Why white balance matters

Why white balance matters

This week’s tip is from Deidre, a London UK based photographer specialising in maternity, newborn, and baby photography as well as travel photography.

I get asked about colour tone in images a lot – why do images taken at home sometimes have less than pleasing colour tones or different tones from image to image?  The answer is all about colour temperature and a feature called white balance.

What is it and why does it matter?

All sources of light emit different light, when you examine its physical properties.  Some have much shorter wavelengths and some longer.  Our eyes and brain can easily adapt to this, so we can walk from a room lit by Tungsten lights to one lit by fluorescent and not find the shift in light tone around us to be particularly noticeable … if we think about it, we can see it, but most of us don’t.  But take photographs in the two rooms and suddenly it’s more obvious.  Our cameras have eyes, but they don’t have our brains, and therefore tend to see exactly what is there. 

Here is a series of images, all with different colour tones.  The difference is now obvious. 

image

But how do you control how your camera “sees” light?

White balance is all about telling your camera what the light is like and what colour temperature is a neutral white in that exact moment.  If you don’t tell it correctly, the photograph could come out way too blue or way too warm and yellow, and you’ll see that what seemed white to you suddenly looks yellow in the image, or blue. 

That’s why it’s called white balance.  And it fundamentally changes the image and how you perceive it – it really is just as important as thinking about composition or aperture. 

And it is important, even if you’re doing family snapshots at home – you don’t want your baby looking a bit jaundice, nor do you want the setting to look overly cold and sterile (baby photos need to err on the side of warmth most of the time, as we like to think that babies are in warm fuzzy environments!). 

But why doesn’t your camera do this for you?

Most cameras today allow for you to select the white balance.  Leaving it on auto white balance (AWB) isn’t necessarily optimal. On AWB, your camera decides for you what your final image should look like, based on the colours it perceives.  It gets it right a lot of the time, but not always.  Here are a few reasons I notice:

Sometimes, it picks up a lot of warm colour because what you’re photographing is full of warm red and yellow tones, and it artificially cools it.

Sometimes it also decides that you should cool a scene that is, say, candle-lit, when you want to err on the side of it being warm, as you want to convey the feeling of the candle-lit moment. 

And sometimes it assesses the light differently for two pictures taken in the same setting, simply because you moved slightly or changed the angle of the photograph.

So, if you want to be bold and try something out, take your camera off AWB and try setting it based on the scene you are in.  Then you can dictate to your camera what colour settings you want, and override its decision-making ability! 

Next up: How to adjust white balance if you take it off auto

About the author:

Deidre is a London UK based photographer specialising in maternity, newborn, and baby photography as well as travel photography.  With a background in fashion modelling, business strategy, and photography, she brings a unique perspective to both portraiture and documentary work.  Her portrait studio in Central London sees both local and international clients who seek out her natural and timeless photographs.  Her travel images have appeared in magazines, books, galleries and museums around the world.  She is a full member of the Association of Photographers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  

Her websites:

www.studiodeidre.com

www.deidresorensen.com