Today I have another photography technique to explain, one that can be applied to any type of style, whether it is food, landscape, portrait, or weddings. It is one of the essentials to using your camera – customizing white balance. Chances are you probably know you can change the white balance to automatic, outdoors, or indoors. The problem with that is there are so many variables in each situation that you may not get a true shade of white. Instead of having the camera guess (and sometimes getting it wrong), you can customize your white balance and ensure your color is correct every time.
Caramel Apple Butter Cheesecake Dip: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
What is white balance? White balance is the setting that tells your camera what the color white is. It is what makes white objects appear white. Sometimes photos can be a bit on the “cool” side (blue tint) or a bit on the “warm” side (gold tint). The color white is measured in Kelvin temperature and is very dependent on your lighting situation.
Cherry Blossoms in DC: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
Take outdoor lighting for example. Is it a bright, sunny day? Are there clouds? Are they white clouds or storm clouds? Is the sun visible at all or does the sun appear and disappear every 5 minutes? Where is the sun – to the west, to the east, above you, behind you? Is it early morning, midday, early evening?
White Chocolate Candy Corn M&M Cookies: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
Indoor lighting has different variables too. Are there windows? Big or small? Are you set up next to it or away from it? What about your walls? Is it all solid, see-through, or both (think greenhouse)? What kind of light bulbs are you using – fluorescent? Tungsten? Specialty daylight bulbs? Are they directly overhead or off to the side?
Apple Turnovers: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
With all of these different scenarios, how can one little setting on your camera accommodate all of these situations? Nowadays cameras, both DSLR and point and shoot, are offering more white balance situations, such as shady, fluorescent, and cloudy. However, you can go one step further and make sure you have accurate white balance every time. You can customize your white balance manually, based on your lighting.
Murray ready for some football: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
Why is custom white balance important? As I explained, lighting varies so much, it’s important that you set the white balance for that particular lighting at that particular time. Ever have a scenario where it looks wrong with outdoor white balance but also looks wrong with indoor white balance? You cycle through all of the options, but nothing looks right? Customizing white balance allows me to tell the camera what white looks like, regardless of my lighting. This is especially true if you find yourself mixing indoor and outdoor lighting (such as inside an observation tower with artifacts set up around the room).
Apple Nachos: Auto WB on left; Custom WB on right
How do you customize white balance? Companies make specialty white balance cards you can use, but they aren’t necessary. The key is to finding something completely white to photograph (piece of paper, napkin, white plate). Try to stay away from other colors, such as paper with text on it.
First, place your white balance in custom mode.
Next, you need to place (or hold) the white item roughly in the same spot where your subject is. If you are using natural light, take the picture right before your shoot. The sun is constantly changing positions, so taking a white balance shot at noon will be different than taking one at 1:00.
Zoom in until the white item fills up your screen. Take your picture.
Now you’ll need your manual to follow along because you will be browsing your camera settings. Find the setting that says Custom WB. Select it. Find the picture of the white item you just took, and select it. If your white balance isn’t set to custom, a message will remind you.
Homemade Caramel Sauce: Auto WB on left, Custom WB on right
Check your viewfinder. White should look white. If you aren’t happy with the shade, try again with a different white object or adjusting the placement.
If you are using natural light, you may have to customize your white balance several times during a shoot. I’ve had days where I changed the white balance three times because the sun kept peeking out through the clouds every so often. If your shoot ends up being longer than an hour, you may need to adjust as well since the sun is changing positions.
Murray playing with his Easter egg: Auto WB
That is how you customize white balance. I’ll admit I will throw my white balance on auto if I don’t have time to adjust, such as when I’m on the move traveling, in a spontaneous dust storm (true story), or something spur-of-the-moment happens (Murray playing with his toys). You can adjust white balance in post production, but that is for another post.