Why Custom White Balance is Important

Posted on November 26, 2011


One of the secrets to taking really good images is to make images that you don’t have to spend time editing, and look really good. One way to do this is through setting the custom white balance. Many people who have digital cameras never set this, and often skip correcting it in their editing. The white balance is the way you set the color temperature of the lights around you to a neutral level, or be able to control this setting to change the image you take to convey a certain feeling in it using CTO (color temperature orange) or CTB (color temperature blue) gels on our lights or even using filters on the lens.

I can hear you saying, “Wait a minute. What is this?” Each type of light generates a slight tone or color – its frequently or tone is given in degrees kelvin. Lower numbers are cooler (blue), warmer numbers are higher (orange). Tungsten light is that created by a filament and has a warm or orange tone to it. On the other hand, normal daylight would appear cooler and bluer. The traditional florescent has a slight blue and green tone to the light it casts. Candle light is the orangest of light. Snow, even if exposed correctly, will often have a slight blue cast to it.

I can hear you saying, “So what?” The biggest thing to take away is that different light has different colors and those colors can be used to give a certain feeling to the image. The “White Balance” is used to adjust the neutral tone of the light. Most cameras have the white balance set to “auto” – the camera then takes its best guess at what the white balance should be between a set temperature (usually 3000-7000 kelvin, if you wanted to know). If you have one type of light source, you will find it is more accurate than when there are two or more when it will be completely off. Frequently, there is a lack of consistency in white balance from image to image, too, because each image is calculated individually. When you look at the choices when you move off of “auto”, there will probably be the following choices: Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight or Sunny, Cloudy, Shade, Flash, and Custom. While these choices make a good setting, there will be differences between the light. We don’t know whose flash or fluorescent bulbs were chosen to define the white balance so it may still be off. Even so, choosing one of them is better than the auto setting.

This leaves custom. This is the best way to set the white balance. I don’t know if this is still true, but you used to be able to use a clear coffee can lid or a Pringles lid and still have a reasonably close white balance set. Alternately, if you have some money and can spare setting it with the right tool, you will want to purchase an Expodisc. With an Expodisc, there are two versions: normal and warm. The normal gives a normal tonality and should be used for all types of photography. The warm version is strictly for portraiture and gives a slight warming tone to the light and makes people look better than the normal Expodisc.

To set the white balance, you set your camera to manual focus, and then make sure the image is out of focus. Cover the lens with the filter you have (either a lid or Expodisc), point to the camera to the light source, and take a picture. It will frequently be grey, but may have a blue, red, or green cast to it. This is normal. Go into the menu system for your camera, and choose the “set white balance” option. The last image you took will be showing (the grey tone). Select it. Make sure the white balance is set to “custom” and now you have set your white balance. Shoot a test image and make sure it is set correctly. If not, set it again.

As you work with your camera, you will find that “white balance” is a setting that will make your images stand out and apart from other people’s. In addition, you will be able to use this setting to style or give added meaning if used properly. Auto white balance does its best to set the color tone for each image. Each of the preset color settings does an even better job, but doesn’t always give you the right “balance” in all situations. For the catch all situation, you need to set your custom white balance.

Edit: A good engineering friend who shoots with a Nikon has pointed out to me how easy it is to adjust your white balance in auto mode, and what you can do to “nudge” the colors a little bit. With a Nikon, you go into the white balance, and while still on the “auto” tab, right over once more. A gradient will appear that will allow minor adjustments to your white balance. I shoot Canon for digital images, and figured if Nikon has something like this, then Canon would, too. You will find Canon’s under the “Bracket” setting in your menu and they provide the same functionality. Keep in mind that these only make slight changes, but they do afford you some control over the “auto” white balance functionality. Lastly, don’t forget to set it back to normal when you are done shooting, or your camera will apply this to all the images you shoot until you do.