White Balance 101 or How to make people look sick.

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You know when someone says to you “this will be funny one day” and how you want to hit them because it’s not funny now. That’s how I felt after I had gone to an event with my new camera (this was about two years ago now) and I didn’t know what White Balance was let alone that I needed to be watching out for it and apparently the White Balance was wrong and longish story short: everyone looked sick. Like real sick to the point that all the photos from this family moment are in Sepia or Black and White because no one likes to look sick.

The essence of White Balance is this: All light is not created equally. Certain light sources cast a certain color cast. Because of this you need to correct the White Balance depending upon your light source. In digital cameras this is typically a setting you can change, if you’re working with traditional film then you can buy filters for your lens to adjust the color cast. I suppose you could also use the lens filters on your digital SLR but it’s another thing to carry so I stick with my UV Filter standard.

Each camera has a different way to change this setting but most normally you have these options usually represented by these icons:whitebalancesymbols

Direct Sunlight – What they have in California and Texas and other places I don’t live.
Cloudy – What I shoot in 90% of the time when I’m outside 
Shady – What I shoot in the other 10% of the time when I’m outside 
Incandescent – Regular old light-bulbs
Flash – Be careful here.  I’ve never had success with this White Balance.
Fluorescent – Those awful light-bulbs in shopping mall dressing rooms
Custom – What I shoot in 95% of the time when inside.

Taking a custom white balance takes a quick turn to your camera manual and a white or off white or gray surface.  Now some people use a White Balance Grey Card Set or a White Balance Lens Cap Disk.  I am not one of those people because you’d have to remember these things or carry them around with you and I am juggling a squirmy seven month old and a camera and probably something else at the same time.  So I take a white balance off the sheets, the wall, the ceiling, the bathtub, the door frame or my hand.  Yup.  I’m all MacGyver like that.  

Someone asked me the other day if it mattered – if I really saw a difference when taking a custom white balance.  YES.  DO THIS.  DO THIS ONE THING TODAY.  If you’ve never done it.  It will make a difference.  And you’ll be happy.  You really will be.  Now lets look at an example so that you can see what White Balance does.


We’re going to come back to this example tomorrow when we look at White Balance at the 200 level.  But for now go get your camera manual and turn to the page about setting Custom White Balance.

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