White Balance

What’s the Big Deal About White Balance?

White balance is one of the important distinctions between digital photography and film photography. In digital photography, white balance is critical. It can make or break your picture as much as proper focus and lighting. The wrong setting can cast an ugly tint or cast to the image that distorts natural colors.

Incorrect white balance can be very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to fix after the fact. Most people find green or red tinted skin tones quite unflattering. And dull, muddy skies and murky yellow whites don’t do much for your digital prints. It’s best to get the white balance right when taking the picture rather than tring to fix it later.

White balance is much more important to digital photography than film photography because to digital cameras, white colors are NOT alike. Digital cameras pick up light like video cameras, rather than film cameras.

White light has different color casts according to the light source.
A misty morning
is a completely different color than an orange sunset, which is different again from a yellow
light bulb.

The naked eye doesn’t see these differences because the human brain compensates for them. White looks white to humans in sunlight, under heavy clouds, or indoors — no matter if it’s under incandescent or fluorescent lighting.

But it’s not the same for a digital camera! The camera picks up the differences in whites produced by different sources of light. Under incandescent light (which is an ordinary light bulb), white has a yellow or reddish cast. Under fluorescent light, white has a greenish cast. Daylight has a blue cast. A sunset has a strong orange cast. Just about every different lighting situation has a different lighting cast.

Digital cameras need to be adjusted to the light source so that white appears white (not yellowish, reddish or greenish) and so that the other colors look accurate. This is called” white balance.”

Most digital cameras set the white balance automatically. Many cameras also allow you to set it semi-manually by choosing from several selections. The control is usually found in the menu, but could be a button on its own.

But the automatic settings must be selected to work! One of the most common digital photography errors is picking up the camera and taking dozens of shots before realizing your camera is still on yesterday’s or last week’s settings, when the lighting was totally different.

In my experience, seriously incorrect white balance can rarely be completely corrected by the average person. Sometimes, even professionals can’t fix it. It ends up producing less than optimal digital picture prints. For natural, realistic colors, remember to set your white balance before taking the picture.

You’ll find more detailed information about white balance, it’s settings and how to make it work for you in “Master Your Digital Camera in Four Easy Steps:”

In the next lesson, we’ll talk about an often intentionally misleading number — the amount of zoom… and whether digital zoom is any different than optical zoom. If you’re not sure about this, your pictures will show it.

Written by Rufina James


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