Manipulating White Balance for Artistic Effect

The ability to control white balance, even changing it from one shot to the next, is one of the greatest advantages of digital over film. Sure, with film you could shoot negatives and let some machine or lab technician do color corrections for you. If using slide film however, once you loaded a roll, you were stuck with that film’s color balance until you finished it and loaded the next roll.

It’s not hard to find advice online for understanding the various white balance settings found on most digital cameras. For the most part, these settings are pretty self-explanatory and most moderately experienced photographers can figure them out simply by playing with them. Most people approach white balance with the mindset of getting true color representation. That makes sense. You want your whites to be white and all your other colors to be true representations of the original scene as you shot it.

There is a case to be made for deliberately setting the “wrong” white balance to achieve artistic effects. For example, when at the beach on a perfectly sunny day, you might set your white balance for cloudy or even shade. This tells the camera that the ambient light has a slightly blue cast to it. The camera will compensate by adding a bit of a bronze (red/orange) tone to offset this supposed cast. The result is that your subjects get an instant suntan!

Be warned that this may not work for scenes in which the sky is visible as the color manipulation may be quite obvious in your final images. Conversely, when photographing an icy scene, perhaps you should try setting your white balance to Tungsten. This tells the camera that the light is slightly orange so it will introduce more blue to offset that. The result is an image that simply looks “cold”.

For even finer control, it pays to develop a bit of understanding of the Kelvin scale. Many cameras will allow you to directly set a Kelvin temperature for the ambient light. Tricking the camera by claiming that the light is warmer or cooler than it actually is can allow you to very finely tune the adjustment, thus giving you the ability to make the effect more subtle. (Or more garish, if that’s what you’re after.)

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