In my last post, I talked about what white balance is and how crucial it is. In this post, I am going to go over each white balance setting, what they mean, and when to use each one.
All professional DSLR cameras have these settings. Some of the consumer models won’t have all these settings, or with some cameras, if you are in certain shooting modes, the cameras will not let you change your white balance.
I’m using a Canon 5D Mark II on the left, and the Nikon D3300 on the right showing the camera menu for White Balance.
Here is a list of each white balance setting option – they are numbered 1-9 to match what you see in the first image above.
1. Auto White Balance (color temperature varies with every shot)
If you are unsure of which WB setting to use, AWB can be a good option. With this setting, your camera estimates what color the light is in your scene, and sets a custom white balance each time you take a picture. The problem with this setting, is your images could end up shifting all over the place from picture to picture.
Every time you take a shot, the camera will adjust the white balance, even if nothing has changed, as the camera’s estimate of the color of light can shift. It’s not always accurate either. Again, if you are unsure, this is your best option. This symbol is just AWB.
2. Bright Open Sun – high noon Sun – this means camera’s color temp is set to 5500 Kelvin
I never suggest photographing food directly in bright open sun light because the shadows will be so harsh, and the food will not look appetizing. However, if you are in this scenario, bright noon sun is supposed to be the cleanest, purest type of light, and is very neutral in color. Use this setting.
This shot to the left is technically food, but obviously not prepared, so direct sun looks great here.
This symbol is the traditional sun symbol – circle with rays all around it.
3. Open Shade – camera’s color temp is set to 6500 Kelvin
Open shade is the light that happens on a bright sunny day, but you are not directly in the sun, but in an area of shade. When it’s a bright sunny day, there is a blue sky. This color will actually color contaminate your shady light. To counteract the blue sky contaminating your scene, set your camera to this setting.
In the shot above, you can see how cool, blue-ish, the image on the left is because of the bright blue sky outside. This was taken inside my studio with no direct sunlight – this is north facing open shade light. This symbol is the house with hatch marks to one side of it.
4. Cloudy Day or Overcast – camera’s color temp set to about 7500 Kelvin
When you have a cloudy or overcast day, this is great light for shooting food. This light is nice and diffused, and very neutral. No blue sky color contaminating your light. You will need to be on a tripod because the light won’t be as bright. This symbol is the cloud.
5. Tungsten Light (household light) or incandescent – camera’s color temp set to about 3200 Kelvin
Many countries are phasing out this type of light source. In photography, we have specialty bulbs that have tungsten filaments. These have a warmer color temperature so you must adjust your white balance accordingly. This symbol is a light bulb with an array around it.
6. Fluorescent Light Tubes – color temp varies
This setting is for counteracting that green color cast you would normally get along with the color temperature. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is referring to the Tint setting of your white balance. The green cast can vary wildly with different bulbs. If you are using fluorescent lights, and try this setting with bad results, your only other option is to try Auto White Balance.
The image to the left is of one of those cheap CFL photo light bulbs – these lights are about 35 points green! So you can’t mix this with any other type of light.
Some Nikons have several fluorescent light wb settings to choose from. This symbol is a horizontal bar.
7. Strobe, Flash – 5500-6000 Kelvin
Strobes or flashes are trying to emulate the color of daylight at high noon – that’s very neutral color light. You would use this setting for that light source. This symbol is the lightning bolt.
8. Custom white balance setting
Custom white balance is when none of the other settings are working for you. This is where you would shoot a white card, and then the camera would figure out your setting for you. Once you set your custom wb, your camera will use this wb for each shot until you change it again.
This will make your color temperature very neutral – which to me is too cool. I like it warmer.
The symbol for this is a white circle with two white triangles under it.
9. Manual Setting for Kelvin.
I use this for most of my shots and I change it around depending on how I want the images to look. Remember, I said that the camera’s job is to make your light look neutral? Well, I find that too cold for most food photos.
I love warming up my image, and I probably warm up the wb on about 95% of my shots.
If I’m shooting strobes, this might be set to 6000, or higher. If I’m shooting with Tungsten Light, this will be around 3400 Kelvin. If I’m out at a farm, I will take several shots and see what the Kelvin setting should be set to to make the food look its best.
Using your white balance creatively
So, with all that being said, here is what most professional food photographers do in practice. We might set the camera white balance to a specific setting, but we will always tweak that when we edit our shots on a computer with a color corrected monitor, after our shoot.
If shooting tethered (camera is hooked up to a computer) , while we are shooting, as each shot comes in, we tweak the color temp of the images using software.
The camera’s LCD is never accurate enough to show you real color detail, so you must edit your images on a color calibrated monitor and do your final color editing that way.
My next post about white balance will talk more in detail about using WB creatively.
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