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How to manipulate white balance for creative photos

Light doesn’t just have a strength and a direction, it also has a temperature. This temperature will determine its colour and when you understand light’s temperature and its variation in colour, you can begin to have some fun with its effects on your photos.

Here the model is turned into the light from the window and the flash is angled to light the wall behind her. The white balance was set to Cloudy in camera to preserve the overall warmth in the image and enhance the orange colour of the light behind her.
Here the model is turned into the light from a window camera-left and a flash, also camera-left, is angled to light the wall behind her. The white balance was set to Cloudy in camera to preserve the overall warmth in the image and enhance the orange colour of the light behind her.

The colour of light

The temperature of light is measured in Kelvins (K). To understand the scale, think of a horseshoe being prepared by a farrier. It starts dark and dull as a raw piece of iron. Its temperature is low. If the farrier starts to heat it in a forge it will start to glow red. As the heat increases, the horseshoe moves through a spectrum of colours, glowing red, to yellow, to blue, to its eventual pinnacle when it is literally white-hot. In that time it has moved from around zero to 10,000 K and that is what you are looking at with regard to white balance.

Different lights, different colours

Think now of a traditional household lightbulb. It’s a tungsten light that emits an orange-coloured light. Shine it directly on your skin and you acquire an instant fake tan. That light is measured at around 3,200 K and is very warm in appearance. If you don’t want the fake-tan look you can set the camera to counter it by choosing the Incandescent or Tungsten white balance (usually represented by a little lightbulb symbol). That tells the camera to cool down all the colour tones in the image so that the orange skin starts to become normalised. The creative advantage here is that any natural light in the image will also cool down and take on a blue tone. This can lead to some fantastic images.

Here the model is being lit by a single flash to camera left. It is gelled to project a tungsten light (orange light) onto her. Also to camera left is a window allowing natural light to enter the room. The tungsten light is focused tightly onto her face and shoulders. The white balance in camera is set to Incandescent and renders the skin tones naturally, allowing the window light to cool and render as blue.
Here the model is being lit by a single flash to camera-left, gelled to project a tungsten light (orange light) onto her. A window, also camera-left, allows natural light to enter the room. The tungsten light is focused tightly onto her face and shoulders. The white balance in camera is set to Incandescent and renders the skin tones naturally, allowing the window light to cool and render as blue.

Which white balance setting on your camera?

Typically your camera will have an Automatic white balance setting, a range of options including Fluorescent, Incandescent, Cloudy, Sunny, Shade, and Flash, and a Custom white balance setting. Auto settings can work well and setting your own will guarantee accuracy. However a quick tip is to work with the cloudy setting. It tends to guarantee me beautiful skin tones. Try it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
White balance iii
Weddings are the one situation where the Cloudy setting doesn’t always work, particularly in churches that can be a mix of all sorts of light temperatures with fluorescent lights fighting with tungsten, candles, and natural daylight. On these occasions it’s sometimes desirable to carry a grey card to set a custom white balance, or, if the worst comes to the worst, produce a beautiful set of monochrome images for the final album!

Setting a custom white balance

It’s worth picking up a grey card—a card coloured at 18% grey—to help set your white balance accurately. If you place the grey card in a scene being photographed, ensure that it fills the majority of the camera screen, and take an image, it provides the perfect way to render the white balance of the scene. Providing the lighting isn’t altered, then all images taken in that setting will require the same white balance. This is ideal for working on a range of images.
White balance iv
Back in the studio, open up the images in your software, select all the images taken in that setup and use the White Balance Eyedropper to click on the grey card in that first image.
Learn more about light and lighting techniques using just one flash in John Denton and Adam Duckworth’s One Light Flash. The external flash unit is one of the most versatile, but probably under-used tools an amateur photographer has. With dedicated sections covering equipment, indoor and outdoor lighting, post production, and case studies that cover in depth lighting situations for different genres such as wedding, fashion, lifestyle, and boudoir, One Light Flash aims to show you how the first flash you buy may be the last you ever need.
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One Light Flash, Denton & DuckworthOne Light Flash, by John Denton and Adam Duckworth
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