White balance in-camera and post-processing

What is white balance? Well my friends, I’m going to try to explain this in my own words. Professional photographers, you know I love you, but please flee the scene before I horrify you with my amateur and incomplete explanation!

OK, now that those guys are gone we can dive straight in. Let us begin:

Your camera measures the array of colors in an image based on what it thinks is white. For example, if you take a picture of a child sleeping on a white sheet, the camera will produce an accurate array of colors only if it recognizes that the sheet is white.

Imagine that sheet is lit by fluorescent lights (greenish or blueish tints) or incandescent lights (yellowish tints): if you don’t set your white balance, the camera can give you a yellow or green or blue-colored sheet, which means that the child’s skin will look … well, not like a healthy child’s skin should look. And who wants that? Nobody!

Your job is to tell the camera “this sheet is white. Measure the rest of the colors according to this reading of white.” And the child’s skin problems will immediately disappear (phew!).

Here is an example of food photography in which my blue cheese looked a little yellow. I was like “No, man–it’s white.” The picture above looks a bit unappetizing to me … the one below is somewhat better thanks to a more accurate white balance. Can you see the difference?

Yellowish hue

More accurate white balance

Getting a good white balance is especially important in food photography. This example illustrates it perfectly:

It's a nasty pile of whatsit!

No, thank you.

I'll take a bowlful. Make that two.


Some people prefer a “warm” hue to their photos (the whites are yellowish), and a “cold” hue can be appealing for other photos (the whites are bluish). Here are two examples in which I purposefully altered the white balance to produce a more interesting shot:

Celtic Fest, with bluish hue

Celtic Fest, with yellowish hue

Out of curiosity, do you like one in particular over the other? (I will perform a 5-step psychological analysis of you based on your answer)

However great it is to play around with color balance to express your creativity, it’s good to know how to get a well-balanced and accurate color in your picture straight out of the camera, so that you don’t have to make corrections later.

If you have a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), I encourage you to grab it at this point and play with it as I go through these steps. They will be slightly different depending on what you’re shooting with, but it won’t be that hard–really! I tried to make it super easy to follow by photographing my Nikon’s LCD screen with my point-and-shoot . . . but the pictures were just a bright blur. So track with me through some instructions. With my camera (Nikon D5000), this is how I set my white balance:

  • Press “Menu” button
  • Select “Shooting Menu” (the little camera icon)
  • Select “White Balance” (6th option down).

At this point, I can select the kind of light I’m shooting in: fluorescent, direct sunlight, shade, cloudy day, incandescent, etc. This option is fine and dandy–but I prefer another way. Let’s continue . . .

  • The final option under “White Balance” is called “Preset Manual”. Pick this; it will allow us to set the white balance manually. The word “manually” might send off little alarm bells in your head, but it’s only going to take about 5 seconds (literally), and it carries a distinct advantage: imagine that you’re taking a picture of your family on a couch. Since you’re inside, there are probably many different light sources going on at once. There’s a little natural light coming in from the windows, there are a couple incandescent bulbs, there’s some fluorescent light spillover coming from the kitchen, and there’s a weird-tinted energy-saving bulb (hideous). No matter how fancy your camera is, I guarantee it doesn’t have a “combo” option for this particular mixture of lights. So the solution is to simply tell the camera “This is white” by using the “Preset Manual” option. You’ll never go back, and the family-on-the-couch picture will turn out great. A word to the wise: sometimes when shooting inside, you have to alter your white balance as you move from the kitchen (usually fluorescent lighting) to the terrace (natural light) to the living room (incandescent light)–unless you’re using your fancy-schmancy external flash. But that’s another story.
  • You will see 2 choices: “Measure” or “Use photo”. Pick “Measure”.
  • You will get a prompt: “Overwrite existing data?” Select “Yes”.
  • The next prompt says “Take photo of white or grey object filling viewfinder under lighting for shooting”. In other words, find something white (like a wall, or the back of a sheet of paper) and take a picture. The screen should now say “Data acquired” at the top of the info screen.

Ta-daa! This is the best way to get your white balance set correctly.

Now–what if you need to correct it after the fact? There’s an easy solution: use the color balance slider in your photo editing program (would anyone join me in 3 boisterous cheers for technology?). If you own a Mac, iphoto has color balance sliders called “temperature” and “tint”. They’re in the bottom right-hand corner:

iphoto color balance slider

Just drag them back and forth until you find a balance that you like.

Of course, my preferred option is Photoshop, because it allows you to play with a little more than these other programs I’ve mentioned, isolating the shadows, midtones and highlights of the picture and allowing you to adjust them independently.

Let’s take this picture of my Mom as it came out of the camera. It has potential, but it’s way too orange/red for my taste. Her skin is practically a neon flame. My husband happens to like how that looks, but track with me for the sake of the example. Here is the original:

For some reason, uploaded to this post it looked a little better–but in the screenprint below you can see how orange it looked when I opened it in Photoshop. It was time to fix it. You can bring up your color balance slider by going to “Image”, “Adjustments” and “Color Balance”, or by hitting Command B on a Mac. You can play around with the highlights, midtones, or shadows, and you can alter each one with the 3 sliders. Options, options, options! I love options. I am sometimes paralyzed by options, but I love them.

Let’s play with the sliders to get that fluorescent orange hue off my mom’s face. A little to the right … and little to the left … adding a little cyan and blue to make up for the bright orange …

And there you go. The screenprint above shows where I left the sliders at the end. She needed a LOT and I’m saying a LOT of cyan before I was happy. I like how it looks. When uploading it to this post, unfortunately it looked a lot darker and a lot browner:

. . . but if works for the sake of the example.

Aim to get good color balance SOOC (straight out of camera), but have fun playing as well. A fun adventure: purposefully pick a preset white balance such as “incandescent light” when you’re outside. Or pick “fluorescent”–see what it does to your pictures. Who knows, you may like the effect!

Now go into the world, and set your white balance manually! It will make your momma proud.

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8 Responses to White balance in-camera and post-processing

  1. Vicki DeArmeyv says:

    Hi Jenna, you are quite the gifted teacher, I must say. I am not a good learner but this time I thought, I am going to try to follow her directions and see if I can learn something. Well, I got as far as “measure”, clicked OK, but did not see “over right existing data”. When I clicked OK for “measure” it sounded like the camera was taking a picture, then it put me back at the shooting menu with “white balance” on the list again. What did I do wrong? I just have a simple Nikon digital but I was able to do everything you instructed except for where I just explained. Once you get to the “over right existing data” and that works then do you just start taking your pictures? I am lost, as usual… but want to learn this technique because you are so right about the pictures and some of the colors that come out. I look through that little screen, see my very pretty dish and then “click” and when my actual photo comes up I am horrified at the colors that do come out. It’s mostly ugh, mush, all the descriptive words you used. Thanks for any help you can give me.

    • Jenna says:

      Hey Vicki! I’m not 100% sure since I’m not familiar with your camera in particular, but it sounds like when you hit “measure”, you need to have the camera in front of a white surface and it will take the picture for you automatically. After it takes that picture, you should be set up to continue shooting and see a good color balance. Give it a try and let me know. If that doesn’t work, tell me the exact model of your camera and I’ll do some research for you online to see what i can find.
      And yes, once it says “overwrite existing data” and you hit “yes” on my camera, it prompts me to take a picture. I take a picture of a white surface, and after that I can go back to taking pictures.
      Let me know if this helps or not …

      • Vicki DeArmeyv says:

        Ok. Well, that makes sense. I will try that. Like I said the camera did sound like it was taking a pix, but I was not sure if I was at that step yet, so just wanted to make sure. I never saw the “over right existing data” that is why I had that question about it taking me back to the menu with “white balance” being highlighted.

        OK!! I just did it and it worked. I see a ton of difference. I am not doing a tapas blog right now, but will let you know how it works with the food. The picture I just took was of 4 framed pix, over our fireplace, that hang on a white wall. I totally see the difference. Thanks so much!!

      • Jenna says:

        My pleasure! =) I know each model of camera is slightly different–I’m glad it wasn’t too much of a stretch to figure out how to set it on yours.

  2. vj says:

    I am the yellowish hue kind of girl! It may have something to do with the warmer feeling radiating from yellowish as opposed to bluish hues. I will be patiently awaiting the result of your 5-step analysis :)

  3. nadia says:

    Thanks for the white balance tutorial, Jenna! I always get it wrong when shooting indoors at night, so I make sure I shoot in RAW so it gives better results post-process.

    PS: Your mom looks so sweet :)

  4. I know this is nearly a year tardy but I have just discovered you from freshly pressed. I must offer my sincere thanks for explaining and demonstrating white balance in such a clear and non-techie way. I have a D3000 and, being loathe to follow instruction booklets, just use the white balance options as listed and didn’t even know how to access the manual bit. You have opened my eyes and will revolutionise my food photography. I am a cancer health educationist and have just started a related food blog. I get good feedback on my photos, but mainly because I plan everything around daylight hours. Not anymore. Thank you SO much Jenna. You are a star!

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