Larry the cable guy did a skit once where he said, “I used to be a lifeguard until some blue kid got me fired.” It’s exactly the same with photography. I used to take family portraits until that blue kid got me fired.
Color balance is one of those things that most non-photographers, (and some photographers) just don’t get. And why should they? When you look at a white sheet of paper sitting on a table, you know it’s white. When you see the same piece of paper outside in the sunshine, it’s still white. Fluorescent lights on? The paper is still white, or is it?
Here’s the problem. Our eyes are an incredible invention. They not only focus in an instant, resolve with incredible clarity, and see millions of colors, but the vision center of your brain can take scenes under entirely different kinds of lighting and adjust for what should be white, or black, or red, or any other color. It does this with such ease that we don’t even realize it’s happening. The fact is, a white piece of paper is in fact white under mid-day sunshine, but at sunset when the light has a warmer color, that same piece of paper looks orange. Under fluorescent lighting, the paper is green. In shade the “white” paper has a bluish cast. This is why, if you’ve ever taken an indoor picture without flash, everyone looked red. There’s a function on our cameras called “white balance” that is designed to counteract this. If your white balance function is set on automatic, you’re letting the camera decide what it thinks looks right. A lot of the time, it works pretty well. The problem is, your camera really has no idea what it is you’re taking a picture of, so there are times when it will be WAAAY off.
White balance is simply too important a function to leave to chance, especially if you’re taking pictures of people. No one likes a picture where someone’s skin looks blue, but if you leave the white balance up to the camera, that very well may happen. Here is an example of identical pictures, one with correct skin tones, the other with too much blue cast.
Looking at the pictures next to each other, the difference is obvious, but to an untrained eye it’s not as obvious if you look at the second picture on its own. There are a couple of solutions to this, the second being superior to the first.
The first option is to change the white balance setting on your camera to fit the scene you’re shooting. If you’re shooting in sunlight, have it on the sunlight setting. Shooting indoors under incandescent lights, change it to the tungsten setting, etc.
The second method is use a white balance card and to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg (more on this another day). This means for todays purposes that the camera is not making any determinations about what the color balance will look like. You take a picture of a white balance card (can be purchased most large photography retailers) sometime during your shoot, or each time you change lighting conditions. The white balance card is a neutral gray, and when you open up the picture later in software such as Adobe Lightroom or Bridge, you can calibrate the picture based on that card. It’s a solid reference by which you can determine what is truly white and what isn’t. Once you’ve done this, you can correct all the rest of the pictures that were shot under those same lighting conditions by copying your edit from the first picture. I hightly recommend this method, though it takes a bit more knowhow. Your results will be better though if you do it correctly.
Besides making skin look correct, color balance can change the entire mood of a photograph. Sometimes an incorrect color balance may look better, depending on what you’re going for. Here are two identical landscape photographs. The first has the more technically correct color balance, but the second is more dramatic.
Both are good and usable photographs, but they say entirely different things. This is the beauty of color balance. Some other time, we’ll talk about when to use color and when not to.