What is White Balance in Photography?

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Discover how white balance can be used to improve the color accuracy of your photographs. Learn about color temperatures and why they are used by photographers to describe different light conditions.

Why Eyes Are Smarter Than Cameras

You are hiking on a cold winter morning when you come across a belt of trees covered in a blanket of stunning white snow. You grab your camera and snap a few pictures hoping to capture the beautiful scene, but when you look at the photographs later, you think your eyes must be deceiving you. The trees are stained a sickly yellow, and none of the colors in your photographs seem quite right. Although you don't feel dizzy, you've fallen victim to a bad sense of white balance. Fortunately, there is no need to see your doctor. Your eyes are working just fine. The problem lies with your camera.

Our eyes and brains easily adjust to changing light conditions. We move from bright sunlight to candlelit rooms and our vision adjusts within a few moments. Unfortunately, cameras have more difficulty adapting to different light conditions. As a result, sometimes colors in photographs show up with strange tints. White balance is used to solve this problem.

What you saw
Image of Tree

What your camera saw
Image of Tree

Different Types of Light and Color Temperature

Before we can use white balance effectively we need to consider the type of light that illuminates our subject. Are we taking a picture of a group of friends gathered around a campfire at night, or are they swimming in a lake on a bright, sunny day? Is the vase of flowers on your desk lit by sunlight filtered through a pink curtain or the glare of a halogen lamp? These are only a few of the many different light conditions you'll encounter as you compose your photographs.

Photographers describe different types of light conditions using a system of measurement called color temperature. The temperature values of different colors were established by heating a block of metal and making note of the color of the block as its temperature changed. Scientists noticed that as the temperature of the metal increased, it changed in color from orange to yellow to blue. Color temperature is counter-intuitive--we would normally think of orange as warm and blue as cool, but that is actually reversed in the case of color temperature. One helpful way to remember this is to think of a candle's flame. The coolest areas of the flame will be orange and the warmest will be blue.

Candle flame showing color temperatures
Candle Flame Color Temperatures

Color temperatures are measured using the Kelvin scale rather than the more familiar Fahrenheit or Celsius scales. For example, a sunlit sky might have a color temperature of 7,000 kelvins (K), whereas the fluorescent lights in your office might be rated at 4,500 K.

Using White Balance To Control Color

Let's go back to that picture you took of the tree with the yellow snow. To turn the snow white again, you'll need to set your camera's white balance to match the color temperature of the light that is falling on the tree. If the white balance is set lower than the actual color temperature of the light source, your photograph will have a blue tint. If the white balance is set too high, the result will be a yellow tint. You can adjust the white balance value up or down until the snow is exactly the color you desire.

White balance set too low
Image of Tree 2000 K

White balance set correctly
Image of Tree 5500 K

White balance set too high
Image of Tree 2000 K

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