What is White Balance?

If you’re a beginner to photography and cinematography you’ll be hard-pressed to wrap your head around the word ‘white balance’.

What is white balance, really? Here’s a quick video of the simplest explanation I can think of:

White Balance definition for photography and cinematography

Here’s my humble definition for the beginner:

White balancing is the act of telling your camera what white really is.

Cameras can be smart, but not always. There are three kinds of white balance settings in your camera:

  • Auto White Balance (AWB) – the camera tries to automatically guess what white is.
  • Presets – there are custom preset settings in Kelvin (see below) that you can choose quickly. The two most widely used are 3200K and 5600K.
  • Custom white balance – this is when you manually set the white balance, as the above video shows. You need a calibrated white/grey chart for this.

What is “Kelvin (K)” as far as white balance is concerned?

Kelvin is the SI unit for temperature (Not Celcius/Centigrade or Farenheit). This is what scientists use. So that people are not confused by ºC or ºF, somebody decided to use Kelvin (K) instead.

Note: There is no ‘degree Kelvin’. You’ll find many people incorrectly calling it degree Kelvin or writing ºK. This is WRONG! It’s just Kelvin or K.

For better or for worse, the color tone from orange to blue is measured in Kelvin. The lower you go, the warmer it gets. The higher you go, the cooler it gets:

KelvinColorTemperatureScale

That’s why people talk about ‘color temperature’. It’s just color expressed in Kelvin. The range can extend from about 1500K to 27000K or more, but for standard cinematography and photography use, we can stick to about 1800K (candle light, golden hour) to 7000K (blue sky, overcast).

The strange truth is there is no universal definition of white – no absolute white. It’s just perception. This is why the camera needs to be told what you think is white.

E.g., tungsten sources tend to hover around 3200K. So, if you shine a tungsten halogen source (rated at 3200K), and then set the camera white balance to 3200K, what color is the white/grey card? It will be white or grey, no orange tinge.

In other words:

  • White balancing makes white/grey appear white/grey, with no color tinge.

What is the color temperature of daylight?

There is no universal standard, even though many people erroneously believe it’s 5600K. In any case, most lighting fixtures rated for ‘daylight’ hover around the 5600K mark. The color temperature of sunlight varies depending on where, when and how you perceive the light.

So, whatever your lighting source is rated for, match that color temperature in the camera. Voila! This is what a calibrated white or grey card allows you to do. The two recommended charts for video are:

Should you follow white balance religiously?

Herein lies the most important question. The answer is:

No.

There is no such thing as correct white balance, because it is a creative choice. How white should your whites be, is your choice.

The idea behind white balance is to find a starting point, so that when you shoot different shots under varying lighting conditions, you have a place to return to. This is important if you want to match your shots.

However, things are not simple. Here’s another myth:

Myth: White balancing two cameras (or one camera at different color temperatures) will also match colors. WRONG!

If you’re interested in taking your understanding of white balance and its limitations to another level, watch this video:

Also, read the corresponding article to the video for more notes.

Ultimately, the Kelvin setting you use for white balance is one of the creative tools at your disposal. Cinematographers and Videographers change it all the time to get their signature look.

I hope this simple explanation of white balance has helped you understand it on a gut-level. That was all I intended to accomplish. If you feel it has helped you, please let me know!

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