On photography: What’s the deal with white balance?
I’ve been teaching beginning digital photography workshops here in Summit County for several years, and one of the most common points of confusion for my students is their camera’s white balance setting. Many of my students are new to digital photography, and white balance is something they never had to deal with when shooting film. Or did they? In fact, when we dropped off our print film at the lab, the lab technician actually determined the white balance during printing.
So what is white balance? There really is no such thing as white light. White is the result of mixing all of the different colors of the spectrum.
However, these colors aren’t usually mixed evenly, so we describe white light as having different temperatures. If the light has more blue in it, we say it is cooler, if it has more red, we say it is warmer. For instance, typical indoor lighting is much warmer than sunlight. If your camera’s white balance is set for “daylight” your images will look very red when taken indoors.
One of the reasons this is a difficult concept for my students to grasp is because of the way our cameras see light differently than our eyes do. For instance, if you look at this newspaper under different lighting conditions (daylight, incandescent, or fluorescent) the paper always looks white. However, your camera might see the paper as blue or red. This is because your camera image sensor sees light in absolutes. It sees red, green, and blue light in terms of numerical quantities. Our eyes see light in much the same way, but only a fraction of what we see actually comes from our eyes.
The fact is much of what we “see” is actually from the way our brains interpret the data from our eyes. The reason that this newspaper looks white to you regardless of where you are reading it is because your brain has learned that newspapers are white, and makes an interpretation based on your experiences. Your camera’s “auto white balance” setting can try to accomplish this same result, and 75 percent of the time will yield acceptable results. However, the other 25 percent of the time when the light is the most interesting, the automatic settings on your camera will miss the mark.
This is when it is best to use your manual white balance settings. For instance, in the accompanying photo of the Grand Canyon, I made sure to set the white balance to “daylight” in order to maintain the warmth of the setting sun.
If I had used the auto mode, the camera would have tried to make the colors more neutral, and the rocks would have appeared to be grayer.
For a more in-depth look at white balance, visit my blog at http://www.timothyfaust.com. You are also invited to my new print exhibition at the Summit County Commons at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 7.
Timothy Faust is an award winning photojournalist living in Breckenridge Colorado. If you have a photography question you would like to see answered in this column, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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