Many students when starting out to shoot are bewildered by white balance, as they should be. Its actually really complicated when you start looking it up in dictionaries. White balance is extremely important for our images. To put it simply, setting the white balance in our shots helps control how colors will look in the picture. The way this is measured is by color temperature and specifically measured in a unit called Kelvin. Named so after Lord Kelvin in 1848 when he invented a way to measure the ultimate extremes of hot and cold. For our uses in photography certain lighting conditions will have a color temperature that we can apply to our camera when shooting so we have control of the color of the light in the picture. People generally refer to this as a “cooler” (bluer) light or a “warmer” (red/yellow) light.
Every camera has some sort of white balance setting on it. The new point and shoots however, bury this setting inside menus or other setting so it can be very hard to find on some cameras.
I’m using a Canon 5D here showing the camera menu for White Balance.
1. Auto White Balance (camera estimates what the setting should be) – your images could end up shifting all over the place with this setting. I never shoot with this on.
2. Bright Open Sun – high noon sun – this means 5500 Kelvin
3. Open Shade – this means about 6500 Kelvin
4. Cloudy Day or Overcast – about 7500 Kelvin
5. Tungsten Light (household light) this means about 3200 Kelvin
6. Florescent Light Tubes – This setting is usually offsetting the green cast you would normally get along with the color temperature. This can vary.
7. Strobe, Flash – 5500-6000 Kelvin
8. Custom white balance – this is were you would shoot a white card and then the camera would figure out your setting for you.
9. Manual Setting for Kelvin. I use this for all my shots and I change it around depending on how I want the image to look. If I’m shooting strobes this might be set to 5500 or 5600. If I’m shooting with Tungsten Light this will be around 3400 Kelvin. I will take several shots and see what the Kelvin setting should be at to make the food look the best.
Even a less expensive snappy camera will have some setting choices but the less expensive snap shot camera will not have a custom Kelvin option. In this case you have to pick a light source or leave it on AWB and just hope it looks ok. You might have to tweak it later in Photoshop.
Here is an example of the same image. On the left the image was shot set for Tungsten light, 3200 Kelvin. Its way too blue. The image on the right was shot at a custom setting of 7000 Kelvin. A “normal” or “neutral” white balance for this would have been around 6000 Kelvin. But I wanted to warm it up even more so I like the camera set to 7000 Kelvin.
If you’d like to learn more about this and the rest of your camera settings I go over this in detail in our classes.
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