White balance is how we compensate, with the camera, for the colour of light we are using. We have to manually correct for this as we do it so automatically with our eyes that we don't even notice that we are doing it. Ever looked at a photo that you took and been stunned by how weird the colour was? Maybe it was late at night and in a darkened room, and the lighting was overall orange? Or shot in a cafeteria, and all the faces looked greenish - and you're sure it wasn't the food?
Light has a tint to it, and camera geeks refer to it as "temperature" - light being hot (they will even spout the actual degrees at you) and tending to orangey, or cool and tending to bluey or even green (yuk!) Sunlight, of course is warm - and looks most natural to us - I should think because we've been looking at things in sunlight all our lives on a personal scale, and for millennium on a collective scale. Orangey light, while obviously unnatural - still doesn't offend us much, as it resembles firelight and candle light - lighting we have been also using for thousands of years. Blue light just looks ugly. And that would be the relevant innovation of fluorescent lighting.
So in order to take a decent picture of our stuff - we need light, and quite a bit of it, and sometimes you just can't get it the right colour.
Some folks do, in fact, wait for the perfect weather conditions - schlep all their stuff outside, and madly shoot it then. Some of us, aren't so fond of waiting. And even outdoors light can have coloured overtones - reflections from a very blue sky.
So, when we set the "white balance" in our cameras - we are effectively pointing to something and saying to the camera - "there is your reference - that thing there is white, truly white, make it so. Deal with it."
Kind of nice to be able to be so definitive!
The procedure should go something like this. As I said - your instructions will vary but it shouldn't be too hard. Write them down on a card if you have to. I suggest a white card, and you can use the back of it as your reference point.
The basic idea will be to:
- turn your camera off the totally-automatic mode,
- navigate through the menus to where you set the white balance,
- point the camera at something white that is sitting where you will be taking your pictures - a sheet of paper is excellent for this, and
- hold down some button or other that sets the white balance on your camera. After that, you are good to go.
And it doesn't even have to be white - it can be a neutral grey as well. If you have a grey backdrop without any colour - then that will be fine as well. Some of you may even remember that way back when photography was a hobby firmly in the hands of the geeks - there was a thing called a "grey card" or a "neutral grey card." Those are still useful - you can use it to set the white balance - it also makes a pretty good backdrop or stage to shoot on. Photography wonks will be rolling their eyes at this - you weren't supposed to touch the surface of it - in case you got - gasp! - fingerprints on it.
That's it. Some cameras will keep that setting until you turn the setting off, i.e. until you go back to automatic mode. Others, much to my annoyance, will lose the setting when you turn the power off, or, if they are running on battery power, when they power themselves off. If your camera does this - you may want to plug it into it's charger to prevent it from powering off just as you pick it up after arranging the last shot. Really annoying, that feature. 150 lashes with a wet noodle to the idiot that dreamed that one up.
Now, of course, I can hear those of you with a little knowledge out there clamoring "Wait a minute - doesn't she know you can buy special light bulbs that are the right colour? You can do all of this with a studio set up and buying the right lights and, and, and ... "
Well, yes, you can - and it helps a lot. I do, in fact, have a bank of special lights to light my photography area - now! But I used to do it with two reading lamps and a sheet of white plastic. We live in a real, messy world, and in the real, messy world, those expensive photography lights age and the colour of their light shifts with time, so you still need to compensate for the colours. Also - there is likely to be ambient light from other sources.
So, here's some pictures to illustrate all this. And, as I said last week - in order to get these - I shot 27 photos in a few minutes - to ensure that I got what I needed. Actually - that's a pretty good ratio - 27 pics to get 13 usable ones.
OK - here is a distance shot of my photography set up - you've been dying to see this, haven't you?
I am using 3 colour-corrected but fluorescent coil bulbs purchased from a specialty photography supply house at about $70 each - and I am using fluorescent bulbs because I have to sit next to them and have them close to things, and because they don't get hot, I don't melt and I don't start fires with them. Fluorescents aren't all bad - despite my tendency to sneer at them.
Except for cropping (trimming away unwanted parts of the picture to force attention to the relevant parts) - these pictures are unaltered.
And this is the photo taken with the above set up, without setting the white balance. I've included my fingers in all these shots so that you can see what happens with skin tones. Cameras are biased to produce natural looking skin tones - on the assumption that people will be taking pictures of people. It's useful to know what the designers of an object thought you'd be doing with it when you use it!
And this is the same set up, with the white balance set. I just used the grey background for the reference for the white balance.
While the last picture wasn't bad taken alone, notice how much nicer the skin tone is in this picture, and how much richer the colour is my little lampwork dragon bead.
OK, let's swing across the room - here, the lighting is a bare, 100 watt GE Reveal (natural light - incandescent or "regular") lightbulb (is it just me, or do these "Reveal" brand lightbulbs not only cost more, but burn out waaaay faster? I like the light, but sheesh - talk about a short life span.)
That's a paper towel for a background.
And with the white balance set - using the paper towel as the white reference, I might add!
But while I'm here at my assembly workstation, let's turn the white balance off and - I have one of those magnifying task lights with a round fluorescent tube. Let's turn it on. You can buy them now quite reasonably - but this one is about 30 years old - at least - and weighs about 50 pounds and is as awkward as heck and was really freaking expensive in it's day.
But it still works.
The combination of the overheat warm light bulb and the close up fluorescent tube cool light actually create a very nice balance of light - which is intentional - this is where I actually make jewelry, after all. Still using the paper towel as a backdrop.
And with the white balance set - not very much different.
Like I said, this is where I assemble jewelry - it helps to have the colours true to life where you work.
Let's swing across the room again - to an Ott-Lite(tm) that I have as a work light on my desk.
Yeah - my workstation is a mess. A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind.
Without the white balance - a distinctly bluish cast to the picture. Again - that good old paper towel as a back drop.
And - colour corrected. More natural skin tones, you will note.
And one final swing around the room to another location - this time, another GE Reveal Bulb in a desktop lamp.
Up close and personal - the lighting is distinctly orange.
Definitely looks odd.
In comparison - this white balanced version seems too blue - but the skin tones - while in shadow and hard to see - are more natural.
It is, in fact, a cr4ppy photo and needs more light of some sort - but that wasn't the point of the exercise.
So there you have it - you can work with the lights you have. Expensive photography lights are great - I don't suggest otherwise - but sometimes you have to work with what you have.
This little item alone will elevate your photography from amateur to professional class.
Remember, our original mandate was to either
Oh, and when you go to use your camera for other things - remember to turn the white balance back off when going back outdoors - (or set it again for the outdoor conditions if you like,) otherwise your happy snaps of your kids and dogs in the pool will come out distinctly odd looking. ;-)
Alrighty then - go white balance the world. Next week - shutter speed and why you care.