Reading Time: 6 minutes read
Capturing winter photos means bundling up and getting outside to capture snowy photography on bright, frosty days. It can also be photographing a family outing to a skating rink or hockey game. Winter photography brings unique challenges due to the extreme lighting differences. From overcast days to bright snow and sparkling frost to indoor lighting when bad weather turns the focus away from the outdoors, your photos’ white balance needs adjustment.
Shifts from indoor to outdoor color settings in winter requires learning how to adjust a photo’s white balance. The same settings used to document a morning snowboarding adventure won’t work when photographing hot cocoa by the fireplace later in the day. Adjusting an iPhone’s white balance is key to capturing winter photos. Understanding what white balance is and how it works is instrumental in taking better winter photos.
What is White Balance?
White balance determines the color accuracy of a photo by adjusting colors to look more natural and accurate to the “reality” of the shot. Because our eyes and brain are constantly adapting to different lighting conditions, we don’t see differences in color tones easily. We know that sunlight or a candle flame is golden while lightbulbs throw light in warm yellow or orange tones. Our eyes and brain see colors very differently from a digital camera, where camera sensors need to be told how to interpret the light falling on them.
The concept of white balance is based on the idea of color temperature. All visible light has a characteristic equal to a color temperature, and different colors of light create different temperature hues in an image. The color temperature scale used for light is the Kelvin Scale (K). A light with a higher color temperature will have more blue light (or more considerable Kelvin value) than lower light, which has a smaller Kelvin value. The lower end of the scale, such as 2000-4000K, shows warm, reddish-yellow light (think sunrise or sunset). At around 5500K, the color is typically like a sunny day at noon. As the scale climbs, the light gets progressively bluer, so 10,000K equates to the blue light of a clear, brilliant blue sky.
Digital cameras can only guess the right color temperature. In digital photography, the camera settings combined with external lighting factors control the white balance. A camera is good at reproducing color digitally because it can analyze the scene and compensate for overly warm or cool colors. Usually, colors in your photos will look pretty close to the way they looked in real life.
Examples of White Balance
Because white balance applies to the entire image, not setting the correct white balance will result in “color casts.” Color casts can leave an image looking warmer or cooler than expected. A pale element in the photo will come out white, while the rest of the image will be completely off-color.
Finding the right white balance while photographing winter scenes can be tricky with so much white in the photo. Snow typically reads on the blue side of the color spectrum. If adjusting the white balance isn’t an option, use the “flash” setting. The flash can compensate for bluish flash lighting and can warm up a snow-filled image. However, if you try to resolve all of the blue, your snow could suddenly have a yellow cast, which is not ideal. A slight blue cast with neutral highlights results in a balanced image.
White Balance Camera Settings
White balance camera settings adjust the color balance of light so that it appears a neutral white and counteract the orange/yellow color of artificial light or the cold light of deep shadow. Here’s how camera’s handle white balance:
Auto white balance
Digital cameras have an auto white balance setting that analyzes colors in a scene and adjusts them automatically.
Examples include when light is the main subject of the photo, like a warm sunset, or the cool blue light of early dawn. Shooting in a dimly-lit setting, where it’s better to preserve ambient light’s color instead of correcting, is a good example of when not to use a camera’s auto white balance.
Also, if a consistent color balance across a series of pictures from one shot to the next is needed, automatic white balance is not desirable.
Manual white balance
Digital cameras offer manual white balance presets to maintain consistency of color between shots or force the camera to give a specific color rendition. For example, a camera’s ‘daylight’ white balance preset will always capture changing colors from dawn to dusk in landscape photography without correcting them in each shot. White balance presets are determined by the photography conditions. Cameras typically offer “daylight,” “cloudy,” “shade,” “incandescent,” and other presets.
White Balance on an iPhone
An iPhone is excellent at reproducing color because it can analyze the scene and compensate for overly warm or cool colors. Usually, colors in iPhone photos look close to the way they are in real life. White balance on an iPhone is set automatically, on a per-image basis, and can’t be manually adjusted. Using the iPhone’s camera settings are full of additional features to keep photography creative and fun.
Taking photos in RAW format is the easiest way to learn how to perfect white balance in photos. A RAW image technically doesn’t contain any colors – they get added during the RAW conversion process. The original image stays untouched and unprocessed by the camera. Except for the iPhone 12 Pro or 12 Pro Plus, a third-party camera app is needed to shoot RAW photos. Only those two models indicated above have a RAW setting in the native camera app.
The white balance can be adjusted with RAW format photos in post-processing software, such as in Photoshop or Lightroom. The original image stays untouched and unprocessed by the camera. As long as the photos are shot in RAW, white balance settings can be ignored until later.
How to Adjust White Balance in Photoshop
There are a few ways to adjust the white balance in Photoshop, also known as “color correction.” White balance is set either by adjusting the temperature value or using the eyedropper tool on the left side and clicking on a neutral or white part of the image. Here’s how:
- Open the image in Photoshop, then go Filter>Camera Raw Filter and select the “White Balance Tool” within the Tools bar at the top of the “Camera Raw” dialog box.
- Create a new layer and go Edit > Fill and choose to fill your layer with 50% gray.
- Set the layer blend mode to Difference, then add threshold adjustment.
- Add a Threshold Adjustment Layer and set the Threshold level to around 10-15.
- Click the Eyedropper tool. hold down the Shift key and click to drop a color sample point over one of the black spots that have appeared. (These are the spots that are closest to a perfect 50% gray to help get the best color correction).
- Delete the Threshold and 50% gray layer.
- Add a “Curves Adjustment” Layer and select the middle/gray eyedropper tool. Zoom in on the eyedropper sample target and click once to balance the color via the gray spot.
It may be cold outside, but winter photography is a satisfying challenge to expand a portfolio. Learning the white balance basics can give wintery photos amazing color and composition to preserve the season’s best memories.