White Balance and Self-Control

Two weeks ago you gave up Instagram forever to nobly stave off the end of the world. Good job, you did it. No one uses Instagram anymore. Just trust me on that, no need to go to their site and check, my words are infallible. In the last few weeks you have tried to fill that photo editing hole with some dedicated software. Perhaps you pirated Photoshop CS3 like all the cool kids in 2007 or grabbed Gimp for free. You’re now well on your way to the top of society with the coolest pictures of your cat, but, low and behold, your shots aren’t looking how you expected. Why is Mr. Mittens so bland and boring? Chances are your camera presets aren’t quite matching up with your artistic vision. Fortunately, you know exactly where to start.


Your cat, Mr. Mittens, doesn’t look quite right, and you aren’t sure why.

Where in the World Do I Start?

You get your picture loaded up and discover that you have no idea where to start after all. You always shoot in RAW because you aren’t a disappointment to your parents, so the image pops up in Photoshop with a ton of sliders and tabs to click. If you accidentally took the picture on your phone or with the JPEG mode, you can always go into the “filters” menu and select “Camera Raw Filter” and get the same controls. If you’re using not-Photoshop, your controls will look different so look for things with the same names, and if you can’t read I just want to say that I’m impressed you made it this far into the blog. Deciding where to start can be intimidating, but remember that all this computer nonsense is “nerd stuff” and you are good at everything. Grab the first slider you see, it’s called “Temperature” and start pulling it around. This is your blue and yellow “white balance” also known as the most abused tool in photography. Seriously, this thing is so abused it should have a hotline. What does white balance do you wonder? Meh, I know you aren’t following along, so I’ll show you.

 White Balance Demo

From left to right: cool cat, as shot, and warm mittens.

You’ll see that the slider moving to the left cools the image by making everything bluer. Moving the slider to the right makes things a warmer color with yellowish tinting. But what is correct you wonder to yourself, or does it matter? Of course it matters, and there absolutely is a correct white balance. How do you find the correct balance? You can either carry around gray cards with you everywhere you go and take pictures of them all the time, or you can pretend to be somewhat normal and do one of two things in post production.

Today’s Forecast Calls For…

Controlling color balance in post can be done in two ways, three if you count presets, but forget that nonsense. Method number one is probably the easiest to use when you are just getting started. In the upper left hand corner is an icon for a tool deceptively called the “White Balance Tool” that is shaped like an eyedropper. You use this tool in conjunction with a gray card to get the correct white balance, but in a pinch you can use anything gray in the photo. Just click metal things or white t-shirts until the photo looks natural. This method isn’t ideal as you’ll usually be clicking things that aren’t perfectly gray and the white balance won’t be accurate. However, this method is fast and let’s face it, you’ve already lost interest in Mr. Mittens, but you gotta get this up on your online dating profile ASAP or people will think you hate animals. In a cruel twist of fate though, you realize there isn’t anything gray in the photo you took. Time to fall back to the advanced method of eyeballing. This is the ol’ grab-the-slider-and-go trick we tried earlier, and this is what leads to much abuse. The problem comes as you discover that the more you crank your white balance to the right the more sunny and hot the image looks. Pretty soon, Mr. Mittens is on Mars and your lawn is dead.


Initially appealing, technically horrible.

Stop Animal Abuse

The human brain has a big flaw. When something that is visually pleasing, is experienced, you will have an immediate positive reaction to it. This helps us react to things quickly and make faster analysis of information. However, that immediate reaction will soon dissipate as you look at an image, and you will begin to notice the unnatural color that starts appearing worse the longer you look at it. While editing, many people never consider holding back and effects get layered on quickly. Excessive contrast, saturation, brightness, and photo effects all get away from the editor and soon the image is a mess. Sadly, plenty of professional photographers are better at taking photos than editing and will publish these grossly overdeveloped images. They have an instinctively appealing reaction followed by a confused puzzlement. The novelty of images like this have been what has made services like the aforementioned Instagram and the infamous photo editor of yesteryear, Picasa, much more popular than they should have been, but you can rise above it all by showing restraint. This skill admittedly takes time to develop, but by looking at the picture critically as you make your creative edits, you will retain a more natural look and avoid this…


Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Is it worth it?

In a world where you can click a magic wand and apply a fix immediately, is all this worth it? The truth is maybe. It depends on how much time you have, and how much you care about what your photos look like. For something like a picture of your cat, you may not care. For the last picture you have of your cat before he ran away to join a west cost motorcycle gang of cats, you may care a lot. The more you work on your photos, the faster you will become at editing them, making good photos easier to achieve. For images that are once in a lifetime, like engagement photos, senior photos, or wedding photos (which, in most cases, you won’t get the chance to edit anyway) you may find that a good edit is critical and having a professional do the editing, even in instances where they didn’t take the photo, can be a huge benefit. My pappy always said, “Why are you wasting your time with that computer? If you want a real experience go clean the gutters and be useful for once.” In other words, always get someone else to do the dirty work you don’t want to do so you can do the fun stuff you want to do. I’m pretty sure that’s what he was trying to teach me anyway. As for Mr. Mittens? There is a correct way to edit him so I took a crack at it.


Before and after of Mr. Mittens. Plenty of alterations with realism in mind.

With a correct color balance as the foundation, the rest of the edits can all be applied in order to create the exact image you are looking for. You may notice that seeing the final image next to the over edited image above makes the more natural image look a little lack luster. That’s in part to the immediate brain reaction that helps you process information, but look at both images for a moment and you’ll begin to see that more isn’t always better. There is plenty of room for classic editing styles, and the result is a more enduring, more pleasing final image. You owe it to Mr. Mittens to capture his stunning feline majesty in honest yet flattering glory.


The final image. Taken hours before Mr. Mittens sped off into the distance on his Harley.

Join me next week for: 10 Top Tips for Street Photography as a Mafia Inside Man

Trivia: receive 10% off a resume or document design or get 10% off engagement photography when you email me the correct answer to the following question with the subject “White Balance Trivia” (offer valid through September 5, 2015 and may not be combined with any other offer.)

Kelvin is the measurement of color temperature in photography. This scale was determined based on the color of what kind of object at specific heats?


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