White Balance Fundamentals: Avoiding Photos That are Too Red or Blue

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Ballerina Dancer in studio

In the past few years, I’ve taught a bunch of Say No to Auto photo classes, helping others take their best pictures. In one class, a woman came in very distressed, telling me that every shot she took in manual came out blue — so much so that she reverted to the Auto setting. I giggled a little to myself, and assured her that I had a very simple solution to that.

The answer? Adjust your white balance.

White balance means the color temperature of an image. Often an image will be too cool (more blue) or too warm (more red) when what you want is the right balance of the two. Of course it’s ideal to capture the right temperature straight out of the camera, but light surroundings change all the time, making it difficult to get the right setting. Adjusting the color in post processing is fairly simple and corrects any overly red or blue images.

In the case of our friend with the blue photos, it turns out her camera’s white balance control had been set to fluorescent lighting. As a result, all her images were shot as if they were in orange-tinted lighting. The camera compensated by cooling the image off with the blues, which ideaqlly would have made the photos look right to our eyes. But sinve she wasn’t actually shooting under fluorescent light, the photos just turned blue.

You can set up a custom white balance using a gadget like the ExpoDisc, but I haven’t done that much. Others shoot with a grey card, which I also haven’t done too often. Call me lazy, but shooting in RAW mode allows me to very easily tweak my white balance in an instant. This type of tweaking doesn’t affect the quality of the image, so I don’t mess with it a whole lot in-camera.

Many photographers shoot with the camera set to Auto White Balance. Shooting with the camera set to Auto White Balance means the camera detects your light setting and will choose the color temperature accordingly. The resulting image is generally close, but not completely accurate. Simple tweaks in post processing are just as good as tweaking the camera — especially when you have subjects standing around, waiting for you to take the shot.

I like to shoot using the Shade Setting, because the vast majority of my photography is in open shade. On my Canon camera, this setting is shown as the icon with the little house.

Check out the examples of white balance for the same vase of flowers in the shade (a covered garage) on a sunny day.

The first is a fairly well-lit image. It’s slightly on the cool side, but the image is of cool blue flowers and a jar, so it’s up to the eye of the creator to decide how much to adjust the image.

Flower vase with accurate white balance

For the next photo, I set the camera’s white balance setting to Fluorescent and got ultra-blue hues:

Flower vase with too blue white balance

When my camera uses the Auto setting, I find the images are more warm or veer too heavily to reddish/orangeish. When shooting in full sun, I’ll switch the camera from a Shade setting to the Sun setting, which reduces the orange and red tones

In post processing, I use CTRL+U and CTRL+B shortcuts in Photoshop to nudge the color temperature warmer and cooler.

Photo credit: Kristen Duke

 

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