Take Better Pictures, Part 1: Understanding White Balance

Got a camera? Want to take better pictures? Then read on. This is part 1 of a series that will discuss several simple things you can do to improve your photos.

Understanding White Balance Consider this. If you take the color white and put it in a precarious situation, say on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, how long can it keep its balance before plummeting into the gorge? No, just kidding.

White balance refers to the color adjustments that a digital camera makes every time you take a picture. Our eyes and brains are incredibly adept at interpreting different types of light. A piece of white paper indoors under artificial light essentially appears the same color as that same piece of paper under direct sun. Digital cameras, on the other hand, aren't nearly so talented. They need to be told what sort of light is present in order to render that piece of paper—and all other color elements—appropriately in your pictures.

Lighting varies according to what is referred to as its "temperature." Colors like red and orange are considered "warm" colors; examples include the light emitted by incandescent bulbs and rosy sunsets. Blues and greens fall on the other, "cool" end of the spectrum; examples include direct sunlight as well as overcast skies.

The temperature is measured in terms of degrees Kelvin (K), with higher temperatures actually resulting in cooler colors. The diagram indicates the different temperatures of different types of light, as well as the common associated icons found on most digital cameras.

Have you ever taken pictures indoors and noticed that everything looks strangely orange? Or snapped a photo outdoors on a brilliant sunny day and noticed that the colors seem drained and not nearly as vivid as you remember them? Or taken a shot of a spectacular sunset, only to discover that the picture looks strangely washed out? All of these scenarios are caused by an inappropriate white balance setting.

Every digital camera, even the simplest point-and-shoot gives you the ability to adjust the white balance to a series of predetermined settings. These usually include direct sun, clouds, incandescent bulbs, and fluorescent bulbs, as well as auto white balance. Many include other settings, such as sunset and flash adjustment.

Cameras are set by default to auto white balance, which strives to achieve a decent color adjustment, regardless of the lighting. This works fine for many typical scenarios, but tends to fail when the light falls farther toward the "warm" and "cold" extremes. (Hence the orange indoors shot, washed-out sunsets, and faded colors in bright sunlight.)

If you're shooting in one of these environments, adjust the white balance accordingly! You'll almost surely notice an immediate improvement in the color quality of your shots. Just remember to adjust the setting again next time you're taking pictures in a different environment.

If you learn how to adjust only one thing on your camera, make it the white balance! You can usually find it under one of the main menus on your camera.

Happy shooting!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Diagram courtesy of exposureguide.com.