Photo Class: Demystifying White Balance

by Dorothy Reinhold on June 22, 2014

Print This Post Print This Post Demystifying White Balance |

I asked commercial photographer Christina Peters to explain and demystify white balance in camera settings. It’s easier than you think to understand this camera setting, and is crucial to taking lovely, accurate photos, whether you’re shooting food or something else. Christina also teaches food photography to food bloggers, and her Los Angeles classes always sell out. She has shot jobs for McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Dominos and Pinkberry, among others. Let’s learn from her today…

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What is white balance?

White balance or color temperature is always a confusing topic in class. White balance is the setting on your camera that is telling the camera what kind of light you are shooting in. It’s called White Balance because the goal with this setting is to make anything white (or neutral) actually look pure white with no other color contaminating it. The color temperature is how white balance is measured, in degrees kelvin.

WB is one of the most important settings in your camera as it hugely affects the color of your shot/food. You can get to your color balance setting through the camera menu. This is the menu from a Canon 5D Mark ii

Demystifying White Balance |

All high end DSLR cameras have the white balance choices below. Most cameras have all the settings to the left side, numbers 1-5 and maybe some on the right side, 6-9.

Demystifying White Balance |

What the symbols mean

  1. Starting from the top, you can see the camera is set to AWB – Auto White Balance
  2. Sunny Day – this is for bright, direct sun on your set
  3. Open Shade – it’s a sunny day outside with a blue sky, however, you are shooting in the shade – if you are home and shooting by a window, this could also be Open Shade if no direct sun is on your set
  4. Cloudy Day – the sky is white with clouds – no blue sky is showing
  5. Tungsten or household light – no daylight, only artificial tungsten light
  6. Fluorescent light, like what you would get in a commercial kitchen
  7. Strobe or flash
  8. Advance Setting: Only higher end DSLR’s have this – this is custom white balance setting – I never use it by the way so I won’t bore you with the details
  9. Advance Setting: Custom degrees kelvin – you can manually put in the degrees kelvin you’d like to shoot at

Here is an example of one of the WB settings:

Open Shade Set | Food Photography Blog |

AWB (Auto White Balance) will work most of the time

Lets talk about AWB for a minute. What’s happening with this setting is the camera measures the scene and evaluates (or guesses) at what kind of light you are shooting under and then it will set the camera to a setting that will make the image look as neutral as possible – not too warm (yellow), and not too cool (blueish).

For a lot of your shooting scenarios AWB will be ok for you. So if you’d like – set your camera here and your job is done (as far as white balance is concerned, for the moment).

Taking white balance a step further

OK, so there is software of course that you can use to fix your white balance setting mistakes later, but the idea when shooting is to get the image as good as possible from the start so that you aren’t stuck in front of the computer fixing things later. Depending on the software you use, WB can be very difficult to fix later.

Now, for those of you that are not happy with how your shots are looking with color, and you’re shooting with your camera set to AWB, take a few minutes to find a white balance setting that does look good.

Do what’s called a white balance “bracket?” A bracket is a series of images of the same shot where you only change one setting on the camera. Below you can see my WB bracket of these green plums.

White Balance Bracket | Food Photography Blog |

You can see how much the color will shift just from changing nothing but the white balance setting on your camera.

For every setting the camera is setting itself to the degrees kelvin you see in the bottom of each image. So for Full Sun the camera is set to 5500 degrees kelvin. To make it easier for folks who don’t know about degrees kelvin these icons/symbols were created instead.

For more details on white balance and what each type of white balance really means, please check out this post with videos – What is white balance continued

About the food: These little green plums are called Greengage Plums from Frieda’s Produce. I saw Dorothy write about them on Shockingly Delicious and decided to photograph them as my subject.


berry_holder Christina Peters is a commercial photographer in Los Angeles. She also teaches classes to food bloggers, chefs and culinary professionals at her studio in Marina Del Rey. She has a food photography blog with loads of tips and tricks for shooting food.


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