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What Is White Balance On A Camera: Explained

Published On:
September 1, 2021
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What is white balance on a camera? This is one of the most common questions among beginners (and intermediates, too!).

It's not easy to understand what white balance does and why you might want to use it. This is because there are many different types of cameras, each with its version of this setting.

This article will discuss everything you need to know about white balance, including how your digital SLR or mirrorless camera can do it automatically for you and how you can do it manually if your camera doesn't have an automatic option (or doesn't balance correctly). We'll also explain what Kelvin temperature ratings mean in the context of photography so that even beginners will be able to understand them!

If you've ever wondered what white balance is, read on!

What's The Definition Of White Balance And How Does It Work?

According to SLRLouge and Wikipedia, "Color Balance is the global adjustments of [the primary] colors. An important goal of this adjustment is to render specific colors - particularly neutral colors - correctly. Hence, the general method is sometimes called gray balance, neutral balance, or white balance."

This is completely true. The objective of white balance is to get white, well, white. If you have ever looked at an image that has a warm or cool color cast over it - the object of white balance would be to remove that cast completely. The most accurate way to do that is to target white (or grey) - and render it white (or 18% grey).

How Does White Balance Relate To A Digital Camera?

Generally speaking, our eyes do a fantastic job of rendering colors correctly - and the majority of people see colors about the same as the person standing next to them. For people like myself who is red/green color-blind (very common among males) - it's a little bit more challenging to differentiate the difference; we all see about the

Well, a camera's sensor is entirely different. It renders color by the way it was programmed. This is why the color science from every camera manufacturer is different. Mirrorless cameras in the Sony lineup have various color sciences in other sensors even. Their most recent cameras have much better color science than cameras of the past.

With that being said - manufacturers are constantly struggling with getting this balance (between white and other surrounding colors) correct.

How Kelvin Ratings Relate To White Balance

Kelvin ratings are essentially a numeric representation of a color temperature. Kelvin values range greatly - with 1,000-2,000 being the warmest (yellow/orange) part of a candle flame and 9,000-10,000 being a heavily overcast (blue) day.

You may be familiar with the Kelvin scale when it comes to HID headlights. Before modern cars came with them from the manufacturer, you had to pick them out and put them in yourself. When picking them out, you had to choose which color temperature you wanted.

You could choose HIDs in the 3,000 Kelvin range, and your headlights would be yellow and warm. Between 5 and 6,000 were pure white - and anything past 7,000 and closer to 10,000 were very blue.

White balance uses these values but eliminates color casts in a way you might not be familiar with.

So How Is White Balance Actually Balanced?

It's pretty simple, really, so try and follow me on this. It's an execution of proper balance; keep that in mind.

So, let's say your scene is in the 4k kelvin range. It's pretty warm, you're outdoors, and it's getting to the beloved golden hour.

Your camera (or you can do it manually) will bring the kelvin/white balance value to 4k. That's what you want - the white balance/kelvin value to equal the scene's temperature.

But let's say you're controlling white balance manually. You're set at 4,000 kelvin, and the scene looks great. You then take it upon yourself to experiment a little and go down in the kelvin scale. You're image then starts getting a cool/blue tint to it. You then push it to the extreme, 2,000 kelvin, and your image is crazy blue.

Why is this? Doesn't the chart above show that 2,000-3,000 kelvin is very warm, it's sunrise/candlelight temperatures, right?

Well, yes. Yes, it is. But, you see, your camera is balancing - it's adding the opposite values to create that balance. It's trying to get an equal balance of warm and cool temperatures to equal what you see in reality.

This is why when you add what would be 'cool' temperatures (7,000+) on a sunny day, all you're doing is adding warm temperatures. The camera thinks that it's cloudy/cool out already - and will add warm values in attempts to balance... You would want to get the camera as close to the temperature in reality - and adjust from there.

Keep reading for a couple of note-worthy tips about this section.

How Your Camera Manages Auto White Balance

When set in auto white balance (AWB), your camera analyzes what it sees through the lens. It tries to find what it 'thinks' is white. Once it does - it eliminates the color that's keeping it from being pure white. It believes that by eliminating that specific wave-length of color and bringing white to pure white, everything else in the scene should be the correct color.

This is completely true. And works great when there is white in your scene. But what if there isn't. What does the camera do when there isn't anything to balance white from?

Well, it guesses. This is where the problems with AWB become apparent.

You'll end up with images that aren't white balanced at all - but balanced off of a different 'color' in the scene.

You'll notice that white balance can bounce around from frame to frame while in AWB. This is common and one of the main reasons people use manual white balance settings.

You can combat this with two methods:

  • If you're shooting in RAW (photos) - you can change different white balance settings in a post-processing program like Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, Luminar, etc. You can correct this without negatively affecting the image.
  • Manually setting white balance is the other option (while on location). Custom white balance is the only proper way to correct it in most modern cameras for video - since very few cameras today shoot RAW video (aside from bmpcc4/6k, RED, Alexa, etc.). Nothing keeps you from correcting minor color issues in the .mp4 file format - it won't edit like a RAW will.

How You Can Adjust White Balance Manually

To adjust the white balance manually, you will need to refer to your camera's manual. If you don't have the manual - you can find a digital version of it online. Search Google - and type "camera manual for X," with X being the make and model of your camera.

As for me - I use the Sony A7iii. To adjust the white balance on the Sony A7iii, you would hit the fn button (function) on the back. Botton over to the WB box and hit enter (center of scroll wheel). I then would scroll down to the K adjustments (right above custom 1) and button right. I can then adjust the kelvin values from there. Once I have it where I want it - I hit enter, and it's set.

Your camera may be a little different, but it's all the same (Canon white balance adjustment is easier).

When To Use Manual White Balance Settings On A Camera

There are a couple of times where you may find you have to use the manual white balance.

  • When you want to obtain the correct white balance in the camera and keep it consistent, this is for those who like to get everything they can in the camera instead of dealing with anything (or adding something else) in post-production.
  • You're in an environment where nothing is white. This is very common when indoors. For example, the walls or the lights aren't white, and you're shooting towards an area without windows. You can combat this with flash (pure white) - or set the white balance manually.
  • Shooting video usually requires manual white balance settings. If you don't change it - you have multiple color temperatures (mixed lighting) throughout your video (event in the same shot). The most challenging video (in terms of white balance) to shoot is indoors. Real Estate and Wedding Videographers deal with this issue consistently. Correctly setting your camera's white balance is critical for getting accurate colors in your shots.

A Few Things To Take Note Of (And Could Possibly Save You At Some Point)

As stated previously - I'm providing this section from personal experience. I've had color balancing nightmares in the past - and I'm passing those experiences along here. I hope it helps you at some point, so you don't have to experience what I have.

  • If you're adjusting the white balance manually, increase Kelvin values to warm up the image and decrease the weight to cool off your scene. I can't tell you how many times I fumbled with my camera when I first started before this sank in. I would always refer back to the HID days of warm and cool temps. I mean, they're true, but the camera doesn't work like that. This also means if your image is too warm, cool it off by going down in value. Too cool? Increase the values.
  • To make manual white balance easier - adjust it while looking at your screen. If you're on an older DSLR, put your camera in live view. From that point, set your white balance. Then, you can watch it change right on the screen. There's no need to take test shots - you can't go wrong doing it like this. Mirrorless cameras automatically turn the screen on automatically - but you'll adjust values while looking at the screen.
  • The last bit is for videographers. From years of experience shooting photos and videos in the Real Estate sector - you must adjust the white balance in every.single.room. I'll say that again - monitor your camera's white balance in every single room. Please don't assume that every room's temperature is the same (I've made this mistake several times). All it takes is your light source coming through a room differently and that light hitting walls of a different color... or different temp lights (fluorescent lights). That's a nightmare.

You Now Know What White Balance Is On A Camera!

We hope this article has helped you understand what white balance is and how it can make your photography more accurate. If people forget one thing, it's that the camera doesn't always know best, right?

Don't worry, though - you know how to adjust the white balance when you need to manually. And who knows, a few weeks or months from now, you could be setting your camera's white balance manually and never using auto white balance ever again! It's all about what works best for you.

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Check out our related article, Manual Settings On A Camera: Photography Basics Overview, where we touch on the five main manual settings - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance (you're currently reading), and metering modes.

Until next time, be safe out there and continue learning and creating!



What Should My White Balance Be?

It depends on your environment/scene. If you're outside in noon sun - 5500-6000k is where you want to be. Fluorescent light can be a pain - but you'll get great results between 2,500k and 3,500k. If it's a cloudy day and your image is a little cool 7,000k to 8,000k may work great for you (but check). As you can see - natural light, different light, and different lighting situations determine what your white balance should be.

What is the function of white balance in a camera?

The function of white balance is to balance white within your scene/environment/what the camera sees. You camera cam interpret color casts within a scene - your camera attempts to seek out the purest of white and eliminates any color that's casted over it. Once that color is eliminated and white is 'pure white' - the camera then assumes that the rest of the image is correct (works most of the time). Your camera can do this automatically or you can set it manually.

What is the white balance setting on a camera?

White balance is the setting that does just that, balances white. Your camera will 'read' what it sees through the lens - determine what is white (or should be) and eliminate any color cost preventing it from being pure white. With that color eliminated, and white in its purest form, the rest of your image should be the correct color. This isn't always the case - but your camera can do it either automatically or you can set it yourself.

Does in-camera white balance matter?

It depends. If you're shooting photos in RAW - you can adjust white balance in post production without altering the image in anyway. If you're shooting photos in jpg, your white balance will matter a great deal. You can't edit jpg images like you can RAW files. Lastly, if you're shooting video (on most DSLR/mirrorless cameras), it's much like shooting photos in jpg. You aren't shooting the video in RAW - so getting white balance correct, in camera, is very important.
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