10 Cool Animals With Cool Features That Have Cool Photos Photography 101: White Balance Explained

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Photography 101: White Balance Explained

The term “white balance” originates from the world of video imaging where a device (a waveform monitor) is used to match or “balance” the signals from the camera’s red, green, and blue channels to make the whites of accurate in different lighting conditions, ie. balancing your white. In this article, we’ll use “white balance” for digital cameras in a similar sense: the process of accurately measuring the color temperature of your light source, based on your lighting conditions, and using that information to correctly balance your whites and colors.

Symptoms of misplaced white balance

If your camera’s white balance is set incorrectly, or if your camera chose the wrong color temperature measurement algorithm, then you will observe a color cast in your image: it will either look a little blue, a little orange, or a little green. A low color temperature shifts light toward red; a high color temperature shifts the light towards the blue. Different light sources emit light at different color temperatures, and thus the cast color. Let’s take a look.

What is color temperature and how is it measured?

Color temperature is effectively the warmth emitted by a light source and the effect that temperature has on the intensity of any particular color in the visible spectrum. For example, a 200W bulb has more intensity at the orange/red end and shows violet and blue with very little intensity. This makes your photo look “warm”. Daylight has equal intensity across the spectrum, so you see violets and blues with the same intensity as oranges and reds. But the shadow or overcast sky has more intensity on the blue/purple end, so your oranges and reds will have very little intensity. This makes your photo look “cool”.

Here are some examples of color temperatures from common light sources:

1500 K: candle light

2800 K: 60 W lamp

3200 K: sunrise and sunset (will be affected by smog)

3400 K: tungsten lamp (ordinary household lamp)

4000-5000 K: cool white fluorescent lamps

5200 K: bright midday sun

5600 K: electronic flash.

6500 K: very cloudy sky

10000-15000 K: clear deep blue sky

Newer light sources, such as fluorescent lighting and other artificial lighting, require further white balance adjustments, as they can make your photos appear green or purple.

How does a digital camera automatically detect white balance?

Your camera searches for a reference point in your scene that represents white. It will then calculate all other colors based on this white point and the known color spectrum. The data measured by its RGB sensors is then run through many predefined numbers and equations to figure out which white balance setting is most likely to be correct. Remember, white balance is the automatic adjustment that ensures that the white color people observe will also appear white in the image.

Setting your camera’s white balance to AWB will ensure color accuracy in many conditions. Your camera will adjust the white balance between 4000K – 7000K using a best guess algorithm. Auto white balance is a good choice for situations where light changes over time and speed is an issue (eg animal photography, sports photography). However, you should avoid using automatic white balance settings in the following situations:

1) Your scene is too dominated by one color

2) Color accuracy is absolutely imperative

3) You are shooting particularly warm or cool scenes (eg a sunset)

White balance presets

Most digital cameras come with some preset white balance options. These presets work well when:

1) The light source matches one of the preset white balance options

2) Your scene is too dominated by one color

Let’s consider the most common default options:

Tungsten – “Tungsten” is the name of the metal from which the filament of the lamp is made. The color temperature of this setting is fixed at 3000K. Best use: overnight. Otherwise, your exposure will come out too blue. Creative use: Set exposure compensation to -1 or -2 and use this setting in daylight to simulate night.

Fluorescent – The color temperature of this setting is fixed at 4200K. Best Use: Fluorescent, mercury, HMI and metal halide lights used in your garage, sports stadiums and parking lots. Otherwise, your exposure will come out too purple.

Daylight – The color temperature of this setting is fixed at 5200K. Best use: studio strobe lights. Otherwise, your exposure may have a slight bluish tint.

Cloudy – The color temperature of this setting is fixed at 6000K. Best use: direct sunlight and new light. This setting will warm up your photo giving it an orange tint, which is often desirable in landscapes and portraits. Creative use: sunsets.

Shades – The color temperature of this setting ranges from 7,000K – 8,000K. Best use: shooting in shade, no direct sunlight (cloudy), backlit subjects. Otherwise, your exposure will come out too orange. Creative use: direct sunlight – will warm up your photos even more!

Flash – The color temperature of this setting is fixed at 5,400K. This is almost identical to Cloudy, but sometimes redder depending on the camera. Best use: cloudy sky. Otherwise, your exposure will come out too red.

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