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How to Set White Balance in Photoshop

(This lesson is part of my “How It’s Done” series of photography lesson)

When working with Adobe’s RAW converter, it is recommended that you work from top to bottom with the various sliders and controls.  For that reason it makes sense that we start our discussion of Photoshop with the top most control in the RAW converter, the white balance sliders.  The white balance sliders are the first things I play with when I open a photo in camera RAW.  It is a rare to find a RAW file that can’t be improved with a little white balance tinkering.  However, setting white balance can be a tricky business.  Your eyes can deceive you and it is often necessary that you trust numbers and process over your initial perceptions.  Don’t worry though, once you understand the couple little catches, setting white balance is an easy process and there are a couple tools and tricks that can really help you out.  In this lesson I am going to teach you my methods for setting white balance.

White balance is a subject that a lot of beginning photographers struggle with.  The problem is your eyes see light differently than your camera does.  Every light source has a slightly different color cast.  The reason you don‘t see these colorcasts in your everyday life is your eyes and brain are constantly adjusting to remove colorcasts.  Somewhere in your subconscious you have an auto white balance control.  Imagine those little Photoshop white balance sliders inside your head.  Every time you turn your head and view a different temperature light source your onboard white balance sliders move.  They make a billion tiny corrections a day and you don’t even notice it.  It’s actually even more complicated than that.  Your eye does a lot of things with color that your camera won’t.  For example, your eye amplifies the variations in the green spectrum more than your camera.  It is believed that the ability to see greens better is an evolutionary adaptation that goes back to our hunter gatherer days.  Go take a photo in a lush green forest.  Open it up in Photoshop.  You will be disappointed.  The greens won’t look anywhere near as vibrant as you remember seeing them in the woods.  But, I digress — the important concept to understand is your camera records the actual color of light and the colors your camera records are often different than you remember seeing with your human eye at the moment you took the photo.  To make the colors in your photo look like the scene you remember you have to manually adjust the white balance.

On your camera you have a few options for setting the white balance.  Camera manufacturers normally include settings for common light sources.  The usual white balance settings are sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, florescent, and auto.  These settings might help you get in the ballpark of where you want your white balance set, but they are almost never perfect.  The conventional wisdom says if you are taking photos in a room lit by incandescent light bulbs you should set your camera’s white balance to tungsten.  If you’re taking photos on a sunny day you should use the sunlight setting.  I say forget the conventional wisdom.  My white balance never, ever leaves auto (unless I am shooting with a gelled flash, but don’t worry about that —  that’s twenty lessons down the road).  Here is my reasoning for shooting with white balance auto.  What if you are shooting photos on a hazy but otherwise sunny day in downtown Los Angles?  Do you use the sunlight setting or cloudy?  How do you account for the slightly yellowish cast the smog adds to your photos?  There is no correct answer.  You could get all crazy professional and use manual white balance, but I say you don’t have to go that far.  If you learn how to set white balance correctly in Camera RAW it doesn’t really matter how you set your white balance in camera.  I’ve found that my camera’s auto white balance does a better job keeping colors correct than the other fixed settings my camera offers.  From there, I use the RAW converter to set my white balance exactly as I want it.  Changing the white balance in RAW does not damage your photo at all (for the geeks that might argue this point with me I concede that you might clip a channel in an extreme case, but that possibility is so rare that it need not be mentioned in a beginner’s tutorial).  If you are shooting in jpeg and use the wrong white balance setting, yes, you could possibly screw up your photo with the various acrobatics it takes to get the colors corrected.  When you set the white balance sliders in the RAW converter you are simply assigning a white balance setting like your camera would if you were shooting in jpeg.  The difference is that in RAW you get to choose an exact setting rather than being stuck with the five or so options your camera manufacturer sets.  Doing color correction in RAW I find is actually much simpler and quicker than color correcting a jpeg file.  There are a lot of reasons to shoot in RAW format.  For me, I’d shoot in RAW if the quick color correction were the only advantage.

So let’s take a look at the white balance sliders.  These sliders are pretty slick in that they work in the same two axis’s as your eyes.  The top slider is blue versus yellow and the bottom slider is cyan (green) versus magenta (red).  Move the top slider to the left and your photo turns more blue.  Move the bottom slider to the right and your photo turns more red.  From these four colors you can make any color on the visible spectrum (or gamut of your output device — for the technicality police).  Your eyes work the same way.  The cones in your eye measure the difference between blue and yellow and the difference between green and red.  From these readings your brain can discern color.  Color blind people are usually blind in one of the two color channels.  They can either see in blue and yellow or red and green, but not both at the same time.

So how should you manipulate these two wonderful sliders?  I say wing it!  Put those sliders where they make your photo look best.  If it looks good then it is good.  End of lesson.  …It would be nice if things were that simple, and sometimes they are that simple.  Sometimes you’ll open a photo and see that it has an obvious cast.  Maybe you took a portrait in the shade of a tree and your picture is too blue.  Slide the top slider to the right, towards yellow.  When your picture looks right, bam, you’re done setting white balance.  However, there is one major catch.  Remember, your eyes are always subconsciously working to remove color casts from your vision.  If you stare at a photo with a color cast for long enough, pretty soon your eyes will have adjusted and you won’t be able to see the cast.  I’ve found that if I stare at a photo long enough pretty soon the color cast disappears.  There have been times when I’ve edited a photo to what I thought was perfection, got up from the computer to get a drink of water, and when I sat back down I saw that the photo actually had a horrible color cast.  My eyes had tricked me.

OK, enough with the jibber jabber.  It’s time for me to show you a couple of examples of how I set white balance.  We’ll start out with a photo I took of some row houses in San Francisco.  Before you make fun of my photography skills, I’ll have you know this picture has already earned me $40 at istock and it has only been posted for a month (here‘s the finished product).

I start by dragging and dropping the raw file into photoshop.  Adobe Camera RAW opens automatically.  Below is how the photo looked before any adjustments.

It’s not horrible, but I can tell that it needs a couple adjustments.  In a glance I can see that the white balance doesn’t look right, and maybe the photo is a tad dark, or slightly underexposed.  Take note of the White Balance settings (5300 and +7).  They are highlighted yellow.

The first thing I do is click on the auto white balance dropper.  The white balance dropper is a favorite tool of mine.  Click it on something in your image and it turns that spot to a neutral/no-cast color.  If you click it on an object that is supposed to be a neutral color like gray, black, or white, Photoshop will reset the white balance sliders to make the color cast disappear for that one particular neutral spot and the resultant settings should make the color cast disappear across the entire photo.  It’s easier to show how the Auto White Balance Dropper works than it is to explain it in words.  Let me show you how I work this handy dropper.

So what do you see in this photo that should be a neutral color?  What should we click the Auto White Balance Dropper on?  I see a gray house, white clouds, some white trim on a house, and a white minivan.  Let’s give it a shot and analyze the results.


For my first attempt at getting the correct white balance I clicked on the gray house.  I clicked right where you see the big red “X”.  Notice the white balance sliders moved from their original positions.  They are now set so that the point where I clicked is neutral.  The RGB values at the “X” are 141, 141, and 141.  Those equal values mean the house is exactly gray, no cast at all.  However, I think the picture now looks too blue.  What do you suppose happened?  If you were with me when I took this photo you’d know that it was taken in brilliant morning sunshine.  The morning sun has a slight yellow cast.  By clicking the auto white balance on a sunlit area I removed the yellow cast, but now the photo looks all wrong.  To get rid of the yellow the yellow/blue slider moved to the left, towards blue.  Check out the value vs the orginal.  In the original the temp was set at 5300.  Now, the color temp is slid down to a chillier 4700.  I think I want the sunlit highlights to remain yellowish.  I’ll try again (note: to get a slider back to it’s original setting double click on it.  The double click will bring it back to the same setting as when the photo was first opened).

Let’s stop and think for a second.  What other area’s might be neutral and a good place to click the White Balance Dropper?  How about the white trim on the house?  While that area might is white, I think it is lit by the same yellowish morning sunlight.  If we click on the white trim our photo will look a little blue and the pretty morning light will be killed.  How about the white clouds?  I don’t like to use clouds for white balance for several reasons.  First off they are rarely ever perfectly white.  Clouds are usually  far away from the viewer and you are looking at them through blueish air.  This effect would give the clouds a natural blueish cast that you don’t necessarily want to remove.  Also, clouds can be thin and partially transparent.  This can also give them a blue cast that you’d want to keep.  The clouds in this photo have two strikes against them that make me drop them from consideration for the white balance tool.  The first strike is their lighting.  The clouds are being lit by that nice warm morning light.  They might be a bit yellow.  They should look a touch yellow in my opinion.  The second strike against them is their transparency.  These are thin clouds.  You can see sky through them.  It would be crazy to base the photo’s white balance off of a cloud whose color you can’t be sure of.

That leaves just one choice for our white balance dropper, the white minivan.

Here I clicked right where the center of the red “X’ is.  I think the white balance looks perfect.  The RGB values for the point where I set the white balance are 92, 92, and 92.  That means the van is a neutral color now.  Check out the white balance sliders compared to the original.  Both the blue/yellow and green/red sliders moved towards warmer colors.  The photo is now warmer than the original.  Take a look at the sun lit homes.  They are now pretty yellow looking, but I think that effect looks natural considering the sunlight.  Most importantly, compare the minivans in three examples.  In the original the van looks OK, maybe a touch blue.  When we set the white balance on the house the van turns very blue.  With the white balance wet on the Van, the van looks neutral.

Setting white balance in a natural light photo like this can become a bit subjective.  You might think my final setting is a bit too yellow.  In that case, you could tweak the slider slightly towards blue.  It’s up to you and your tastes.  As you get more experience your tastes will change.

So what do you do if there is nothing neutral to click on in the photo?  Well, you are hosed.  You’re gonna have to eyeball it.  There is however, a slick trick for eye balling the white balance.  Here’s the step by step process I use.

1) Set the white balance sliders where I think they look best

2) Go down to the saturation slider and slide it all the way up to 100.  Your photo will look totally nuked, but the glowing colors will show any white balance errors in a big way.  Is the grass green?  Did your clouds turn red?

3) Play with the white balance sliders to get rid of any of the problems that have reared up with the saturation turn up.

4) Double click on the saturation slider to return it to zer0.  Does your photo look better?  Do you think it needs more tweeks

5) adjust your sliders again if needed and then go back to step 2 and repeat this process until satisfied

That’s pretty much how I set white balance every time.  I either use the white balance dropper or the mega saturation trick described above.  Lots of the time I use both.  You’re going to notice as you start practicing with your own photos that setting the white balance really goes a long ways towards making your photos look fresh and pop off the screen.  You’re also going to learn a lot about the temperature and color of light.  Pretty soon you’ll be applying that knowledge to your photography.

Let me know if you have any questions.  Maybe I can think up other samples with your help.  White balance is tricky.  Keep playing with it.  Remember, tweaking the sliders in RAW doesn’t hurt a thing.  Bend that metal back and forth as much as you want.  It won’t break.   Hopefully you’ll learn something.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

One Response

  1. Nice. I will have to try that when I get to working more indepth with photoshop and shooting in RAW. Right now, I have found I can do pretty well shooting with my WB not in auto. I played with it during my night shots and liked what I could see while I was previewing them on camera.

    But before I get ahead of myself, I will have to attempt to shoot in RAW.

    Thanks again.

    January 24, 2011 at 6:33 pm

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