Make colors pop! (white balance tutorial)

Wow, the response to whether or not y’all would like to see some photo tips and tricks has been amazing!  Thank you so much! I’m not an expert or anything, but I’d love to share what I have figured out over the years.

I thought I’d start out the tutorials by talking about something basic that sounds complicated, but will really make a HUGE difference in your picture taking: white balance.  Everyone always asks how I get colors that really pop — and this is it!

What’s white balance, you ask? White balance is a setting on just about all cameras that lets you control the color of the white in your photos — and if your whites aren’t right, the rest of your colors won’t be right either.   If you take your photos outside or in natural light you don’t have to worry about white balance quite as much.  But, suppose it’s 11 pm at night and you want to take a photo of a card that you finished just in the nick of time for a challenge?  That’s where white balance comes in!

Check out the following photos — both taken on my kitchen counter — one was taken at 9 am using natural sunlight, and the other was taken at 11 pm using a mixture of fluorescent + daylight balanced compact fluorescent lights.  Can you guess which is which?


If you guessed that the one on the right was taken at 11 pm at night, you’re right!  Here it is again:


Now for the tips and tricks!  I got these true-to-life whites by setting a custom white balance.  Check your camera manual for how this is done — most all cameras let you do this —  if you’ve lost it, just do a search as nowadays you can usually find a pdf of the manual online.  I used my Canon Rebel XTi for these photos, so I’ll give you the low-down on how I did it so that you can see just how simple it is:

  1. Get a piece of  blank white paper — I usually just grab a piece of copy paper.
  2. Take a picture of the paper under the lighting that you will be using, making sure that it completely fills the frame.  Note that the paper doesn’t have to be in focus, it just has to fill the frame.  Here’s a tip: if your camera won’t focus on the paper, try turning off the auto focus.  The main thing is to get the white paper to fill the frame so that the camera picks up the color.
  3. On the back of the camera, press the MENU button, then use the right arrow to move over to the second camera icon.  Use the down arrow to highlight “Custom WB” and press the middle button to select it.
  4. The camera will ask you to chose a picture — and will show the last one that you took — in this case, the picture of the white piece of paper.  Chose it.  Now you’re almost done!
  5. On the back of the camera there’s a button that says WB (it’s also the down arrow).  Press the button,  and use the right arrow to move all the way over to the right and select the custom setting. Press the middle button to set it and  ta dah, you are done!

Don’t have a custom white balance setting?  Most cameras let you chose from a variety of pre-sets! To use a pre-set on the Rebel XTi:

  1. On the back of the camera there’s a button that says WB (it’s also the down arrow).  Press the button, and then use the right arrow to move over to the icon that you want (auto (AWB), cloudy, tungsten, etc).
  2. Press the middle button to set it and you are done!

Here’s the fluorescent setting on mine — not too bad at all!


It can be fun to play around with different white balance settings — even if they’re not the “correct” ones — sometimes you get neato effects!  Should have written down which was which, but it was midnight when I got done playing, doh!  Anyhow, here they are so you can see — this first one looks like an antique shabby flower to me:


This one almost looks black and white:


Here’s one that looks kinda modern — I think this was the tungsten setting:


And, finally, here’s a closeup in morning light using the auto white balance setting — note that when the light changes, you should do redo the custom white balance setting — or you can get some pretty wonky results, ha ha!


And, I couldn’t resist sharing this one with the shadow!  That’s one of the things I love about photography — you can experiment + play:


Want to see some more pictures where I really made use of the custom white balance feature?  Check out this post of a sneak peek at the Hero Arts booth at Winter CHA, and this one of some more sneak peeks from other booths.  Both times I just grabbed a piece of white copy paper to set it up — so handy using copy paper because you can find it anywhere!

And!  I’ll be announcing a challenge to go along with this tutorial as soon I have time to get Mr. Linky setup. If you’d like to get started early, it will be to create a card with lots of white and to learn about your camera’s white balance settings.

Oh and!  If you’d like to be notified when there’s a new blog post,  you can get email notifications using Feedburner, or if you use Google reader you can sign up for the RSS feed.  All the linkys are up at the top right of the blog.

Oh and one last thing!  The wildflowers in the photos are  rain lilies (Cooperia drummondii).  I just love them because they bloom whenever we get rain — a pretty rare event here in Central Texas — always to be celebrated!  The flowers only last a day or so, so you gotta be quick with your camera.

Hope you liked the tutorial!  I’m already working on the next one — how you can fix up your photos in Photoshop or The Gimp (free software with similar controls as Photoshop) if you forgot to set your white balance or your camera doesn’t let you set it.

40 Replies to “Make colors pop! (white balance tutorial)”

  1. Super cool tut :) It’s what I do too, sometimes, and I also have an XTi :) I think a lot of times I’m just too lazy and I let Photoshop do it… I shoot in RAW so it’s just a quick click here and there for me.

    I though have clutters in the back of my object ha ha ha… Oh, and no good lights. I need to get two of a kind. I just use my desk lamp, one, and the room light.

    So my goal this summer is to do a new template for my blog. For some reason my header image isn’t showing and I’m trying to figure out if it’s my computer or that WP only pulls images from the CSS. I just started and I need to get motivated to make my custom images :)

  2. I did not know this.  I have learnt me sumpin’ new today!  Thanks, chiquita!  I will practice!  Really!  I will!!!

  3. Thanks Lisa!!! I also have an XTI and I really look forward to your tutorials because you take some awesome photos. I still haven’t figured out my camera so I just take photos in auto.

  4. Love this tutorial, Lisa!  I have an XTi so I’m truly grateful for your tips and tricks and will look forward to the challenges.  I’ll start thinking of a white card in the meantime!

    Thanks SO much for your time on this!

  5. Kelly Rasmussen says:

    thanks lisa…i can already tell i’m gonna love all your little tips and tricks!  i’ve really been wanting to learn more about taking good photos, so this will be perfect. :)

  6. Thank you so much Lisa for this tutorial. I’m so looking forward to you next ;)

  7. Thanks for posting this. I can’t wait to go home and try it. I have been bad about learning to use the functionality on my camera so I appreciate your motivation.

  8. Wow – thanks Lisa, what a fantastic tutorial.  Something I NEED to know about.  And I am going to go find my manual right now.  Thank you :)

  9. Hi everyone!  I just noticed that I somehow deleted part of my post about setting the custom white balance, doh!  :(  It’s back now tho.  Please reload the post so that you get the latest.  Thanks + sorry ’bout that!  :)

  10. Thanks for the great tutorial!  I’m anxious to get home & play with my camera now! :)

  11. Lisa!!! This is great! Like Savitri said, I need to really invest in some new lights myself! I may take a trip to Home Depot for some beginner lights and see how that works!

    Hmmm…. white card…. ok, let me give this some thought… :-)

    Awesome Award for the day goes to Lisa!

  12. Great tutorial Lisa, thanks!

  13. […] lots of white and play with the white balance settings on your camera. Check out a little tutorial here on white balance — learning this will really make the colors in your photos pop, especially […]

  14. OH I hope my camera has this feature!!!!!

  15. I’ve gotta give this a try! Thanks so much, Lisa!

  16. Thanks for the tutorial, Lisa! I’ve always admired the photography of your cards.

  17. Wow, Lisa! Fabulous tutorial! I can’t wait to practice this. Your photos are gorgeous!

  18. Totally AWESOME Lisa, can’t wait to try it.

  19. I think I have this setting. I will check my camera. How awesome. Thanks :)

  20. Thank you so much for this tutorial :D

Comments are closed.