After my first night photoshoot, when I got home and checked the pictures on the computer, I was completely shocked. I didn’t understand what did I screw up, why all of the pictures look yellow. What if something’s wrong with my camera? Or just because I have an entry-level, cheap gear and it’s not suitable for night photography? Then I started to think… When I am taking pictures during daylight, I don’t have this ugly yellow hue on my photos. What if I made a mistake when adjusted settings for night photography?  But what could I mess up with the settings? I was so angry, that I was stupid and screwed up dozens of shots.

Anyhow, a few days later I found a similar picture on the web with that ugly yellow hue, and the photographer asked for some help to correct the colours of his image. Someone suggested him to adjust the white balance level. So that’s would it be! But what is white balance in photography? And how can I adjust it? Let’s figure it out!

What is white balance in photography?

White balance is a very important setting in digital cameras that adjusts colour temperature for different circumstances. Basically, different light sources have different colour temperatures. Some of them look orange, while others are yellow or even blue. Our eyes and brain compensates the colour temperature, so we will see the subject in natural-looking colours, regardless of the type of light that illuminates our object. But unfortunately, digital cameras are not as smart as our brain and we need to tell them how to reimburse for different types of lighting. Principally, the white balance setting corrects colour casts and our goal is to achieve the most precise colours.

Colour temperature 

As I said, different light sources have different colour temperatures, and they are measured in Kelvin (K) from 1000-10 000. Let’s see a few examples:

  • Candlelight 1000-2000K
  • Household lighting 2500-3500K
  • Sunrise, sunset 3000-4000K
  • Fluorescent lamps 4000-5000K
  • Direct sun (noon) 5000-5500K
  • Daylight with clear sky 5500-6500K
  • Cloudy sky 6500-8000K
  • Heavily overcast sky 9000-10 000K

Lower colour temperatures like candlelight and household lightings are called warm colours and add a yellowish cast to the photos, while higher colour temperatures over 5000K give a bright bluish hue of light to the images. Ergo, as the colour temperature growths, the colour allocation becomes cooler. Consequently, for cooler light, we need to warm things up and in warm light let things cool down.

How to modify white balance?

Gratefully there are two ways of altering the white balance setting in our photos.

  • Changing the white balance in camera
  • Altering it in post-processing

If we shoot in RAW format, we can fix the white balance after the photo has been taken. So basically we can shoot in any white balance mode, and apply changes later if needed.

However, it’s not that simple with JPEGs, as we can’t make many changes later. In most cases, the camera is reliable and does good estimating, but there are circumstances when it makes a mistake and provides incorrect colours. In those cases, we need to adjust the white balance manually in the camera.

Changing white balance in camera

Whenever we need to modify our white balance settings, we can choose if we wish to do it manually or by using white balance presets, that are created for correcting colour irregularities. These presets can be different, depending on the manufacturer and camera model as well. To find out how to apply them, it’s recommended to read the camera’s manual. The basic white balance settings are:

  • Auto white balance (AWB) This is the default white balance setting on many cameras, and it automatically guesses how the colours supposed to look like. It’s reliable most of the time, as soon as we get enough light.
  • Tungsten (light bulb) this mode is rigorously used for indoors under tungsten lightings for cooling down the colours.
  • Fluorescent (Glowing tube) used for under cool fluorescent lighting to warm up the colours.
  • Daylight/sunny (sun) this setting is used for outdoors when the sun illuminates the subject and provides a warming effect on images.
  • Flash (lightning bolt) setting is used for on-camera flash, to warms up colours in pictures.
  • Cloudy (cloud) used on cloudy days, or in shades to compensate bluish tones. This setting warms colours up more than daylight/sunny setting.
  • Shade (house with a shadow) provides warmer tones than cloudy setting by adding orange hue to the photo. Great for sunsets!

 As I said, the list above can be different in each camera, these are only the most basic presets.

In-camera manual white balance adjustments

If we wish to take over control of the white balance and prefer to adjust settings ourselves for more precise results, we should choose this option. Principally, we have to let the camera know what white colour looks like by finding a reference point in the scene. It’s that simple! By following this method, we can avoid colour casts in our image and it’s pretty easy to use!

Applying white balance changes in post-processing

As mentioned above, there is an option to apply changes to the white balance if we shoot in RAW! However, I think it’s better to change settings in-camera to save our precious time in post-processing. Anyway, changing the colour cast of an image in Photoshop or Lightroom is very simple. I read many methods on the web how to change the white balance correctly, and I think this is the most accurate of all of them.

If we open up our image in Photoshop Camera Raw menu, we can fix the white balance even before we convert our picture into a JPEG file. If we do it properly, we don’t have to worry about the colour cast later on. There are 3 options to correct white balance in camera raw.

  • White balance presets give us a good idea of how our image should look like. Just simply click on the drop-down menu next to the white balance, then choose from the options of the list that one we like. That’s it!
  • Temperature and tint sliders are adjusting the white balance manually. Whenever we think that our picture looks blue, just move the temperature slider towards the right side and colours become warmer.
  • White balance tool works very simply also. Just select the white balance tool from the toolbar (at the top of the page), then try to find a grey area on the image, and click on it. This technique corrects all of the colours in our image. If we accidentally click on the incorrect colour, the picture becomes unpleasant, but don’t worry, it’s very easy to fix. Just click on a different colour again, and the problem solved!

In summary, there are certain ways to adjust the white balance in Photoshop, like setting the grey, black and white points of the image, but I think the best way is to change it in-camera or camera raw menu if possible. To achieve realistic photos, we need to focus on the colours of our images. Try to explore different settings for the same scenario to bring out the best in your photos!