Why is my Camera Taking Crummy Pictures – Part 2
Part 2 of a 3 Part Series
How Your Camera White Balances
This post explains how your camera interprets the color it ‘sees’ and why color casts happen. Other posts in this series:
In case you haven’t stopped by my About page, this is a good place to mention that I spent 16 years as a professional photographer, so I know a thing or two (gee, that sounds like a Farmer’s Insurance Ad LOL) about taking pictures. And I’ve had a lot of practice in the last two years with my iPhone, which has been my exclusive camera since I retired.
My camera – for this tutorial, I’m using an iPhone (7 plus to be specific). The principles I describe here can apply to virtually any camera. But, if I provide specific instructions, they may apply to the iPhone in general or iPhone7 specifically.
First, a Few Definitions
Every light source has its own ‘color temperature,’ measured by a scale called the Kelvin scale (see below), which ranges in degrees from 0 to 10,000.
- Low color temperatures (candlelight, incandescent, sunrise/sunset) shift toward the red, or lower part of the scale. We refer to these colors as ‘warm’.
- High color temperatures (i.e. cloudy, shade) shift toward the blue, or higher part of the scale. We refer to these colors as ‘cool’.
The goal of proper white balancing is for your camera to create an image that is as natural and neutral as possible.
An easy way to think about it is that objects that are white should look white (hence ‘white’ balancing) and objects that are black should look black.
To ‘white balance’ a camera is to program it for the specific light condition you are shooting. This is important because a color cast can really ruin an otherwise pleasing image.
Auto White Balance (AWB)
The default camera app on the iPhone has this feature. It auto interprets the color of the light where you are shooting.
To do this, the camera automatically decides how to adjust for any color cast given the lighting conditions. But, it doesn’t always do this well, as explained below.
Manual White Balance
Manual white balance is what happens when the user tells the camera the lighting conditions that should be applied to a photo. The default camera app on the iPhone does not offer manual white balance settings, though many 3rd party applications do.
Why Your Camera isn’t White Balancing Properly
How our Eye and the Camera Interpret Color Differently
When the human eye views a scene, our brain automatically adjusts and assigns a more neutral color to the object if the light is very warm or very cool. But cameras don’t have a brain to make that adjustment, so they are only able to record what they are programmed to do.
Because the camera isn’t capable of identifying the color of light on its own like our own brains do, in situations where the light is very warm or very cool, you need to help the camera out a bit or your pictures will have a color cast:
- A picture will be too orange/yellow if the light conditions are warm. Example: when you are shooting indoors in a room where there is incandescent or fluorescent light present
- A picture will be too blue if light conditions are cool. Example: for when you are photographing outside in the shade
Situation: Room lights on, AWB camera setting
I took the picture below with the default iPhone app. The lights were on in the room, so the lighting condition was incandescent.
The picture is a bit orange, which tells me that the camera didn’t really understand the lighting conditions.
Situation: Natural light only (room lights off), AWB camera setting
I then took the same picture with the lights off. The lighting in the room was much more neutral, though a tad on the shady side.
Again, I took this picture with the default iPhone camera app where the only white balance setting is auto.
The camera did a much better job interpreting the color because natural light is much more neutral. There is a slight blue cast because the room was a little dark but but that is much more pleasing than the orange cast above.
If you are shooting under lighting conditions that are anything but neutral, you may have to give your camera a hand in figuring out what those conditions are. If you want to know what to do about this, read my Part 3 post, How to Take Better Pictures.