White Balance Challenges


Today’s Question: I have adopted your Auto White Balance approach and in most cases I am pleased with my results. I do occasionally have issues and want clarification of the Lightroom white balance dropper. Should I set it on something that I think is close to 18% gray or should I set it on a white patch in the image? One of my most difficult issues are images of my grandson who has an olive complexion, especially in the winter. I struggle to find a white balance that satisfies me or his mother (my daughter).

Tim’s Quick Answer: The core function of the White Balance Selector tool (the eyedropper) in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is to adjust the values for Temp and Tint so that the pixel you click on in the image becomes neutral gray. As such, you generally want to click on an area of the photo that should be perfectly neutral when using this tool. But of course in the real world things are a little more complicated than that.

More Detail: If your scene includes an object or area that should be absolutely neutral gray without any color cast, then you can use the White Balance Selector to quickly neutralize the overall color in your photo. Simply choose the White Balance Selector and click on the area of the photo that would be perfectly neutral. Note that the area you click on can be of any tonal value from black all the way to white. When we say “neutral gray” in this context we simply mean a shade of gray of any tonality.

Of course, in many photographic situations we don’t actually want a gray object to appear gray. Very often, for example, we specifically seek out early morning or late afternoon light in pursuit of the color cast provided by that light. During “golden hour” an object that would appear perfectly neutral gray under white lighting should most certainly not appear gray in our final image.

What to do? There are a couple of approaches I can recommend.

First, it is worth noting that having a neutral starting point can be very helpful, even if that starting point doesn’t match your final intent for the image. You could, for example, position a gray card in the frame under the same lighting as your key subject, and use that gray card as the basis of a white balance adjustment.

For situations where it isn’t practical to use a gray card during your photography, you can instead click on an area of the photo that you feel should most likely appear as a neutral gray. For a portrait this could include the white of the eye, for example. In a landscape a cloud will often provide a good area to click on.

Of course, once you’ve clicked on an area of the photo that was actually gray, you’ll likely want to apply a correction to add a bit of color to the image. If you photograph a scene under late afternoon light and employ this gray card approach, for example, you’ll then want to adjust the Temp slider toward yellow to add back the golden light.

This brings us to the real challenge of the situation. If we want to retain the color influence of the light illuminating a scene, how do we achieve accurate color without losing that color influence? This is the challenging part.

What I recommend is that you develop your eye for accurate color. Start by calibrating your monitor display to make sure the display is accurate. Then skip the White Balance Selector tool or the preset options and go right to the Temp and Tint sliders. Drag through the extremes, and gradually “settle down” the slider movement as you zero in on optimal appearance for the image. With practice this will become easier (I promise!).

Note that it can also be very helpful to apply an exaggerated increase to the Saturation value for the image while you’re working, so you can more easily see the colors that are present in the photo.

As an aside, there are specific techniques for targeting accurate skin tones in photos of people. But again, keep in mind that the color of an object is not necessarily the color we want in our final photo, such as with situations where part of the reason we captured the image was the color of the light illuminating the scene. Therefore, targeting “accurate” RGB values for specific skin tones photographed in the middle of the day won’t work well for photos captured during “golden hour”.

In other words, at the end of the day your best approach is generally going to be to use your eyes to evaluate the color for each individual photo. There are “shortcuts” to helping you get a neutral starting point that can be helpful, but ultimately the best results will come from practicing the art of fine-tuning the color in your photos.