How can white balance be creatively utilized in photography?

minutes to read Last edit on 28 February 2024

Understanding the White Balance (WB) setting is essential for photographers. While most are familiar with its technical aspects, this article explores the creative dimension of WB. Beyond achieving neutral tones, discover tips on leveraging white balance creatively to enhance your artistic vision.

White Balance setting on camera
white balance in photography

Quick reminder about white balance

White balance is a camera setting that adjusts the colors in a photo to ensure that white objects appear truly white, regardless of the lighting conditions. It helps maintain accurate and natural color representation by compensating for the color temperature of the light source, whether it’s warm (yellowish) or cool (bluish). Proper white balance ensures that colors in a photograph look true to life and are not affected by the color cast introduced by different lighting environments.

Essentially, your camera’s sensor evaluates the light hitting each pixel, using red, green and blue filters on separate pixels to measure color. Exposure settings influence the brightness of the image at the time of shooting, with the data then “locked in”. Correct exposure is essential to avoid the loss of highlights or shadows, such as clipping of highlights or the introduction of excessive noise in shadows. Unlike exposure, white balance is flexible. When capturing RAW files, you can freely adjust white balance after capture.

Photographers might assume that setting white balance precisely is essential, but what truly defines “correct”? Despite camera presets for various conditions, is it necessary to always adhere to them? And if so, does it result in images with entirely neutral colors, possibly missing the scene’s mood?

Consistently achieving perfectly neutral white balance may result in a lackluster portfolio. Let’s question the notion of “correct.”


white balance photography tips
white balance photography tips
White balance is subjective, let's welcome creativity and explore for exciting and unique results.

How to set white balance creatively?

What if you prefer not every image to be perfectly neutral? Scenes can be stunning with cool blue hues or a warm glow. Subjects and scenes vary, and creative inspiration guides photographers.

Here are some general guidelines for choosing a creative WB setting:

  • The warm glow during the “golden hour” in late afternoon or early morning frequently calls for warmer white balance settings.
  • The “blue hour” light, occurring after sunset or before sunrise, typically benefits from cooler white balance settings.
  • Any scene that seems ominous, foreboding or dark, could benefit from a cooler cast.
  • A scene intended to convey emotions such as love or romance can benefit from a warm color palette.

Of course, rules are made to be broken. Let your creative side explore other creative options to see what happens. Adjust the WB slider in post-production, take notes and experiment. Remember that RAW adjustments are unlocked and non-destructive, so there are no wrong choices.

white balance photography tips
white balance photography tips
Let your creative side venture into alternative white balance options and observe the results.

Tips for setting white balance for creative images

Choosing daylight WB captures scenes naturally with warm or cool color casts. Enhance images by adjusting the WB slider further in post-processing. Dragging it down (left) adds blue/cool tones, while dragging it up (right) adds warmth/red. This applies universally across RAW editing software.

For additional creative control, you can adjust the Tint slider. Moving it down/left adds a greenish cast, while up/right imparts a magenta/purple tone. Exercise caution, as the Tint slider can have a swift and pronounced impact.


Creative WB In-Camera

When it comes to setting white balance, using the in-camera settings is interesting. It’s beneficial to see your creative vision during photography, not just in post-production. For that, you can use the Kelvin WB setting, which offers precise manual control, similar to the “M mode” of color temperature. Easily warm up or cool off your images with intuitive adjustments, providing creative flexibility on every occasion.

Auto WB vs. WB Tools Vs. Creative WB

Some experts recommend leaving the camera in automatic white balance (AWB) mode, while others suggest advanced tools such as a white balance meter, opaque filter or gray card for “perfect” customized color measurement. These are interesting options if you want to achieve a neutral, consistent white balance for every image captured.

Unfortunately, both of these suggestions have their limitations if you want to explore different color tones. Memorizing different presets, such as daylight, cloudy, shaded, or incandescent, fluorescent, tungsten, is also a time-consuming effort.

Choose “K” WB on your camera, starting at 5000 K for daylight. The range extends down to 3000 K for indoor lighting and up to 7000 K for cloudy or shady conditions.

If you take a picture during the blue hour, the period just before sunrise and after sunset when the sky adopts a deep blue hue, your WB setting must exceed 15,000K to achieve overall balance. This allows warming up the colors and giving a warmer look to the image. However, if you want to opt for a colder, bluer ambiance, you can set the WB to 6700K, evoking cold, nighttime vibes and offering a different creative direction.

Experiment with going warmer or cooler by approximately 500K or 1000K and observe the results. For instance, if capturing a daylight scene that you want to appear warmer, try setting it to 6000K.

Tips for creative white balance photography
Tips for creative white balance photography
Warm WB vs Cool WB, photography ideas and inspiration.

Warm WB : Photography ideas

If you capture a sunset image, the recommended setting would be around 5000K (daylight WB), and for complete neutrality, you would need to go down to about 4000K. However, thinking creatively, it wouldn’t make much sense. To enhance the warm tones already present, you can opt for 5800K.

When capturing an image shortly after sunrise, consider adjusting the WB to approximately 6000K, deviating from the conventional 5000K. This choice aims to elevate the viewer’s experience, allowing them to truly sense the atmosphere as if they were present, witnessing the scene firsthand.

Cool WB : Photography ideas

If you capture a scene illuminated with very blue light, adjusting the WB to 7000K conveys the ambiance one might have experienced in real life. Setting the WB to 50,000K balances the image, creating a relatively neutral WB that isn’t an accurate representation of the actual scene.

What can we conclude?

We hope that the idea of creative white balance photography is now clear and easy to understand. Whether in the field, utilizing Kelvin WB, or during raw conversion, the technical aspect is relatively simple. Adjust your WB up or down until you achieve neutrality, and then explore the artistic process by pushing it towards warmer or cooler tones.

Use these tips on white balance in photography to experiment, embrace the new and not feel obliged to adhere strictly to the rules, striving to make every image look neutral and “right”. The real correctness is defined by your individual artistic vision.

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