Let's Talk About: Custom White Balance

A while ago, I wrote about how manually adjusting your "EV +/-" setting can help you brighten up your gray photos quite easily. However, if your color balance is way off - beyond just a bit of graying out, then it's time to look at the next step in managing the color of your photos: Custom White Balance.

Yikes. That is some serious blue background!
White balance is a camera setting that adjusts according to the ambient light around your scene. In most cases "auto white balance" works just fine, however, when it comes to small object photography, sometimes "auto" just doesn't give you the results you need. When this happens, it's time to go custom!

Most cameras on the market today will allow the user to create a custom white balance on the fly. In fact, this feature is one of the top three features I recommend when looking for a new point-and-shoot compact camera.

Setting a custom white balance generally requires you to take your camera off of "auto" mode and venture into the realm of the "P" or "A" mode. Go ahead. Grab your camera and turn that little dial (or push that button) to either "P" (full program) or "A" (aperture priority) mode right now. I personally prefer "A" mode myself - I'll write more info on why in a future blog post! (You can do it! Just keep reminding yourself that you will always be able to switch back to AUTO mode at any time :)

Now that you have you camera on a manual programming mode, you can press the MENU or FUNC (short for "function") button and pull up the menu that tells you where the WB or, white balance adjustments are located.

Here's the tricky part:
The only way to guarantee that you are setting your custom white balance correctly find your owner's manual and look it up. (If you don't have it anymore, then do a search online for your camera's make and model number along with the words "owner's manual online". This should get you to a place where you can download it for free.).

I've played with a lot of cameras while teaching my small object photography classes and finding this setting is always different for each camera. Some of them make it easy to find in one button press, and some practically hide the function under lists and tabs and more button presses. In every case, this is the symbol you are looking for:
custom white balance icon (sometimes the black rectangle is a round dot instead)
When you find it, read each step (just read the first time through!) on how to custom set your white balance. Do your best to not get overwhelmed by the sometimes dizzying number of steps you'll need to take to get to the proper setting.

Found the info? Okay. Here's what you do:

  1. Very important Step One: Set up your lighting and display your product in the way that you want to shoot it FIRST
  2. Set your camera is on "A" or "P" mode
  3. Navigate to the "custom (or preset) white balance" mode according to your camera manual
  4. Have a piece of plain white paper in the background and take your white balance reading off of the white surface, being sure that the entire reading window is white
  5. If you're not shooting on a white background, hold a piece of paper in the middle of the lighting environment to get the most accurate reading
  6. Some cameras will not allow you to take a photo of a blank white area - if this happens, focus instead on a contrasting colored edge somewhere in your display - making sure that the white fills as much of the frame as possible
  7. Press the buttons in the order your manual instructs to take a white balance reading off of that white surface
Done! You should immediately notice the difference in your LCD screen preview as the colors turn from blue (or yellow or gray) to pure white (or closer to white than it was before, anyway) like this:

Oooh! Pretty! That silver really is...silver! :)
 Here's a quick side-by-side comparison before / after:


Nice!
Same lighting. Same camera angle. Same distance. Everything the same - just a new white balance reading.

Note: Image still too gray? Take another reading from a different area of the white paper in your lighting environment. Still not white enough? Check out the Adjusting Exposure Value post again to easily brighten things up a bit!

Now that you've done it once, you can do it again. And honestly, I highly suggest you do do it again - and often - because subtle lighting changes can affect each photo drastically. To give yourself your best chance at the truest color take a new white balance reading when:

  1. You change the pieces you are photographing (especially if their colors are drastically different)
  2. The ambient lighting around you changes (if you are near a window, the light will change dramatically with each hour - and cloud - that goes by. Even if you are not close to a window but light is coming in around you, there could be subtle color shifts which can affect your photo consistency)
  3. You change your light setup in any way (moving a light even a couple of inches can change your white balance!)
  4. You change your clothing (For instance, if you start out wearing a white shirt and then change into a red shirt, the reflected color will be very different and could affect your white balance!)
  5. Any time you aren't getting the colors you want to see in your photos (Basically, get used to the steps needed to take a new white balance reading and use them often. Even if you don't think you need to. This will save you tons of time in the photo editing process in the end!)
There you have it! If you haven't tried this before, changing your white balance will dramatically change your small object photography experience. In fact, once you learn how to do this, you will probably start enjoying taking photos again. Trust me on this. I've seen it happen many, many times in class - custom white balance changes lives! :-D

I'd like to know: Did this information help you?
Please share your experiences with Custom White Balance in the comments below!

2 Response to "Let's Talk About: Custom White Balance"

Hope said...

This is the MOST helpful article! I know so many online sellers are perplexed by their "white" backgrounds not coming out white.

What I love the most about your writing *and your teaching methods* is that everything is easy to understand and you include helpful tips that you have learned from your experience. What you are wearing for example. Never thought too much about that - now I am aware and you are spot on!!

Thank you for the post! Awesome!

IMakeCuteStuff (aka Marlo M.) said...

Thanks Hope! So glad you found this helpful and thank you so much for your kind words :)

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