In photography, everything is about balance – from composition and exposure to colour – and a tiny tip of the scales can often produce less-than-desirable results. White balance certainly falls into this category, and remains at the forefront of how the colours in your images are balanced and, how successfully your colour images convert to black & white. Colour balance, in a nutshell, can make or break an image.

In a photographic world where so much can be adjusted post-capture, the temptation can be to shoot now and fix later, but whether you shoot images in raw or JPEG, there are many reasons why setting the correct white balance at the point of capture is the best way to work.

What is white balance?

White balance is a setting that has been available to video cameras for decades, but it was the advent of digital photography that brought the setting to stills cameras. Previously, photographers would use either daylight or tungsten-balanced film, with the former being used in conjunction with corrective screw-in filters for other light sources such as fluorescent lights. The white balance settings available on most cameras include Auto, Daylight, Incandescent/Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, Custom and Colour Temperature. The latter allows you to set white balance manually in kelvins and is most useful for situations such as correcting white balance in-camera when shooting with Big Stoppers, which typically add strong colour casts to images.

In reality, though, you don’t need all these settings and the sheer number of them makes white balance appear to be much more complicated than it really is. Going back to shooting film just two types of film and one or two corrective filters for the two types of fluorescent lights were all you needed and this simplicity can be applied to digital photography alongside some more advanced methods of ensuring  correct colours.

White balance ensures that white or neutral tones are represented as white or neutral, respectively, in the resulting image regardless of the light source used to illuminate the scene. By simply setting the correct white balance according to the light source or in some cases weather conditions, the image will be free from colour casts.

Avoid colour casts

Think about when you’re outside at night and you look at your house; the light inside appears yellow, but when you’re in a room at home the light appears white. This occurs because the eyes adjust to colour temperature automatically. When you’re outside at night your eyes will have adjusted to the ambient light, which is why you would now see the colour of the light source.

Cameras, on the other hand, need to be told how to ‘see’ and record light correctly to avoid colour casts. A colour cast is simply a colour shift across the whole or part of an image which gives it an unattractive tinted appearance. Colour casts typically occur when you take an image with the camera set to the incorrect white balance. For instance, shooting indoors under fluorescent light but with Daylight white balance set gives off a greenish light. Since the camera is set to Daylight, which is for ‘white’ light, the camera will record the colour temperature of the artificial light source rather than neutralising it. If you were to shoot outside in the daytime and had white balance set to Incandescent, the colour cast would be blue.