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How to set white balance 

Color temperature chart

The Color temperature chart in Kelvins

I shoot a lot of images in black and white. Mostly because I prefer the documentary feel of black and white but secondly because it lets me forget about trying to get the white balance just right.

But what exactly is white balance (WB)?

 A good definition is this one by Cambridge in Colour: (

White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. Proper camera white balance has to take into account the "color temperature" of a light source, which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light. Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources, but digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance (AWB) — and can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts. Understanding digital white balance can help you avoid these color casts, thereby improving your photos under a wider range of lighting conditions.

 And that's the crux of the problem. Digital cameras often don't get it right and the color they produce is not necessarily the color you saw when you made the picture. Our brains always compensate to make whites in the scene appear white.

The simplest solution, if you are shooting in colour, is to shoot in RAW format and adjust the colour later, during post-processing but that is not always convenient or viable.

So what can be done?

Use the Kelvin settings on found on the camera's WB menu options and set the colour-temperature manually. A kelvin is a unit used to measure temperature and colour temperatures. 

If a piece of metal is heated, at lower temperatures it glows red but, as the temperature increases, it becomes orange then yellow. If the temperature is further increased, the metal turns white then blue. This is the basis of the kelvin scale used by photographers.

How photographers can use the Kelvin scale to set white balance

It requires a conscious effort to change the way we look at a scene, before we take the picture. We need to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate. Look carefully at the light. Does it look blue? Or yellow? Or red?

If it is blue - often the case in shade - there will be a blue cast (particularly in the highlights and skintones) in your photograph. Under tungsten lighting the light will appear yellow and your subject may look as though he or she has a severe case of jaundice!

If this is not the look you want, you must set a warmer, more blue temperature. Use the included colour chart and chimp until you get the desired result.

I have a "go-to" kelvin value I use for almost everything. I tend to prefer my images slightly warmer and leave my camera set at 5800K, unless I want a different effect.

The chart is in some ways counter intuitive.

Setting lower Kelvin values produce colder, bluer results. Higher Kelvin camera settings produce warmer, more yellow and red results.

This is best explained by the three images shown below. Each was taken at 13h00 on a bright sunny day within seconds of each other, at the same exposure. The only difference was the Kelvin setting on the camera.

You can also use Kelvin settings to accentuate colors. For example, at 7500K the sunset will look warmer than neutral. 

What are the advantages of using the Kelvin scale to set white balance?

  • If you shoot in jpg rather than RAW you can set the White Balance to exactly meet your vision.
  • You, rather than the microchip in the camera, decides what it should be.
  • Quicker and easier than first fishing out a white or gray card and setting Custom White Balance (CWB).
  • Easier to see color casts on skin
  • More consistant than automatic white balance (AWB)

In a nutshell

  • 5000K is neutral/high noon light
  • Less than 5000K is blue light to dark blue light
  • Greater than 5000K is yellow light to orange light
  • Indoor natural lighting (window light-no overhead lighting) ranges between 5000K-6000K depending on conditions outdoors.
  • For a neutral scene, determine the color of light you are shooting in and change the temperature to match. To accentuate a scene, go the opposite direction than the light you are shooting in.







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