If you're anything like me, you worry much more about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO than every other camera setting. Even after several years as a professional, there's one crucial setting that I sometimes overlook: white balance.
One reason I tend to forget about white balance is that I shoot RAW image files. RAW image files collect all of the white balance spectrum data, so I can almost always fix an image during post-processing.
But there are good reasons to make it a priority to check your white balance. One morning while watching my kids eat breakfast, I came across a perfect test situation that would illustrate why white balance is so important.
In the kitchen, I had tungsten overhead lights turned on. Tungsten lights are your normal, everyday lightbulb. They have a color temperature somewhere around 3,000 Kelvin, which means they emit an orange colored light.
Outside the west-facing window, there was the blue glow of the early morning. The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon to the east, which meant that the night sky in the west was turning blue, similar to a cloudy or shady sky around 7,000 Kelvin.
The Kelvin numbers aren't as important as recognizing that my scene had two completely different color temperatures: the warm orange of the lightbulb and the cool blue of the early morning sky. If I wanted to create photos of my kids eating together, I would have conflicting color temperatures, which would mean that my white balance would be completely off for at least part of the photo.
To show you what I mean, I created several photos with a white coffee mug on a table and white houses outside the window. In this first straight-out-of-camera example, both the window light and the lightbulbs are illuminating the scene. I set my white balance to tungsten (the little lightbulb), and here's what you see:
Notice that the table and the mug look like they have fairly accurate color. The white mug and the light brown table look their natural colors, mostly. You do see some blue reflection in the mug's handle and on the closest edge of the table. Since my white balance was set to tungsten, anything lit by the lightbulb looked mostly accurate in color. But anything lit by the cool morning sun turned extra cool and blue.
Now look at this second straight-out-of-camera example. The light sources are the same (lightbulb and window), but this time my white balance is set to shade (the little house with the lines under one side):
Notice that the photo is now colored correctly in the opposite parts compared to the first photo. Now the outside light is colored correctly; the light and the houses outside look accurate. But the inside scene--lit by tungsten light--is completely orange.
What should I do to fix the white balance of this scene? The solution is my number one, don't-ever-forget-this tip for photographing indoors: turn off the lights.
That's right. All I need to do is turn off the lights, set my white balance to match the light coming through the window, and my photo will be accurate. Here's the resulting straight-out-of-camera photo with "shade" white balance and the tungsten lights turned off:
While the photo is darker now (there's no light for the table and mug), the white balance and overall color are accurate. I'll show you an edited version of the photo so you can really see the accuracy of the colors. All I did to edit was boost shadows, lower highlights, and do a graduated-filter exposure-boost to the bottom half of the photo:
The difference is so clear, and the solution is so simple. Here are the photos one more time, side-by-side:
I'll say it again: when photographing indoors, turn off the lights.
Okay, there's one caveat: photographing with flash. Flash makes things more difficult. Your flash will have a different color temperature than tungsten lights and that cool morning light from the window. Your flash might match the window light later in the day, but not always depending on the number of clouds in the sky.
And what if you're photographing with flash at a venue that has big windows and decorative tungsten light fixtures? Or what if you're using flash in a school or a church basement, and the scene is lit by windows and fluorescent light? In these situations, you probably can't ask for the lights to be turned off. To balance your flash with other ambient light, use these color correction gels. Color correction gels are a lifesaver when you want your flash to match a different color temperature ambient light.
What if you're at an event, you're not allowed to use flash, so you just have to deal with conflicting color temperatures? Set your white balance for accurate skin tones and live with the inconsistency. Not every photo can be perfect. But if you can, turn off the lights!
Aaron Taylor is a stay-at-home-dad and professional portrait and product photographer. Aaron is forever blessed to be in love and married to his best friend and partner in parenthood. Most of his time is spent chasing his curious, energetic kids, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Aaron lives in Columbus, Ohio. Before moving to Columbus in the summer of 2016, Aaron was a high school English and Drama teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. He spent ten years in the classroom and earned National Board Certification in English Language Arts. Give him his family, a good cup of coffee, and a homemade cookie or three, and all is right in Aaron’s world.