Photography Lesson White Balance Part One

Being a digital photographer, it is important to understand what white balance is and how to use it for your advantage. The human eye will see white objects as white no matter what lighting your under because our brains compensate for the color of light. When we are under tungsten light (light bulbs like in a church or the average living room) the light gives off an orange sometimes even red color. You can sometimes see the orange light if you open up a window and let the sun in, the light from the lamp is orange or warm looking compared to the light coming in from the window which will look more blue or cool. The two different light sources mixing together helps you see their different qualities.  Have you ever taken a picture indoors where the people were lit by the flash and they looked OK, but the background looked orange. That is because camera flashes are daylight balanced (blue light) and the room is lit with tungsten light (orange light). There is a way to fix that problem and we’ll get into the solution soon.

A camera does not have a brain to compensate for light temperature so it is up to the photographer to fix the white balance. Digital cameras do have an auto setting for white balance, and in a lot of situations the auto white balance works pretty good like outside in full sunlight or at a beach or when your object is being completely lit by flash. Digital cameras also have preset white balance options like the picture below.

You can change your white balance setting to these options depending on where you are shooting and as long as you are not using the flash with them. If you are in tungsten light and set your white balance to tungsten light you should get good results. If you combine the flash with those settings, a tungsten lit room with the camera set to a tungsten setting, you’ll get a yucky result because the flash is daylight balanced which is a blue light. Lets say  you take a picture of your friend in the kitchen, the kitchen may look normal but your friend who is lit more by the flash will look blue. If you set the white balance to the flash setting, your friend will look normal, but the kitchen will look orange. So how do you get a perfect picture? Well, you can color gel your flash so that it shoots a tungsten light. Below is a picture of my flash with a tungsten gel under the white diffuser. You can see the orange sticking out. The orange gel makes the light from the flash orange just like the light in the kitchen so everything matches up.

With your camera set to tungsten, the room lit with tungsten light, and the flash covered with a tungsten gel you’ll get a perfectly color balanced shot. You can also buy daylight balanced light bulbs for your home or place your shooting. You would set your camera to flash color balance and use your flash normally without a gel and you’ll get a perfect color balance again.

You’ll have to use gels for florescent lighting as well. The gel for florescent lights is more of a green color.

Pretty much all flashes are daylight balanced (blue light) so keep that in mind when shooting indoors under warm tungsten lighting or green florescent lighting. Most digital cameras, including point and shoot cameras, have the ability to manually change the white balance. You’ll need to be brave and dig around in your camera’s menu to find it.

Next time I’ll talk about how to do a custom white balance which is more accurate than the preset white balance settings.