Using White Balance for Artistic Purposes

Just because a scene appears to have a certain color balance does not mean that your final images must reflect the true, as-seen color balance. Unless under specific guidelines (such as those imposed by a client), you have artistic license to make your images appear as you wish.

As I write this tips article, it is the middle of winter here in the USA. I have to admit that I'm less anxious to go outside to photograph in the winter than in the other seasons. While the cold does not stop me, the often less-than-desirable bleak landscape more frequently gives me pause.

When looking for interesting winter subjects, condensation often volunteers. Condensation likes a cold temperature carrier and a warm, moist environment. In the winter, it is of course cold outside and warm (and much more comfortable) inside. The perfect scenario.

With the state of the weather being a deep freeze (about -4°F/-20°C), a unique small oval area of condensation formed in the center of the window above our kitchen sink. With the tripod in and behind the sink and me precariously balanced on the edge of the counter around it, I went to work with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro Lens. The result was an interesting image (OK, many of them) of very unique condensation patterns as seen in the AWB (Auto White Balance), contrast added sample below.

Condensation Using Auto White Balance

Snow, bare trees and a cloudy sky make up the background seen inverted through the clear condensation drops – a very monochromatic scene. While I could have setup a colored background outside behind the window, doing so (and lighting it) would have presented a big challenge. But, this particular scene lends itself nicely to a creative white balance adjustment. And a demo.

There are many ways to change the white balance of an image (including presets and selecting a custom white balance), but an easy way to experiment with color balance is to use the color temperature slider. This slider is available in most image editing programs (including Canon's Digital Photo Professional). This slider's settings typically range from around 2500 through 10000 Kelvin (K). Your image will become bluer (colder) as the setting is reduced and redder (warmer) as the temperature in increased. To show this clearly, mouseover/click/tap the links below the condensation image.

Color Temperature White Balance Demo

AWB    2500K | 3000K | 4000K | 5000K | 6000K | 7000K | 8000K | 9000K | 10000K

Which is your favorite temperature? I like them all, and all could be appropriate for certain uses. But today I'm feeling like 2500K does the most for me. Perhaps it's the appropriateness of the "cold" white balance.

Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Just because you can adjust the white balance of your images to extremes, does not mean that you should do it to all of them. While some subjects work great with strong white balance adjustments, you will find that many (or even most) do not – including (very frequently) those with people in them. If you turn a person's skin red, the image will appear wrong to your viewers. But if you adjust a sunset sky image to be redder, it may look better.

With some practice, you will learn when a bold color balance adjustment will turn an average image into a standout. Keep this technique in your pocket for use when it makes sense. Then try contrast/curves and saturation adjustments.

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