We Have To Talk About White Balance

I never wanted to ever write a post like this. I’m not a nit picky technical shooter. Everyone has their reasons for why they shot something and for how they shot it, and I like to respect that. White balance always made me nervous because it seems such a technical thing. But while researching and writing about finding your photography style, I discovered white balance is a part of your style. It’s also super important in product photography. Therefore, I must address it. 
With that, I’m writing this post. A technical post on white balance because it is super important. Even if you only shoot with your phone it is important. And did you know you can customize white balance on your phone?

But I know your eyes probably glaze over when you hear white balance or any other technical thing. And you hastily read hoping you grasp what you’re supposed to do. I’ll try not to make this technical, give you visuals, and in hopefully a non-eyes-glazing-over way. I promise if you grasp white balance, your photos will look so much better, even on your phone!

White Balance

I may have jumped ahead and assumed you know what it is. But I don’t want to bore you, so here’s the short and skinny. Light has color. If you hold a prism up to light, you can see the color. Cameras capture that color, read it and reproduce what it reads into pixels. Sometimes it reads the color correctly and sometimes it doesn’t, if shot in auto or with presets. You know this because you’ve seen the yellow images that you may get in artificial light. 
We measure the color of light in what’s called Kelvins. Knowing Kelvin measurements is important if you dial in your white balance settings. Some cameras allow you to dial in the specific Kelvin measurement for good white balance. Others don’t and you have to rely on an expo disc or grey card. 
If you shoot with your phone, there are camera apps (like Camera+ and ProCam) that allow you to dial in Kelvin. 
It’s a good idea to study photos for the white balance. The more you study the more you see the color of light. And the more you see it, the more you can address it for your style.
Below I shot several photos with slightly different white balance settings to show the slight differences. The first image is SOOC using auto white balance in camera: It’s close to correct. The white foam board is supposed to be true white, as is the napkin, and they are both almost there. The plate is a little on the yellow/creamy side anyway. But based on the board when looking at it, I can tell it’s a little on the yellow side, maybe a little magenta too. I often see this in product photography where the white balance is a little too creamy or yellow. It seems like they were trying for the bright white look but it’s only a little off.


This is with the daylight preset:

A little more dramatic but you probably wouldn’t notice it as much except that the photo above shows the drastic difference. Below is the photo taken with a grey card:


Much closer (maybe still a little too much magenta).

What About Style?

I’ll admit, I’m an auto white balance shooter. I’m impatient and don’t want to take the time to dial in or shoot a card. But when it comes to product photography, I dial in my settings with Kelvin or use a grey card.  
After shooting the photo above with my grey card, it still was not as warm as I like it. Yet, I need to be careful adding warmth to it because almost everything in it is white and the exposure is on the dark side. You may like your photos a little cooler. And this is a part of your style. Something you have to determine.
Know what effect you want. What feeling you want to evoke from your photos. When you know this, you can determine the best white balance and coloring for your photo. Vision should drive everything for your photo.
Using color theory (the feelings that come with certain colors) determine which way you should lean with your white balance. For me the photo above benefited from a little warmth – but only a touch. Here:

It also had a little magenta in it, so I brought it back a little. With a big difference:


What Does It Mean For You?

So what! You may say. Or maybe you read over this real quick and didn’t feel like you had the patience for it. Sorry I tried. But you made it here; the point where I give you the low down on what to do:
1. Practice ‘seeing’ the white balance. Look at photos – lots of them and determine the colors in the neutrals. This way you can train your eyes to see the color you want from your photos. If you like warm tones, you’ll love a warmer white balance but if you want the bright whites, you know you’ll lean to a cooler white balance. I’m not saying go overboard – these should be subtle. 
2. If your camera or phone app dials in Kelvin, use that. Or use a grey card or expo disc (correctly) to get your white balance settings. Because it’s a lot trickier to fix it in post processing.
For both grey cards and the expo disc, make sure you are shooting in the light your subject is in to set them correctly. Oh! And read your manual on how to set a custom white balance. I thought I was using my grey card correctly, then I actually read my manual and found I was not. 
3. Fix it in post processing. If you shoot raw this is much easier to do. But please fix it! It’ll make a world of difference in your photo. 
4. Calibrate your monitor
I haven’t even covered skin tones and that’s another ball game. But do make sure your people aren’t red, orange, sickly green or deathly blue. Keep them consistent and check that it is their normal skin tone. There are numbers and a science but I’m not covering that here.
Adjusting White Balance
Later I’ll cover how to adjust your white balance in post processing both in Lightroom/ACR and on your phone using an app.