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Advanced Tip: Fix your White Balance

Posted by Matt on January 11th, 2009 filed in Advanced Tips, Digital Photography Hints & Tips, Taking Photos

Digital cameras have a huge advantage over film cameras – they don’t use film. As well as saving you a fortune in buying the stuff and getting it developed, this also means you can do some magic with how the digital ‘film’ in your camera responds to the light that it receives. You can change the effective ISO, the light sensitivity of the film for one, but the biggest effect can come from adjusting your camera’s white balance settings to match the local light sources – from daylight, to fluorescents to flash.

What is White Balance you ask..

Not sure what ‘White Balance’ can do for you? Well not all light is created equal – the colours that come from bright sunlight are different from those that appear under bulb light indoors, with the later tending to be more orangey-red with tungsten bulbs, or even a lurid green with fluorescents. Normally most cameras sit in AWB (Auto White Balance) mode, which means they look at the surrounding light conditions and adjust what they take to make white look white in your photo, rather than some off-white shade. This is a digital only feature, with film cameras you have to manually work out what light is around and use different coloured filters to adjust the light – something you can do with digital to get interesting effects.

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Beyond Auto White Balance

For most people the AWB mode is good enough, and the advanced electronics in modern cameras does a bang up job of working out what to choose. However once you get a bit more advanced with your camera usage you can start taking control of the white balance yourself. The first step is to work out whether your camera has white balance settings. If it does, great! You generally have the option to choose bright sunlight, cloudy and other bulb related settings. Just by looking around you can see what the ambient light conditions are and choose the one that’s best for you. Simple!

Of course sometimes it’s not so simple. Are the bulbs around you the right kind of tungsten? Or a mix of newer, energy efficient bulbs? What if half the photo is in daylight and the other in bright man-made light? In these situations more advanced cameras offer you the chance to set your own white balance. To do this you need to find a handy white wall, set the camera into manual white balance mode – then take a picture just of the white wall. Your camera will now adjust its colour levels to ensure that what it records makes that white wall actually look white, rather than green or orange. This is another of those times when however clever your camera is, it doesn’t know anything of the real world in which it operates – that’s where you come in.

Now you’re set your manual white balance you can take as many photos as you like as long as the mix of light sources around you doesn’t change. They have changed? Well don’t worry, just take another manual white balance photo and off you go again.

Changing White Balance After the Shot

Setting manual white balance can be a bit of a pain, what if you can’t find a white wall for example? Well one option is to carry a greyscale card around with you and take a photo of that whenever you start shooting in a location. The other part of this equation is to always shoot in RAW. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – RAW is your friend. In this case having a RAW photo rather than a JPG lets you change the white balance when you get home to your computer. Combine that with the greyscale card photo and you can rapidly adjust your photos to best effect.

So now you know all about white balance there’s no excuse not to have the perfect colours in your images. Digital photography wins again!

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