What Is This Thing Called WHITE BALANCE?
When it comes to learning photography, I can see why some photographers get baffled and misled by the term White Balance, often written as WB. It can be very confusing. White balance has more to do with exposure issues—getting whites white. I wish digital photography manufacturers would have used “CC” for color correction, or “TC” for temperature correction.
Before digital, the concept of “light temperature” was a common discussion. Without getting too technical, the sun’s temperature is said to be about 5,500 degrees Kelvin (or 9,440 degrees Fahrenheit)— now, that’s hot! It is that temperature that gives us natural-looking colors; colors we are used to seeing. However, regular light bulbs, often described as incandescent or tungsten lighting, are obviously not the same temperature as the sun, and neither are florescent tubes. And that is where the problem begins, with both film and digital cameras. Colors shift when we photograph interior scenes lit by light bulbs or fluorescent tubes, when we shoot with daylight film or have our digital cameras set for “daylight.” Before digital, we would simply attach a color correction filter (not white balance filter) to correct the yellowish colors of incandescent lighting or the greenish colors of fluorescent lighting.
Today, most photographers shoot with a digital camera. Enter the term White Balance, which is designed to correct for that ugly color shift--we don’t need filters anymore for that. Instead of color-correction filters, we simply change our White Balance to either Incandescent (or the light bulb icon) or Florescent (the funny-looking fluorescent bulb icon), depending on the lighting situation. We do this to get more natural-looking colors, not just whites.
Below is a Before & After comparison. The scene is the beautiful and luxurious lobby of the Boulderado Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, which is lit by incandescent lighting. The first example was shot with my camera WB setting on “Direct Sunlight.” The second example was shot with my camera WB setting on “Incandescent” lighting. Notice the big difference between the two!
I think you will be pleased with your future photos when making incandescent or fluorescent adjustments. But, don’t forget to re-set your WB to ‘direct sunlight” or “daylight” when shooting outdoors!
Example #1: Incandescent lighting, with “daylight” WB setting. Notice that, although whites look reasonably white, there is a strong yellowish tint to the overall image.
Example #2: Incandescent lighting with “Incandescent” WB setting. Notice the more natural colors, like the brown leather upholstery, the marble pillars, the wood accents throughout the hotel lobby, etc.