. Daylight is usually balanced to between 5000 and 5500 °K (degrees Kelvin). Light bulbs are usually warmer, producing a orange glow in a photo, while fluorescent tubes produce a green cast to the photo. With film, a variety of filters were needed (and a variety of films) in order to properly correct colour. Now though, digital cameras can adjust for white balance within the camera.

Most digital cameras will have an AWB setting (auto white balance) along with several other settings, usually daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy and sometimes there may be a few more options depending on your camera. By adjusting this setting for your light conditions you can get more closely match the colours of your scene with those of your photograph. There is something else you can do as well though. Try to change the colour balance in your camera to something other than what you are shooting for a different effect. The most useful change is to set your camera for cloudy conditions when shooting people in sunlight. This will warm the light a little, producing an effect much more like morning light, provide a slight tan for your subjects and overall make a more pleasing image. The image below I shot using window light filtered through white curtain. The Auto White Balance setting is on the left and is a little cool. (The camera determined the colour temperature was 4350 °K). I then adjusted the photo for daylight and the more pleasing image is on the right. This would be the same as shooting in daylight, and adjusting for cloudy conditions.

Many cameras also have a method to adjust the white balance in your scene manually. Check your instruction manual for further instructions related to your particular camera.

Next week I will discuss using a different aspect ratio on your final image.


The digital photography tip of the week is written by the PCIN Assistant Editor, Chris Empey. Chris is a long time photographer and is currently the vice-president of the Niagara Falls Camera Club. You can see more of his photography at his Photo of the Day website.
If you have a tip to send Chris, or a question about digital photography he can address in the newsletter, send it to chris@pcin.net.

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