Understanding White Balance 


Learn various techniques to improve and enhance the White Balance in your photos. Use Photoshop to remove unwanted colors, make your night shots look more realistic, and achieve the coloring used by professionals. 

Difficulty: Beginner     Time: 20 Minutes     Category: Photography/Retouching     Equipment: Canon 6D, Photoshop


The first step is understanding what White Balance actually is, and how it works. But to understand that, you need to have a basic understand of how color from light works. Essentially, the higher the color temperature, the more blue your image will be. The lower the color temperature, the more orange you'll see. In this tutorial, we'll be changing an image that's about 2500 Kelvin (Orange) to an image that's roughly 15,000 Kelvin (Very blue). 

There are several ways to correct White Balance (or light color) in Photoshop, but we'll be focusing on the quickest, more simple way of doing so. What this involves is simply using Photoshop's color adjustment tools to literally slide the orange values over into the blue region. Sort of like sliding your hand up a piano...of color.

This is the original image, which as you can see, is entirely different. Sodium Vapor bulbs, used in most US urban areas, produce a heavy orange glow, from a very low amount of electricity. While some are, most humans are not orange, and it just doesn't look natural. However, if your end goal is to change it to a vibrant, cool image, your best bet is to embrace the orange completely, that way everything is even when you go to change it. 

Generally, you wouldn't shoot outside at night time, on "Shade" mode, which is generally used in a shaded area, to add warmth to the coolness that a lack of sunlight produces. Make sense? In other words, it adds a heavy amount of orange to your image. Which is exactly what you want. 

This image, we won't be keeping, but it goes to show how quickly you can make this photo looks natural, before even opening Photoshop. If you're shooting .RAW images, which you should be, if you plan on doing ANY retouching, the basic Camera Raw options will be enough to filter out all that orange, make it a more neutral tone. If you were to shoot the original image on Tungsten or Fluorescent, your model would've been pretty natural, but your background still would've been orange because of all the lighting in the background. This will absolutely prevent you from keeping everything uniform in the long run, and will force you to make extra, boring steps to fix it. 

This is where you start to see a drastic difference in tone and color. It's actually pretty close to what the image should look like, if cameras worked the same way our eyes do. Standing on this hill on any given night, this is generally the color you'll see. What we've done, is slide everything that's orange, way over to blue and green, until it aligned with natural tones you'd find in actual real life. Normally, this would be enough colorizing, as it's what photographers generally want to accomplish. I personally am not easily satisfied, so if you'd like to go further, keep reading, or if you're satisfied, thanks for reading!

I like bright colors. Especially blues. Maybe I'm just easily amused. But to achieve this "sci-fi-ish" affect, as it's been dubbed, is actually just like one more step. After you've gotten rid of all the hideous orange tones, and have a pretty neutral image, the blues of the background will likely start begging you to make them brighter. While there are about 2,457 ways to do this in Photoshop, we'll go over the easiest. Photo Filters. (Image > Adjustments > Photo Filters) What these do, is literally applying a color over your image. Generally, these should be used sparingly, but I'm really trying to max out the blue on this photo, so we'll make a special exception. You'll notice there is a set of premade color filters, which usually is all you'll need, or if you prefer, you can simply select a custom color to apply. 

We also want her face to keep the warm tone of skin, while everything else gets the blue treatment. To do this...Layer Masks. If you aren't familiar with Layer Masks, Google them. Or click on that little rectangle with a circle cut out of it, at the bottom of your layer toolbar. Layer Masks allow you to hide/reveal areas of your layer, but also allow you to bring them back in, so you never lose it. More on those later. If you're already familiar, simply apply one to your Photo Filter layer, and subtly paint away wherever there's skin, or something you don't want to be blue. I generally paint everything at around 8-12%. It's slow, but it's also more natural, and accurate.

These are the 3 settings used for this particular image, and while it obviously will not be usable for every image, it's a place to start. If your photo is too blue, and needs to be red, you simply go in the opposite direction. 

Once the colors are set, I apply either Curves or Levels to even out the brightness a bit more. As you can see above, we added a slight Curves modifier to make it a tad darker (it's a night photo remember?)

Cropping is important. I can't teach you how to see things, that's on you. But, if your subject isn't cropped right, your image will not have the impact you hope for it. A good place to start, is in Photoshop. Using the "Crop" tool, there are settings in the top toolbar. In the dropdown menu, you can select overlay options for the tool. Including Rule of Thirds, the Golden Spiral, Grid, and more, you can study how these work on top of your own images. Centering your photo is not always a bad thing, but try out other compositions, and you might be surprised at how much difference cropping makes. 

For Margo, as you can see, the center of her head is aligned with the second vertical guide. This creates a large amount of white space on the left, behind her, and adds depth to the image that would otherwise be lost if she were placed in the center. 

Final step was smoothing out her face, and adding some highlights, which will be in a different tutorial, as well as adding the lens flare. Which normally, you probably shouldn't do. So I won't pollute your mind. 


Have questions? Suggestions? Feel free to let me know!