the composer's toolbox: understanding white balance


For enthusiasts new to the world of an SLR camera's manual settings, white balance often gets lost in the flurry of understanding around aperture and shutter speed. But if you're comfortable experimenting with manual or semi-manual settings, white balance is an everyday adjustment -- or it should be, especially if you're not yet proficient with post-processing (in Photoshop or any other application).

Even if you've just grabbed your camera as you run out the door, take a moment to do these three things:

  1. Set the ISO to your environment and subject (i.e. higher/faster ISO when light is low or subjects are in motion, lower/slower ISO when light is plentiful and subjects are still).
  2. Set the camera to match your creative goals. Choose 'manual' settings for optimal control per-shot, or to 'aperture priority' or 'shutter speed priority' depending on what's most important for you (blurring the background for a portrait versus freezing the motion of a soccer game, for instance).
  3. Set the white balance to help your camera best replicate the light.

In this messy snapshot, my son is in mixed light conditions -- he's indoors under incandescent bulbs, but next to a window's natural light. As seen above, white balance settings designed for cooler tones of the outdoor light cast too much yellow when used inside. The 'tungsten' setting, recommended for incandescent bulbs, cools down already-warm tones -- but the natural light streaming in through the window makes 'tungsten' too blue for this shot.

In this case, the white balance I chose is close to the setting for flourescent bulbs. Given the lighting conditions of the scene, it's the best compromise between yellows and blues -- and most important, it most accurately recreates the tone of what I experienced, what I saw with my eyes.

Play with white balance. Take one or two shots of the same scene at each setting and compare the results. Watch how the mood changes, and correct issues of colour temperature (such as compensating for overly-glowy reds by cooling the temperature of the light).

White balance and colour tone can be adjusted in Photoshop in a variety of ways. But by setting your camera properly each time you shoot -- or by trying something different -- you're already a few creative steps closer to your envisioned end result. Have fun!

Guest contributor and author Kate Inglis of sweet | salty spends a lot of time with her camera in-hand, chasing light, and writes for Shutter Sisters as a founding contributor. In November 2009 her first novel was published — The Dread Crew: Pirates of the Backwoods, a book January Magazine calls "a spirited tale, gorgeously rendered." The second edition lands in Canada and the U.S. in April 2010.

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