Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Taking Great Photos - Part 5: White Balance

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Have you ever taken a photo before, and the rich colors of the moment end up looking more like something shot underwater at your local swimming pool?

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about don’t you?

I know that you’ve taken your share of these types of photos; to your utter dismay, you may have tried to fix them with your favorite photo editing software, and they still looked terrible. Maybe you converted them to black and white images, or perhaps you trashed them and found yourself frustrated that the camera didn’t work right in the first place.

…that stupid piece of technology.

Am I right?

Well, I know that in the past I’ve taken my share of photos in the shade, inside a building without a flash – heck, sometimes even in bright sunlight – and experienced a bluish cast over the images, and I’ve found myself throwing my hands up in the air with frustration (well, figuratively…despite that really cool Taio Cruz song. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thrown my hands up in the air before because of a photo, it just sounded cool to say that).

But why does this happen? I mean technology has come so far over the years, why can’t cameras always take a decent photo?

I’m so glad you asked.

For starters, one thing you need to realize is that the best camera sensor in the world will never be as good as the sensor in your eye at balancing color, adjusting for hues, focusing, and everything else. Technology is good, but let’s face it…your eyes and brain are simply better. The reason for this is that digital cameras are color blind in a sense…they have a hard time automatically adjusting white balance all the time, this will often be evidenced by those wonderful bluish or orangeish casts you sometimes see in your pictures.

You know the types of photos I’m talking about.

A good example of how amazing your brain and eyes adjust is when you walk outside your house on a sunny day, the light is immensely brighter and your eyes automatically compensate. Also, they allow everything to be balanced as for light – the sky AND the landscape around you.

Cameras? Not always the case.

Now, I’m going to cut about 95% of the technical gunk out of this lesson to make it as simplified as I can, deal?


To begin with, it’s important to understand that different objects look different with different light sources. (Wow, I used the word ‘different’ three times in that last sentence…go me). You see, I used to own this shirt that I always wore to school, and some of my students swore was an olive green color, other students were positive that it was brown. Well, they were both right. If I were standing in the classroom under the fluorescent lights, the shirt had an olive hue to it, but in bright sunlight, it was more of a distinct brown.

My point with this is that a camera can’t always tell the difference with color and light; your eye can.

Taking this further, in different types of light, things can look tainted. The type of light you have changes everything in a photo, and in the full AUTO mode your camera takes its best guess at what the settings for the photo should be; however, it usually assumes you are either using the flash OR are taking the shot in bright sunlight.

Not always what you want your camera doing for that award-winning image, is it?

Now, many times your camera does a fine job with the full auto setting for everyday use; however, if you don’t take anything else from this particular lesson, let what you do take be this little gem: sometimes your camera needs just a little bit of help.

So, how do you help your camera know the type of light that is being used at a particular moment?

Well for starters, you’ll need to pick your own white balance. Now, don’t get scared…this isn’t a big deal, all you have to do is change your camera to a mode that is NOT FULL AUTO. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to and find the white balance setting in your camera’s menu (don’t be afraid to consult your user’s manual). Now, this shouldn’t be too difficult to find, and your camera should give you a few options that look something like this:

Now, remember how I said I was going to cut 95% of the technical junk out of this lesson? Well, because of that we’re going to forget the Custom and Kelvin settings. If you’re a die-hard photographer and want to learn more about these, contact me via email or carrier pigeon and I’d love to tell you more, but for the rest of us, the other settings will more than suffice…now, these settings are actually pretty self-explanatory. The images show the type of lighting you use that particular setting, and the camera will compensate for the lack of color in the light you have chosen by the setting you picked.

Did I hear your head explode just a little bit on the inside?

I thought so; let me break it down…

On a cloudy day, if you were to shoot using the Cloudy setting, it automatically adds warmer colors to your image so it isn’t too ‘cold,’ or blue. Using the Shade setting does a similar action and helps you to avoid that ‘underwater’ look you find far too often from non-flash shade pictures. Using the Daylight setting compensates by adding cooler colors so that the image doesn’t have a too warm of look overall. The Incandescent (Tungsten) and Fluorescent settings will add in the necessary warmth or coolness to your shots so that the people in them don’t look like zombies fresh from the grave, or people affected with jaundice.

But wait, Teachinfourth, I've seen your camera and it's fancy. How can you expect me to change up settings with my little point-and-shoot and take good pictures? That's not really fair!

You know, here's a funny thing about fairness. I went on a trip with a good friend of mine up to Park City not too long ago. I didn't feel like hauling out my big camera, so I instead pulled out my little Canon point-and-shoot. While standing in the shade of the building, I quickly snapped a shot for my friend...after all, she claims she's the queen.

As you can see, because we were standing in the shade of the building the camera really didn't know what to do; therefore, it looks an awful lot like my friend is swimming in a smoke-ridden haze. However, after a quick visit to the setting menu and a change to the "Shade" option, the second shot was taken which shows the lighting as it truly looked.

Now, neither of these photos has been color corrected, and the color is exactly how it looked straight out of my 'cheap' point-and-shoot camera. How is that for fairness?

Also, just to prove my point on adjusting for color, your eye would have automatically adjusted for in the shade AND the sunlight in the street. Both would have been easily visible and there wouldn't have been a blue cast at all - unless perhaps you have cataracts.

So, there you have it.

And once-again, in a nutshell:
  1. Switch to a mode that is not Full Auto.
  2. Find the White Balance in the menu of your camera.
  3. Pick the balance setting that best matches your lighting conditions.
On a final note, remember to switch your camera back to the ‘automatic’ setting when you’re done. I’ve gone indoors to shoot a basketball game before and changed up all my settings; immediately afterward I’ve gone to shoot an outdoor event and – being excited – forgotten to switch my white balance settings. The first few shots I’ve taken (before remembering and switching up my settings) have always been awful. A good rule of thumb for changing your settings is to always put things back to the way they were when you’re finished…

Just like putting away your toys when you’re done with them.

Until next time; shoot ‘til you get it.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: About Your Camera
Part 3: Aperture
Part 4: Shutter Speed
Part 5: White Balance
Part 6: ISO
Part 7: The Breath
Part 8: The Rule of Thirds


Linn said...

You. Are. Awesome! As always!

Kalei's Best Friend said...

Well, thank u for that tip.. The 'shady' look has a vintage look doesn't it? What I don't get is the editing portion of the free programs.. Throw your photo into the 'auto edit' and somehow the yellows end up having a blue hue.. I found that to happen w/shots in yellow..Or parts of the photo would have a bright blue added... Does your theory apply here as well- that the setting is assuming?

Teachinfourth said...

Thanks, Linn. I hope some of these tips work out for you.

C, You're pretty much right; most editing programs adjust images almost the same way...they analyze the whole photo and try to edit it based on the information contained there. UNFORTUNATELY these programs often run into a similar problem that cameras do...

These programs don't have a brain.

However, you can help your program find reference points in your photo if all else fails. Now, I'm not sure what program you're using, or where this might be in it, but many of them have a 'levels' tool. See if your program has an eyedropper that allows you to search for areas in your image that are black, neutral grey, and white. You can select these eyedroppers and touch points on your photo that SHOULD be these colors, from there the program will adjust the entire photo based on that one point.

I don't recommend using this option all the time, but it can work for you in a pinch, and it will often save you from having to trash your photo.

I've included a screenshot example from Photoshop:

In my photo example you can also see the 'Input Levels.' This shows the blacks and whites of the photo. Notice how it is pretty balanced on both sides (meaning that both sets of 'hills' are near the left and right edges)?

That is a good thing.

You can also adjust those sliders to change up the dark and light of your photo. I do recommend making a copy of the image you're working on (or don't save it over the original) just in case you REALLY mess it up. In Photoshop you can copy the layer to work on by using Control+L on a PC and Command+L on a Mac.

I hope this helps!

Katria said...

Wait. You're really supposed to put your toys away when you're done playing with them? Umm...

I have a few things to pick up off the floor. And the kitchen table. And the couch.

On a serious note, though, that is helpful advice.

Buckeroomama said...

Thank you for writing this all up. I knew about WB, but haven't really paid much attention to it when I shoot, figuring that I could always correct it when I'm processing the photos. I took some test shots tonight in the kids' room (incandescent lights) and remembered what you wrote. Definitely sawa a difference... so thank you! This definitely helps minimize the steps needed in the post-processing.

A Lark said...

Very entertaining reading... what was it about again? (: Oh, yeah - I think I remember getting a verbal lesson something like this. Guess I should find my white balance. Thanks for the reminder.
P.S. Your friend is quite the hottie pashotti, isn't she?? (:

Karen M. Peterson said... you mean I can change the settings on my camera?

Seriously, I really need to figure out what some of these things mean. You'd almost never guess that I have actually taken (and passed) a photography class.

jenifer said...

i just found this on my camera... we'll see if it helps- most of my shots are hand held indoor with low light... not the best combination.

jenifer said...

ps. i just re-read a comment that you left on my blog last summer and i checked out "the boys start the war." we've had A LOT of fun reading it together as a family... so, thanks for the recommendation!

theothermother said...

I love the Camera write ups. I feel so educated when I'm done reading them.
And you have a stunningly beautiful friend. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the tips! I've recently gone full blown manual, and love the control I have (and I'm known to be somewhat of a control freak anyway!)---I'll definitely be playing with the WB next time I go photo-ing.

Sweta said...

Well that helped a LOT!I usually get dull,cold images if I photograph something indoors because of the clinical tubelight in our house.I'll play around with the WB next time!
Off to check your other tutorials :)

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