How to Use White Balance as a Creative Tool
White Balance is almost always used to match what colors our cameras detect to the colors we see with our eyes. Our brains are very good at managing how we see color. A sunny day looks warm and bright, but the actual color of the light is skewed heavily blue. Indoors, incandescent lights are notoriously warm (yellow/orange) and though our eyes may detect little of this warmth, you can bet our cameras will. White Balance is how we correct for that difference in light color, and how we can make images appear “natural” which is to say, how our brains detect it.
Auto White Balance
It’s useful, certainly, but most of us leave it up to the camera to make the decision about White Balance. I know I do. My cameras are almost always set to Auto White Balance. Since I shoot in RAW, any errors that the camera makes can quickly be corrected in post-processing. At this point, I rarely even think about White Balance. But, perhaps I should…
White Balance can be more than a mindless setting of camera functions or a digital slider in Lightroom. Instead, it can be used as a creative tool. Slight changes in White Balance can change the tone and impact of your images. From dramatic color shifts to subtle changes in tonality, it’s time to elevate White Balance into the realm of creative options in photography.
The methods I’ll discuss here can be done either in camera or in post-processing, but it’s easier using the latter since you can see the impact of your choices real time. Although I use Adobe Lightroom, any program that allows you to adjust White Balance will work.
Dramatic Shifts in White Balance
Big shifts in White Balance can completely change the nature of your image. Shifts from cool to warm tones can take the image from looking as though it was made during the blue hour to post-dawn, or even make the weather appear to change.
A few years ago I was leading a wilderness/photo tour in the Noatak National Preserve in northwestern Alaska. One evening, an afternoon storm was clearing off the mountains and I went down to the river to make a few images. The light was pink, the rolling clouds and falling rain lit by the low sun.
Below are three versions of the same image with only the White Balance changed. You can see the huge difference made by the shift from warm to cool tones. The bluest image is set 3600K, the warmest to 14750K, and the one somewhere in between is 7000K. In the end, you’ll probably choose an image that is neither overly cool, nor overly warm, but how the White Balance setting changes the feel of the image is worth noting.
Water strikes most people as a cool substance, and often it looks better when a White Balance with more blue-tone is selected. I made this image on a day with broken clouds, in autumn, in a small mountain range north of my home in Alaska. Tiny patches of the sun were penetrating the yellow, shrubby willows which surrounded this small creek. The yellow leaves and the partially overcast sky gave the scene a notably warm tone which you can see in the top image, set to 4600K (as selected by my camera’s Auto White Balance setting). I think it’s too warm, so just a subtle push to the blue range (4100K) was enough to retain the warm tone in the single yellow leaf but sufficient enough to cool the water.
Sunsets too can benefit from a little creative tweaking of the White Balance. From the bluff above a beach in Homer, Alaska, I made the image below. The cooler-toned toned image was shot using Auto White Balance (4600 K), while the second I warmed up to 6000 K in processing. I like both versions. So you can see that selecting a White Balance is very much a matter of taste, and how you want your image to come across to your audience. Which version do you prefer?