Many camera owners find the symbol "WB" so strange, they never even thought "what is it?" why they never discovered what White Balance means for pictures.
In my photo seminars, learning about WB (white balance) is the single most important part - it's where people learn to take much better pictures. And the answer was right at their fingertips all the time! Thing is, many people are in apathy about modern cameras that seemingly does everything for you, and they specifically asked the clerk in the shop for "a camera that takes great pictures" why it's a great disappointment that it doesn't always..!
Now, the trick is not to get a camera that can do all for you, but a camera that does what you tell it to do. A simple camera easy enough to grasp so that one can learn to take control over the camera, understand the photographic process and make the right decisions.
And the most important thing about photography is control of light (how much light to hit the film or sensor).
And the second most important thing about photography is quality of light.
Using a white balance card is the easiest and most direct way to get accurate colors. You use it first to set the right balance in the camera (not in Lightroom after). This way the colors are instantly right and you may correct just a little bit.
Light have different color temperatures - also known as Kelvin
Look "Kelvin" up on Wikipedia if you must (it's just the guy who discovered color temperatures) but in short terms, cold light is blue, daylight is white and warm light is orange-red. Unfortunately the human eye adjust very quickly for these differences in color and temperature (even when there's different color temperatures within the same viewing field of the eye) so you seldom notice how big a difference there is.
But film, in the old days, was designed for daylight. Which is why you will notice very reddish photos from indoor birthday christmas and birthday dinners, nice natural colors in the pictures taken outside in daylight, and very bluish and cold colors in the cold areas of the planet.
Cold winther daylight not adjusted for. It's clear in the aluminum, but also notice the skin colors and even the "blue" trees!
Warm artificial light not adjusted. Note the skin colors and how all look a bit dirty and old. It's also cosy, except if you want the true colors and the sparkling image quality of correct color temperature.
Professional photographers are nuts about natural skin colors and natural colors all in all. So the way to fix this color temperature problem was to make either different specialized films for certain color temperatures, but mainly lots of glass filters of various colors so as to adjust the colors into "daylight" temperature by mounting the glass filters in front of the lens. For example - what appears to be very - blue filters would adjust warm indoor light to a cooler color that equals daylight. And even darker/stronger blue filters for very warm colors such as candelight.
When digital "film" (sensors) entered the market with video and digital cameras, so did a digital way of filtering color temperatures into daylight temperature.
One setting is "Auto white balance" which can vary in its ability to get the colors right. Some cameras does it very well in most cases, some other cameras doesn't - and it's not entirely a matter of how new and advanced the camera is. Unfortunately many persons using professional cameras depend on the automatic white balance, which is a fact one can see in the daily news coverage on the television. There's a lot of bluish and reddish footage, which never ends to surprise me, given the fact that they often use the best equipment available (but forgot to read the manual).
Daylight and adjusted white balance; a bit to the warm side. Note how clear the eyes, the skin and all looks when the colors are "true".
Using a white balance card is the easiest and most direct way to get accurate colors.
How to set the white balance professionally and correct
But the right way to use WB or white balance, is to use the camera menus and find the symbol WB >< (or "Manual"). When you find that, the camera will ask you to focus the camera towards a white piece of paper or something white enabling the camera to measure the color temperature. And - actually - voilà you get a correct daylight color temperature! Some cameras require you to press the shutter at the white paper (with or without taking a picture) while other cameras require you to press some other button while pointing the camera. In any case it's easy and quick to do - just look it up in the manual of the camera.
Now, one thing to make sure is that the light hitting the white paper is the same light as hitting the subject you are photographing. I'm just mentioning this because I've seen more than one person walking over to the window to make sure enough light was hitting the paper. And then walk back to a setting with artificial light and shooting the picture (the daylight by the window is ca. 5500 kelvin whereas the artificial light is 3200 kelvin or lower, making the picuture yellow or orange; and the skin colors red, the white in the persons eyes yellow and any expensive female dress in that picture look filthy and old. In short, a deadly sin, but easily overlooked as our eyes doesn't recognize these color differences).
How to use WhiBal
The rather inexpensive WhiBal card displayed in the picuter above and in the video can be gotten in different sizes varying from the above to the size of a magazine frontpage. If your camera will respect a neutral grey card instead of a white (and it will, even if it says "point at something white") you can use the WhiBal card to point the camera at, and voilà - you always have a standardized neutral card in your pocket do set the WB.
Another use is placing the WhiBal card in the picuture (again; make sure it reflects the actual light of the scene) on one or several shots, and then, when developing the files in a program like Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Hasselblad Phocus, CaptureOne, Imacon FlexColor or other, you can adjust the white balance after the fact, simply by selecting the WB tool in that program and point it to the GreyBal in the picture. And when the correct color temperature has been determined in one picture, you can copy that to all pictures in that series. Thought, to do this, you must shoot RAW or DNG which is a picure format where the digital camera capture the picuture with several layers of light and color information, enabling you to adjust it quite a lot after the fact. As the "RAW converters" gets better and better, this is done more and more precisely today than just two years ago.
This implies another fact which is that if you shoot in JPG or TIFF, you shoot a "final picture" with no layers to adjust in.
My own take on color temperature, as well as the amount of light, is to measure it before you shoot, get it right, thus having a final picure at once - and only adjust for perfection. Because no matter how grand the software and the cameras may become, nothing beats doing it right in the first place. It's better handcraft, less time spent on figuring out what might be right, and less depending on software engineers to be greater artists than you.
Photography is simple. There's you and then there's the camera which is a piece of machinery able to control how much light hits the film or digital sensor (by controlling exposure time, aperture [size of the hole through the lens] and the film or digital sensors sensibility to light [referred to as ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 1600, etc].) So don't make it into rocket science.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator.
Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or onlline. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.