Working with white balance in photography

For years I’ve struggled getting the colors right on my photography – especially my food pictures. Our granite counter tops always appear too orange. (A note on the photos; the only post processing was adjusting white balance in LightRoom in one of the photos).

Counter top with mixed lights using auto white balance

Counter top with mixed lights using auto white balance

Counter top with overhead lights using auto white balance

Counter top with overhead lights using auto white balance

Part of the problem is the mixed light in the kitchen. We have windows on either side of the countertop letting in a lot of natural light. There are fluorescent tubes under the cabinets illuminating the light counter and there are overhead lights with a mix of incandescent and compact fluorescent. When using a flash mounted in a soft box the light would come out better, but not perfect.

My buddy Herb is an excellent photographer and he’s talked about the challenges he’s had taking pictures for his weekly Rotary club at a local restaurant. He confirmed that my problem is likely a result of white balance setting. Adjusting the white balance, corrects the entire color range. While Herb sets his balance manually by entering the kelvin temperature on his camera, I didn’t trust myself to get this right without an absurd amount of work.

I Googled “white balance” and found that Lynda.com has a course on this very subject: Exploring Photography: White Balance and Color Temperature. The fact that the course is taught by Ben Long was an added plus. I’ve watched a few of his courses and I enjoy his style and knowledge. He starts with some great demonstrations on the effects of different light sources. He also demonstrates adjusting white balance both in camera and using LightRoom and Photoshop as well as the difference of white balance adjustments when working with Raw or Jpegs.

I learned more about tools for adjusting light balance based on the real light used in the photos. I purchased a small certified neutral gray card. Setting white balance different depending on the brand of camera. Most instructions on line are for Nikon and Canon cameras. Since I have a Sony (Alpha A65) I had to do some extra work. But it was well worth the effort as I learned more about operating my camera. So win-win.

I placed the white balance card on the counter top and set the custom white balance and reshot the picture. The tones were much more accurate (the entire photo is dark but we can adjust that).

Counter top using custom white balance (2900).

Counter top using custom white balance (2900).

Since I had the white balance card in the photo I tried adjusting the color in Lightroom

Counter using auto white balance and adjusting in LR white balance (3300).

Counter using auto white balance and adjusting in LR white balance (3300).

There is a difference of 400 degrees kelvin, which isn’t much I think. Regardless either method has better results than auto. One workflow I may use is taking a picture such as this before taking pictures of food preparation and cooking. Then in LightRoom I can select a collection of pictures and adjust the white balance on all of them using the white balance selector tool (tool that looks like a medicine dropper in the Basic panel). That was a tip from Ben Long in the lynda.com course – it blew. my. mind.

When setting a custom white balance in the camere be careful to set the white balance card in the area you’ll be taking photos. In this example I held the card at arms length to set the white balance and it didn’t have any florescent light shining on it. The subsequent photos were completely out of whack. The countertop appears a little green.

Counter top using custom white balance. Notice green hue; white balance likely set with card in wrong place

Counter top using custom white balance. Notice green hue; white balance likely set with card in wrong place

When taking photos outside I used a different tool: an Expodisc. It looks like a lens filter on steroids with a raised grid of plastic pyramids on one side and a grayish film on the inside. By holding the disc over the lens and taking a picture back toward your light source you get a nice gray image. The histogram will show a narrow gray peak in the middle; this indicates you have a good white balance for your images.

Here is a picture of the green space behind our house using auto white balance. Similar to the indoor shots, it tends to be too warm.

Backyard with auto white balance

Backyard with auto white balance

This is a nice warm picture but isn’t really an accurate representation of the colors in the back. After setting the white balance with Expodisc I got a much more accurate picture

Backyard with white balance set using ExpoDisc

Backyard with white balance set using ExpoDisc

The Expodisc will be a big help on our Route 66 trip this summer. Now that I am starting to get a handle on managing colors in my pictures I can work on my other challenges, such as composition.

About howardwthompson

I'm a person who likes to travel, read, cook, and eat
This entry was posted in Foliage and Landscape, Photography. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Working with white balance in photography

  1. Misha says:

    You are pretty cool beans, Howard. Nice write up!

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