White Balance Solutions for Beginners

So, you finally took that big step and upgraded from your old digital “point and shoot” camera to a digital single lens reflex camera (“DSLR”). This article is for those of you whose primary consideration when you made the decision to upgrade to a DSLR was to improve the quality of your family and vacation photos. In fact, to be candid, this article is directed to those of you who do not have the inclination or time to thoroughly study your camera manual or “how to” books in order to understand the intricacies of the operations, adaptability, flexibility and control offered by your new DSLR.

You know who you are! Admit it, you could care less about image sensors, photons, parallax error, color temperature and other endless new concepts you have been introduced to since you purchased your DSLR. You simply want to take the best possible pictures of your family, friends, relatives or local scenery without the hassle of continually adjusting your camera. For the most part, you can readily see the improvement of the quality of the photos produced by you new sophisticated camera and yet, there are some instances when the color does not seem to be entirely correct. Sometimes your photos have a blue or green tint or appear to have a red ,orange or yellow tone. Consider this article your primer on simple techniques you may use to enable your DSLR to achieve accurate and consistent true color under various lighting circumstances.

Undoubtedly, you have wondered about those odd symbols of a cloud, light bulb, sun or other symbols on your camera dial, screen or menus. Probably, you ignored them as being another complication concerning your DSLR that you do not need to know about. In fact these “fixed” setting are important since they help enable your camera to produce digital photos which capture the true color balance, otherwise known as “white balance,” under different lighting circumstances. However, these fixed white balance settings are not perfect and sometimes you need to do more to make sure the colors in your photos come out just right.

Before we explore the ways in which you can improve the color of your photos lets digress a brief moment to provide a simple explanation of “white balance.” Hopefully, you paid attention to your 3rd grade science class when she demonstrated the light spectrum with a prism. If you were really paying attention you may recall that not all types of light produce equally across the visible light spectrum. Although the typical mid-day sun will produce light equally across the entire light spectrum most other sources of light only produce a narrow range of colors (this explains why your indoor photos without a flash have an orange hue since the typical filament light bulb tends to produce light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum). Your DSLR measures light at three points along the visible light spectrum, red at one end, green in the middle and blue near the other end of the spectrum. The concept underlying white balance is to correct all the colors in your image by taking into account the sources of light affecting the scene that you are shooting. Typically, a digital camera accomplishes this task by measuring the light being emitted onto your subject and then boosting or reducing the level of green in relation to the level of red and blue light affecting your scene. Unfortunately your camera’s the automatic white balance setting and even the fixed settings (e.g., for sunlight, shade, cloudy, etc) are simply “best guesses” or averages of such light sources. Despite the hefty sum you paid for your DSLR it is not perfect because your camera (nor any camera for that matter) cannot specifically account for the countless variables that affect the light that comes into play when you take your photos —morning, mid-day or afternoon sun, light or heavy clouds, new or older light bulbs etc.

Since you cannot rely entirely on your camera’s auto or fixed white balance settings lets discuss available methods to improve your odds of getting the white balance right.

An effective of way to set your DSLR’s white balance is to manually set the white balance. Your camera’s instruction manual describes this process which essentially involves shooting a white or neutral grey card or other grey/white object located in the scene you plan to photograph and then instructing the camera to use the resulting white balance for the actual photo. This method is very good for obtaining accurate white balance measurements however; it is a quite cumbersome process. The typical DSLR menu set-up requires several steps to manually set the white balance and of course you will need to have a white or grey card available(or be fortunate enough to have an appropriate white or grey object situated in you’re the scene you plan to capture). Also, since outdoor lightening conditions tend to change regularly, oftentimes you will find yourself going through the manual white balance set-up process several times in one sitting. If you are a patient and detail oriented person this is a great way to ensure a correct white balance set-up.

Most DSLR menus allow for bracketing white balance settings. To use your camera’s white balance bracketing feature you use the menu to tell your camera the number of shots that will be bracketed for white balance purposes and the corresponding bracketing increments (e.g., 1/3, ½ or 1) and your camera will produce photos with the various white balance calibrations based on your bracketing menu instructions. When you use your camera’s white balance bracketing feature the camera will produce the specified number of bracketed shots with the varying bracketed white balance settings from warmer to cooler with respect to the original white balance setting ( auto or some other fixed setting). The use of white balance bracketing is most effective when the original white balance setting is close to being correct, so be forewarned—in complex or changing lighting circumstances white balance bracketing can become a very frustrating process.

Another way to achieve the correct white balance setting is the use of an over the lens white balance filter. White balance filters are either white flat or prism-textured translucent caps or discs which fit over or cover the front of your camera’s lens (when in a bind some photographers make do with a white Pringles’ cap or Mr. Coffee filter for the same purpose). Typically with white balance filters all you need to do is point your camera at the scene you wish to photograph and place the filter over the front of your camera lens and snap a photo. After you take the photo with the white balance filter you simply go to your DSLR’s menu (almost all DSLRs have the ability to set the custom white balance from its internal menu–check your camera’s instruction manual) and instruct your camera to set its white balance to this photo. Now you simply go to your camera’s display settings and tell it to use this new customer white balance setting and then you are ready to shoot your photo. If you use an effective white balance filter on your important photos you should never take a photo again whose color is off. I have used various types of white balance filters including ClearWhite, Lally Cap, Mennon and Phoxle SpectraSnap and found each to be effective, but I found that the ExpoDisc (http://www.expoimaging.net/) and ColorRight (http://www.colorright.com/) to be extraordinary in terms of consistently producing the correct colors under varying lighting conditions including flash.

Your final option for getting the white balance correct is to adjust it in post-production with the photo software on your computer. If you take your photos in the jpeg or TIFF format there is generally a limited ability to adjust the white balance using your photo software. However, if you shoot in RAW format there are various sophisticated photo software programs which enable you to adjust your photo’s white balance or color temperature to the exact setting you desire while viewing the RAW version. Photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 and CS4 as well as Apple Aperture 2.1 provide excellent capability to calibrate your RAW photo white balance setting in post production but you should be aware that these programs require a steeper learning curve for the user and therefore, more time than you plan to devote to this effort.

My best advice for you is to experiment. Play around with your camera’s white balance menu and the “fixed” white balance settings to get a feel for how your camera interprets light. Do not be afraid to use the devices or methods that I describe in this article to help you resolve white balance issues.

James Orie – orie[at]verizon.net

One Response to “White Balance Solutions for Beginners”

  1. bid2win says:

    Thanks for this tips. I’m having a really hard time trying to figure out my dslr. The contrast quality seems off, and then figured that I just had to adjust some modes and nodes and now it works like a charm.

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