Understanding White Balance

When taking pictures with a digital camera you may notice that sometimes your photos have a colour cast to them. Many people keep their cameras on the auto setting, which attempts to remove the colour cast, but may not always work.

Digital cameras have the ability to change what is known as the "White Balance&quot (WB). This setting attempts to offset the colour produced by a specific light source to make the colours as true as possible. This post will discuss what white balance is, and how to use it.

Auto White Balance (AWB)

When a digital camera is set to auto one of the settings that is automatically adjusted when a picture is taken is the white balance. In many situations, this setting can produce good results, but in others it may not.

Auto white balance can produce great sunny, cloudy and fine indoor shots under normal circumstances. Under abnormal circumstances, such as a winter scene with a lot of snow or a white sandy beach, the pictures may not produce the best photos. The best way to use auto white balance is to take a picture and then look at the result. If the result is good, then continue to use auto white balance. If the result is not good, then you may need to use some of the camera’s preset white balances.

Preset White Balance

Many digital cameras include a few preset white balance settings. The number and type of presets varies from camera to camera. The preset settings can be used in specific lighting conditions, such as sunny, cloudy and tungsten.

Unlike auto, however, you will need to remember to change your colour settings when the lighting changes. Using a tungsten setting on a cloudy day will produce a strong, undesirable colour cast in your photos.

Using a preset value can improve the colour quality of a photo easily, although it may not work as well in a setting that has multiple different light sources. For lighting more complex you may want to take white balancing one step further by specifying a custom white balance.

Custom White Balance

This setting is not available on all digital cameras, but if your camera has it then you can be more precise with your white balance. There may be times where auto white balance or one of the preset settings doesn’t work for you. In a case such as that, you can use your custom white balance. This setting requires you to use an object that has a completely neutral colour (white, gray or black), and that object is illuminated by the light sources in your picture.

You simply fill your frame with the object and set the white balance. The camera will try to make the object a neutral colour, causing any colour casts to also be eliminated. The most common object used to set a custom white balance is a gray card, which can be purchased at any local photography store. Another object is a blank sheet of white paper, which can be easily folded up and carried with you.

I talk in more detail about using a gray card in my post: Using a Gray Card

RAW Format

The RAW format isn’t a white balance setting, but it is important to mention. The RAW format is a type of picture file saved by your camera. Most of the higher-end cameras include this as an option instead of saving as a JPEG file. Others allow you to save both.

The reason mentioning the RAW format is important is because when an image is saved in this format no white balance setting is applied to the picture. Setting the white balance of a RAW picture can be done after the file has been downloaded to you computer. This allows even more find control over the colour correction of your picture. The downside to this is that you can print directly from your memory card, but must first download the file, edit it and then save it in another format.

My post titled JPEG or RAW Format goes into more detail about the differences between the two picture formats.

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