Understanding White Balance and Colour Temperature in Photography

August 21, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Colours can set the mood, evoke emotions, and tell a story. In photography, the role of colour is pivotal, and white balance plays a starring role in this narrative. To harness the power of colour, we need to understand white balance and colour temperature deeply. Let's dive in!

What is White Balance?

In the simplest terms, white balance ensures that colours in your photos appear as they do in real life. It corrects the colour casts that different light sources can create. Imagine photographing a white sheet of paper. Depending on the light source, the paper might appear slightly blue, yellow, or even orange. White balance allows you to make sure it looks white, just as you see it.

How does White Balance Influence Colour Temperature?

Here's where things get a bit more technical. Colour temperature is measured in Kelvins (K) and refers to the warmth or coolness of a light source.

  • Low Colour Temperature (e.g., 2000K - 4000K): These are warmer, yellow to red lights. Think about the golden hue during a sunset or the warm, cozy light from a candle.
  • High Colour Temperature (e.g., 5000K - 8000K): These are cooler, blue lights. Imagine the crisp blue shade during a clear noon or the blue-ish tint in the shadows on a sunny day.

White balance settings allow photographers to adjust the colour temperature of their images. By doing so, they can either correct for colour casts or creatively use them to set a mood.

Examples of White Balance Settings:

1. Auto White Balance (AWB): The camera attempts to judge the light source and adjust accordingly. It's often reliable but can get tricked in mixed lighting situations.

2. Daylight/Sunny: Assumes a clear sky and is set around 5200K. Use this setting on a sunny day for neutral colour rendition.

3. Cloudy: Slightly warmer than daylight, around 6000K. It compensates for the cool shade of an overcast sky, adding warmth to your photos.

4. Shade: Even warmer than cloudy, since shade on a sunny day can have a very blue tint. This setting adds a significant amount of warmth.

5. Tungsten or Incandescent: It counteracts the yellowish colour of indoor lighting, introducing a blue tint to the image. It’s often set around 3200K.

6. Fluorescent: Compensates for the cool colour temperature of fluorescent lights by warming up the image.

7. Flash: Flash can be a very neutral light source, and this setting compensates for the slight coolness of a flash.

8. Custom: Here you manually set the Kelvin value based on your needs, granting full control over the colour temperature.

9. Preset Manual: You take a photo of a white or grey card under the lighting you'll be shooting in, and the camera uses this to set the white balance.

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Why Is White Balance Important?

1. Accurate Representation: For photographers who need to represent scenes with accurate colour (like product photography), the correct white balance is crucial.

2. Creative Expression: On the flip side, playing with white balance can evoke feelings. A cooler image can feel distant, melancholy, or serene, while a warmer image might feel cozy, nostalgic, or passionate.

3. Post-Processing Flexibility: Shooting with a neutral white balance (or in RAW format, which allows for post-capture white balance adjustment) provides more flexibility in post-processing. 

Deep Dive into Colour Temperature:

As hinted earlier, colour temperature describes the warmth or coolness of light, originating from the concept of an ideal black-body radiator that radiates light of different colours based on its temperature.

Here's a relatable example: Think of metal being heated. Initially, it glows red (warm). As it gets hotter, it turns orange, then yellow, and finally blue-white (cool) at its hottest. Similarly, colour temperature in photography moves from reds and yellows (cooler numeric values in Kelvin) to blues (higher Kelvin numbers), but our perception of these as warm and cool colours is opposite.

Conclusion:

White balance isn't just a technical setting on your camera; it's a bridge to accurate colour representation and creative expression. By understanding white balance and colour temperature, you have a powerful tool at your fingertips. Whether you're capturing the golden hues of a sunrise or the cool ambiance of a snowy landscape, mastering white balance can make your photos come alive. Remember, while the science behind it is fixed, how you choose to use it is entirely up to your artistic vision.

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