BY SUZANNE WILLIAMS
White balance is typically shown on a camera as a series of symbols: a full sun, a cloud, an incandescent light bulb, and a series of fluorescent light bulbs. Those symbols are the extent of the knowledge most people have about what it is and what it does. White balance does exactly what its name suggests. It establishes the balance of colors in an image based on the whites in the image. Simply put, a white bird or a white flower should look white.
The truth is that all light has a color cast. If you take the same photograph using each of the white balance settings you will see this. The scene in your lens will change from blue shades to oranges and reds. In effect, white balance is adjusting that scene to correct for the type of light. This is where a photographer's choice is key.
I have said it before, but each photograph taken is the result of decisions. White balance is one these decisions, and it is a decision made through the photographer's knowledge of the available light. Is the light indoors under incandescent bulbs? Or is it outdoors in the shade? These seem like simple observations, and they are. However, I am always surprised when people don't think about them before they snap a shot. You cannot always rely on a camera's automatic settings to choose for you because often it will make the incorrect choice.
Even in a scene without whites in it, white balance makes a difference. The waterlily flower below was not white; it was pale yellow. But I had to choose the correct white balance in order for it to be its correct color and not green or white. Often the best way to judge white balance is to compare your photograph to the scene before you. Does it look like what you see? If it doesn't, then make an adjustment and retake the image.
Here is another item to think about. Most whites are not truly white. Go to a paint store and ask an associate for a can of white paint. They will look at you funny and then show you a rack of white paint samples that range from yellow to blue tints. In photography, choosing how you want your whites to appear is very subjective and very dependent upon the lighting. If it is midday in full sun, you would make certain choices. If it was midday in the shade, you'd change those choices.
Understanding white balance is essential to the final result of every photograph. But more than understanding it, is the ability of the photographer to stop and think about his or her choice before releasing the shutter. In the end, it is another important tool to creating visually appealing photographs.
Suzanne Williams Photography
Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.