Eric Stoner
Eric Stoner

Eric's professional photographic career spans over 25 years specializing in portraits, weddings and commercial photography using everything from simple lighting to very complex.

The Why, When and How of using Custom White Balance

January 28, 2014

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard some of these expressions when it comes to digital photography: “I use the Auto setting and let the camera figure it all out” or “I’ll just fix it in Adobe Photoshop.” While it’s true that the Auto features in your Canon camera do a really great job, there are occasions to “get it right in the camera” (an expression I use often). While Adobe Photoshop is an awesome tool for image editing, it CAN and, often times, WILL consume a ton of your spare time! If you like that sort of thing then, “more power to you.” But for me, I prefer to get the image as good-looking as I can in-camera.

A big part of digital photography today is getting the white balance correct. One aspect of White Balance is correcting an image for the color temperature of a light source. What is “color temperature,” you may ask? Nearly every light source has a specific Kelvin temperature or color temperature associated with it. The scale, in Canon cameras, ranges from 2,500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin.

For example, tungsten light bulbs usually fall around the 3,200 degrees mark on the Kelvin scale and mid-day lighting conditions usually come in around 5,500 degrees.

Your camera has preset white balance settings, including Auto White Balance (AWB), to aid you in the decision making process.

Incidentally, the AWB setting is the ONLY white balance setting that will change depending on what it “sees” in the picture. It’s nice to use when lighting conditions are changing constantly or you just don’t want to think about it! All the other settings are preset and cannot be changed with the exception of Custom White Balance (see icon photo below) and “K” (Kelvin) setting (not on all cameras) that allow you to dial in a specific color temperature (see icon photo below).

While we’re on the subject of custom white balance, let’s talk about why you would want to use it, when and when NOT to use it and, finally, how to use it.

First, let’s discuss the “why” part of custom white balance. The idea here is to get an image with no color casts. In other words, a neutrally balanced image. What does that mean, you may ask? I’ll provide you with an example. Take a look at the two photos below.

In the first photo, you will notice an amber color cast caused by the tungsten lights in the room. This happens because the white balance was set improperly. In this case, the Daylight WB setting (5,500 degrees Kelvin) was chosen and not Tungsten WB (3,200 degrees ). Choosing the correct WB setting (Tungsten) would have neutralized the yellow cast (see correct white balance below).

Choosing a preset white balance is a good place to start. However, most lights of the same type can vary in color temperature – some by a little and others by a lot. The most noticeable example of this would be with fluorescent lights. Have you ever looked at those long fluorescent tubes in the ceiling of an office building or school and noticed they can vary drastically in color? This usually has to do to their age, but other factors are at play here as well. This makes it very difficult to use one of the preset white balances in-camera, but it’s a perfect time to use Custom White Balance.

In situations when the preset white balance isn’t yielding the results you had hoped for, the best thing to do is either turn live view on and dial the Kelvin temperature to your liking OR perform a custom white balance. This procedure, that I’ll walk you through in a moment, is the best way to get a neutral looking image without any color cast. But anytime the light changes, you must redo the custom white balance procedure. If the lighting doesn’t change, you are in great shape for very consistent color from shot to shot.

If you only shoot JPEGs, getting the proper white balance when you shoot is critical because you can’t make major changes to the image in post-production without doing damage to the integrity of the file. RAW shooters can make these adjustments in post with no image quality loss whatsoever.

Here’s the process of obtaining a Custom White Balance:

  1. You will need a reference tool that is predictably neutral for acquiring a custom white balance. I’ve listed just a few options on the market below that I keep in my bag:
    • 18% Gray card
    • Target (white, gray and black strip)
    • ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite
    • ExpoDisk from ExpoImaging
  2. Once you have settled on the exact location where you’re going to photograph, take a well-exposed shot of the scene with the camera set up “as is” so you have something to compare it to. Then, take your white balance tool and photograph it in the location your subject will be for the shot, making certain that it too is properly exposed. It’s not necessary to fill the entire frame with the reference tool, but make sure the center of the frame is filled roughly to 30%.

    If you’re using an ExpoDisk, place the disk over your lens and move to where your subject will be. You read that correctly: with a lens-mounted device like the ExpoDisc, point the camera AWAY from the subject and toward the position of where the camera will take the final picture from. Point the camera back towards where the camera position will be for the shot and then take a properly exposed picture. There is no need to focus for this process as the camera is only gathering the data it needs for white balance. You should see an image that looks gray upon review of your pictures. The reason for this is so the camera can get an accurate white balance reading based on the light that is striking the subject.

  3. Now, go to the red section on your camera’s menu and locate the “Custom White Balance” or “Custom WB” option.

    You’ll notice the camera will bring up the last image you photographed.

    Press the “Set” button on the rear of the camera and it will ask you if you want to “Use WB data from this image for Custom WB.”

    If you want to select a different image to take a white balance from, simply scroll through your images until you find the correct one and follow the procedure above. Select OK and it is now stored until you change it again.

  4. The last thing you will need to do is change the WB setting on your camera to the Custom WB setting (see photo below)

    The camera will remind you to set this function if it is currently set to another white balance setting.

    From this:

    To this:

One thought worth mentioning is that many photographers try to find something white in the area they are shooting to grab a white balance from. I would caution against this because white can vary immensely in hue. I’ll admit it will get you close and, in some circumstances, be pretty accurate but as a general rule, try to avoid it.

All of the preset white balance options will get you really close to where you want to be, but for the photographer wanting the ultimate control, Custom White Balance is sitting there waiting to be used. It is a bit more work on the front-end, but will save you lots of time in correcting images in post.

Good luck and happy shooting!

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