Deidre Sorensen is a London UK based photographer. She specialises in maternity, newborn, and baby photography in her Kensington & Chelsea portrait studio.

Baby Photography Tip #1: White balance and colour tone

July 12, 2014

I get asked about colour tone in images a lot – why do images taken at home sometimes have less than pleasing colour tones or different tones from image to image?  The answer is all about colour temperature and a feature called white balance.

What is it and why does it matter?

All sources of light emit different light, when you examine its physical properties.  Some have much shorter wavelengths and some longer.  Our eyes and brain can easily adapt to this, so we can walk from a room lit by Tungsten lights to one lit by fluorescent and not find the shift in light tone around us to be particularly noticeable … if we think about it, we can see it, but most of us don’t.  But take photographs in the two rooms and suddenly it’s more obvious.  Our cameras have eyes, but they don’t have our brains, and therefore tend to see exactly what is there.

Here is a series of images, all with different colour tones (click to enlarge).  The difference is now obvious.

mini filmstrip of six identical images of a baby with different colour tones or white balance settings

© 2013 Studio Deidre / Deidre Sorensen, London (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

But how do you control how your camera “sees” light?

White balance is all about telling your camera what the light is like and what colour temperature is a neutral white in that exact moment.  If you don’t tell it correctly, the photograph could come out way too blue or way too warm and yellow, and you’ll see that what seemed white to you suddenly looks yellow in the image, or blue.  That’s why it’s called white balance.  And it fundamentally changes the image and how you perceive it – it really is just as important as thinking about composition or aperture.  And it is important, even if you’re doing family snapshots at home – you don’t want your baby looking a bit jaundice, nor do you want the setting to look overly cold and sterile (baby photos need to err on the side of warmth most of the time, as we like to think that babies are in warm fuzzy environments!).

But why doesn’t your camera do this for you?

Most cameras today allow for you to select the white balance.  While many people will just leave it on auto white balance (AWB), this isn’t necessarily optimal. On AWB, your camera decides for you what your final image should look like, based on the colours it perceives.  It gets it right a lot of the time, but not always.  I’m sure there are many reasons why, but let me give you a few that I certainly notice:

• Sometimes, it picks up a lot of warm colour because what you’re photographing is full of warm red and yellow tones, and it artificially cools it, when you actually wanted it to reflect the true colours of the subject.  It does the same if the subject you’re photographing really is full of cold colours (it would try to artificially warm the image).
• Sometimes it also decides that you should cool a scene that is, say, candle-lit, when you want to err on the side of it being warm, as you want to convey the feeling of the candle-lit moment.  The camera wants to neutralise things, but you may want to have something slightly warmer or cooler for creative effect – this is something only you can do, as the camera is just following an algorithm. In the images above, the 2nd from the left is what my camera said was the right colour balance on AWB.  Personally, I find this too blue and cold for the little girl.
• And sometimes it assesses the light differently for two pictures taken in the same setting, simply because you moved slightly or changed the angle of the photograph.  This is the one that bothers me the most.  Suddenly photos taken in the same moment look different from one another and no longer flow together as you flip through the images.  You can fix this in Photoshop, but it can be frustrating and time-consuming!

So, if you want to be bold and try something out, take your camera off AWB and try setting it based on the scene you are in.  Then you can dictate to your camera what colour settings you want, and override its decision-making ability!

What are the options for adjusting the white balance if you take it off auto? 

There are a few things you can do:

1.    Use the settings that your camera offers other than AWB.  Your camera documentation and many sites online will give you the low-down on different settings.  Here’s a good one:  (This is Henrys camera store in Toronto, where I bought my first film SLR years and years ago…)

mini filmstrip of six identical images of a baby with different colour tones or white balance settings

© 2013 Studio Deidre / Deidre Sorensen, London (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

In the images above, you can see a range of different white balance settings.  From left to right:  tungsten light, AWB, custom (4650), custom (5100), daylight, cloudy.  My preference is anywhere between the middle two – warm enough to seem appropriate for a baby, but not so warm that the baby’s face is going too red or yellow.  As you see, the AWB is actually quite cool, and while it might technically be correct, it isn’t as pleasing to my eye as slightly warmer tones.

Personally, I’d recommend using white balance settings over AWB most of the time.  That said, I usually set the white balance manually:

2.    Set the colour temperature exactly by either using the Custom white balance feature that some cameras have, or even setting the exact Kelvin temperature you want.  Not all cameras offer this, but if yours does, try exploring it!  Many photographers would use grey and white cards which they would hold up and photograph in the photographic setting in order to determine the exact colour balance settings to render neutral grey or white.  But you can also play around with the settings and see what produces a pleasing colour balance for you.  This is a lot more work, which might not make sense for home family photography, but if you’re really keen to learn more:

3.    Shoot in RAW and adjust in Photoshop (irrespective to whether you’ve used AWB or another setting).  I know it’s easier to shoot jpeg images, especially when you have busy lives and don’t want to spend time fixing the images after you’ve taken them – you just want to upload and share them with family and friends around the world.  Still, if at all possible, I’d recommend using RAW.

If you shoot in jpeg or other compressed file formats, you don’t necessarily retain all the information in the image that you would if you shot in RAW.  This information can be helpful if you want to adjust the colour tones after the fact.  I always shoot in RAW – if I got everything right in my camera settings, great, but if I didn’t, I know I can make changes.  Photoshop Camera RAW allows you to adjust both the colour temperature and the green-magenta tint … all seemingly complex if you’re just starting out, but a good thing to play with and learn over time!  The best thing about this is if you already told your camera to use the same white-balance for all images taken in the same setting, then in Photoshop, you can apply the same correction to the images, reducing the time spent trying to match colour tones across images.  More info on colour correcting in Photoshop:

What does this all mean?

There’s nothing wrong with just picking up your camera, pointing and shooting, of course, and for some family moments, that’s the best thing to do.  There’s no sense in missing the moment because you were adjusting the camera settings.  But the more you learn about your camera, the faster you’ll get at intuitively assessing the moment and adjusting the settings that really matter.  I’d argue that understanding and adjusting for white balance is one of them.


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