As photographers we often question the strength, type and direction of light, but because most of today’s cameras’ auto-functions are greatly enhanced, it can be easy to forget about the colour of light.

Seasoned shooters will undoubtedly be aware of the importance of white balance, but for those new to photography or for photographers looking to go ‘off piste’ and take a more manual approach to image-capture then this whistle stop guide might be able to help. In this handy tutorial, we’ll explain not only the importance of controlling white-balance, but how it’s done and what effects can be achieved.

Why bother with white-balance?

In this image we wanted to exaggerate the warmth in the light hitting the leaves in the trees, so we used a 'Cloudy' present in the White-Balance options.

In this image we wanted to exaggerate the warmth in the light hitting the leaves in the trees, so we used a ‘Cloudy’ present in the White-Balance options.

By controlling the colour of light photographers are able to shoot with a balance that is as neutral as possible, replicating the colour of natural daylight whilst resolving issues with colour casts. Alternatively shooters can manipulate white-balance values for creative effect.

What is the problem with using auto-white balance?

Most contemporary cameras do a solid job at rectifying ‘problems’ with colour casts in the light, and so when a scene is put in front of the camera it will attempt to compensate for any shift in values to make the scene look as close as possible to natural daylight as possible. So say you were using an auto-white balance setting to shoot a scene flooded with a rich amber afternoon light, you may be disappointed to find the camera diluted the richness of the hue as it has attempted to cool down the scene by using a blue cast to pull back the colour balance to replicate that of natural daylight. Conversely, when you shoot with flash a cool tone is usually projected from the bulb, as such cameras set to auto-white balance will warm the picture up in-camera using an orange/amber cast. Another issue is night photography, as the colour of neon signs or street lights can often affect the camera’s reading and results in confused colour-cast frames. By setting the white balance manually you’ll find a more realistic result is attained.

How can I control white balance?

1. Use Presets

Within your camera’s settings menu you should find a section labelled ‘White-Balance’. Here various presets are offered, each with an icon clarifying in what light the option should be used, for example; flash, cloudy, fluorescent, ambient, indoor, outdoor, sunset etc.  

By telling the camera what conditions you are shooting in, it can more accurately and consistently apply values to compensate. It is especially wise to use this mode if you feel the auto white-balance isn’t on point.

2. Use Custom

By taking a white-balance reading from the swan's white feathers we were able to get a more realistic and natural result

By taking a white-balance reading from the swan’s white feathers we were able to get a more realistic and natural result

Whilst presets have their place, they can sometimes be a little wide of the mark, so to influence greater control find ‘Custom’ within the White Balance settings. This option allows you to take a reading by photographing an area of white or natural grey so your camera recognises and understands the exact lighting conditions you are working in.

If this is the approach you want to go with, it can be a good idea to carry a piece of white or grey paper, card or plastic to take readings from when you’re out and about.

3. Post-Production
Should you return home to discover your images carry an unsightly colour cast, all is not lost. Almost all contemporary photo-editing software allows users to correct colour balance issues with a touch of an ‘auto colour balance’ button or slight incremental change with a slider, but by far the best option is to use a white balance Colour Picker or White Balance Tool to select a part of the image you know to be white or grey. What is more, most of these software products offer options to apply values to batches of images instantaneously, potentially saving you hours! To do this most effectively it’s best to shoot in RAW so you can have a wider scope of flexibility to resolve colour balance issue.

What if I don’t want a neutral balance?

Using a manual white balance will allow you resolve colour cast issues in-camera, but just as it is possible to neutralise the colour of light, it is also possible to manipulate values to create colour-thrown captures. For example, to exaggerate the rich red hues of a sunset force the camera to pump up the colour even further by using the Custom option or use a Preset such as Daylight or Cloudy to make the camera ‘think’ it is shooting a dreary scene and as such will add a warming cast. The result will be a vivacious and colour-striking sunset. There are dozens of situations when using the ‘wrong’ white balance can enhance or exaggerate the colour values of an image, it just takes a little imagination and practice.  Good luck!