What Is Color Balance in Photography and Image Processing?

Photograph of morning lake before and after editing color balance

Color balance is one of the most important elements of photography and image processing — it’s a method of shifting the colors in a photograph to achieve a true-to-life look. You can change the color balance in the camera before taking a photo or in an editing program during post-processing.

What Is Color Balance?

Color balance is an adjustment that affects the overall mixture of colors in a photograph. To balance an image, you simply adjust the intensities of the cyan, magenta, and yellow tones. The end goal of color balance is usually to achieve realistic and accurate colors.

In many cases, photographers and image editors use color balance adjustments to remove a color cast — a tint that affects the entire photo. This tint typically comes from light that’s reflecting off of colored items in the environment.

If you’re photographing a person in the forest, for example, the light bouncing off the leaves might give the photo a green cast. To correct it, you can reduce the intensity of the green hue. Since color balance is a global adjustment, this step affects all the colors in the photo. Done correctly, it removes the green cast and restores the natural colors.

Color balance is almost always oriented around white, neutral, or gray tones. In other words, the goal is to ensure that white, neutral, or gray items in a photograph look true to life.

Is Color Balance the Same as White Balance?

Still life macro of camellia.

White balance is one way of achieving overall color balance. When you change the white balance in a camera or editing program, you must use a white object as a point of reference. Then, you can simply adjust the other colors until the target object appears white rather than yellow, pink, or blue.

Neutral balance and gray balance are two other ways to achieve color balance. With these methods, you use a neutral or gray object to guide the color adjustment.

Why Is Color Balance Important in Photography and Image Processing?

Color balance is important because it helps you create realistic photos. When you look at a white wall, it will appear white. When a camera takes a photo of the same wall, its sensors don’t see white — they pick up the color of the ambient light. In incandescent lighting, the wall will look reddish; outdoors, it might pick up color from the sunlight or nearby objects like trees, vehicles, and bodies of water.

Since these color casts are often invisible to the naked eye, you might not notice them until after you look at the photo. That’s where color correction comes in — it enables you to adjust the photo to match what you see in real life.

How Do You Color-Balance an Image?

Dslr camera shooting on a cityscape sunset.

There are two primary ways to achieve color balance: in the camera or during image processing. Photographers often prefer to handle this adjustment before a photo session because it saves time in editing. If you forget, or if you’re editing photos taken by someone else, you can adjust the color balance in any standard photo editing program.

How to Achieve Color Balance in the Camera

If you want to spend less time behind the computer, you can adjust the colors in the camera. This step changes the sensor settings to adjust to the color of the ambient lighting. As a result, you get balanced, accurate photos straight out of the camera.

In-camera color balance is particularly important when you’re shooting under artificial lighting. Although the light looks colorless to you, it usually has a specific tint. Fluorescent lights give off a bluish tint; tungsten lights create a yellow-orange color cast. The camera counteracts these colors by increasing the intensity of the opposite shade — yellow for fluorescent and blue for tungsten. This neutralizes the cast and corrects the photo.

Nature photographer shooting using a slr camera.

There are several different ways to adjust the color balance in a camera:

Auto white balance (AWB): This setting does the work for you; it detects the color of the light and automatically selects the correct color adjustments. If you’re a casual photographer, or if you’re shooting in a fast-paced setting, AWB is the easiest option. Every camera is different, so the effectiveness of this setting may vary.

Keep in mind that auto white balance works best when there’s a white object in your scene. Other things that have a negative effect on AWB include large swathes of single color, multicolored lights, and changing light colors. AWB doesn’t work well with a flash; the flash changes the look of the scene after the camera has adjusted the colors, so it throws off the color balance in the final image.

White balance presets: Some cameras come with a variety of preset white balance options to account for specific lighting conditions. Examples might include tungsten, fluorescent, incandescent, and direct sunlight. To tailor the color balance to your shooting location, you can simply select the appropriate preset.

Photo of beach with different white balance presets

Presets are particularly useful in studio settings. Many studios use tungsten lights, which give off a distinct color; by switching to the tungsten white balance setting, you can avoid hours of work in the editing stage. This is crucial when you’re shooting portraits, since the tungsten color cast has a dramatic effect on skin tones.

Many cameras come with a white balance preset for a flash — when you choose this option, the camera will wait to balance the colors until the flash goes off.

A white balance preset works best when you’re shooting a scene with a single primary light source: studio lights or sunlight, for example. Presets don’t work well with Christmas lights, carnival lights, or city lights; the varying colors and sources tend to throw off the camera settings.

Manual white balance: This is one of the most effective ways to change the color balance in your camera for a specific scene. It gives you greater control over the adjustment.

Professional photographer with colorchecker.

To set the white balance manually, you’ll need a white or gray object. You can use a piece of paper or a photographer’s “gray card,” which is simply a piece of cardstock in a medium gray color. Hold the piece of paper in front of the camera so it fills the frame, and take a photo. Then, switch your camera into Custom White Balance mode, and select the photo you took. The camera will use the object as a reference to balance the colors.

Any time you change to a new exposure speed or setting, you’ll need to reset the white balance.

Kelvin color temperature: Some cameras enable you to adjust the Kelvin settings to balance the colors. A Kelvin is the unit of measure that describes the color temperature of a scene. Orange-colored light has a lower Kelvin value, while blue-tinted light has a higher Kelvin value.

Background with incandescent lamps of different temperature values.

When you’re color balancing with Kelvin values, your goal is to match the color of your lighting source. If the scene is lit with fluorescent bulbs, you might start with a value of about 4,000K. This adjusts the camera settings to match the color of the ambient light, so it can render the scene accurately.

To use Kelvin values for color balance, you must understand the color temperature of different lighting sources. Some common Kelvin values are:

  • Candles: 1,000K
  • Tungsten lights: 2,500K
  • Direct sunlight at noon: 5,000K
  • Overcast outdoor setting: 7,000K
  • Bright daylight under a blue sky: 10,000K

It takes a considerable amount of practice to adjust Kelvin values accurately. Over time, you’ll learn to identify the light source and choose the correct setting. You may need to adjust the Kelvin settings to accommodate the color cast coming from nearby objects or secondary light sources.

Color Balance and RAW Photography Files

Illustration of RAW and JPEG camera photography file formats

In-camera color balance often depends on the type of files your camera creates. It’s most effective if you’re shooting JPEG files; the color balance settings affect the file that comes out of the camera.

If you like to shoot in RAW-only mode, it’s not usually worth your time to change the color balance settings in the camera. That’s because RAW files capture image data that isn’t processed or compressed; you make these adjustments in the editing stage. RAW files capture a greater color range, a higher dynamic range, and more detail. This makes it easier to correct the exposure and colors without losing fine details.

RAW images are ideal for large-scale prints and intricate scenes. While you’ll need to spend more time on color balance when editing the photo, the larger files give you enhanced control and more realistic results.

Another option is to set your camera to create both JPEG and RAW files. That way, you can adjust the color balance before you shoot, but you’ll also create an unprocessed RAW file. This is useful when your camera’s white-balance damages the JPEG file; the RAW image is there as an untouched backup.

How to Color-Balance a Photo During Image Processing

Photographer uses touchpad for color correction during retouching and editing photo.

Sometimes, it’s not practical — or possible — to change the color balance in the camera. When that happens, you can balance the image in the processing stage. The vast majority of photo-editing software programs come with a built-in tool to streamline the process. You might also need this feature when the white-balance or Kelvin settings in your camera aren’t enough to counteract the color cast in a specific scene.

  1. Open the photo in your chosen editing software.
  2. Find the Color Balance feature. In Adobe Photoshop, it’s located in the Adjustments panel. In GIMP, you’ll find it in the Colors panel.
  3. Decide whether you want to adjust the color balance of the shadows, midtones, or highlights.
  4. Drag the cyan, magenta, and yellow sliders to the left or right to adjust the overall color balance of the photo. You can preview the effect on the photo as you make changes.
  5. Save the balanced image.

The trick to color balance is learning which tones and colors to adjust. If you’re editing a portrait, start with the midtones; they have the greatest effect on skin tones. Some photographers start with the highlights before moving to the midtones and shadows.

Each color slider features a pair of opposite colors: cyan/red, magenta/green, and yellow/blue. If you want to remove a color cast from an image, drag the slider away from that color. If your photo has a distinct green cast, for example, you’d drag the magenta slider away from the green end of the spectrum. Keep in mind that every change affects all the colors in the photo, so you may need to make adjustments to other colors to create an accurate image.

Any time you’re color-balancing a photo in an editing program, it’s a good idea to create an adjustment layer first. That way, your changes won’t affect the pixels of the photo; instead, they’re stored in the adjustment layer. This is called non-destructive editing because it preserves the original file.

Are Color Balance and Color Correction the Same Thing?

Closeup of color scopes in editing software.

Color correction is a method of changing the color of the light in a photo; color balance is one possible way to achieve color correction. In most cases, photographers correct an image to make it look more attractive and to help the photo appear as close to the real-life scene as possible.

Color balance isn’t the only color correction. Other options include changing the contrast, adjusting the exposure, and reducing or increasing highlights. You might also adjust the noise level. Photographers and image editors often use multiple color corrections on the same photo.

What’s the Difference Between Color Balance and Color Grading?

Color balance, color correction, and color grading are often used interchangeably, but they’re quite different. Color balance and other color-correction techniques are usually used to create natural colors in a photo. Color grading is a process that changes the mood, tone, or aesthetic of the image.

Before and after example of photo editing process of man standing on wooden pier at sunset.

Some of the adjustments used in color grading are:

  • Saturation: The intensity of all the colors in an image
  • Hue: This setting changes the overall color cast of the photo
  • LevelsThis tool adjusts the color balance and tonal range
  • Curves: This setting enables you to change the tonal range at specific points in the shadows-to-highlights spectrum
  • Brightness: The amount of light that you add to a photo as a whole
  • Contrast: The range between the lightest and darkest colors in a photo

Color grading usually happens after color balance. First, you adjust the colors of the photo so they’re accurate. Then, you use color-grading tools to achieve a specific look. If you want a photo to look moody, you might reduce the contrast or add a sepia tone with the hue tool. If you want a bright, cheerful image, you might bump up the saturation and the brightness to make the scene look more intense and colorful than it does in real life.

Can You Use Color Balance for Creative Photo Editing?

Surreal dark chrome cyan peony flower macro isolated on black.

Color balance is typically used to achieve realistic colors, but you can also use it to create an artistic effect. Increase the amount of cyan in a photo, and it will look blue and ghostly; if you want a spooky effect, you can bump up the amount of green in the image.

Some photo editors use color balance instead of hue settings to achieve greater control over a photo. Hue adjustments offer a single slider; color balance settings give you three sliders. This is handy when you have a precise aesthetic vision.

Whether you’re a photographer or a photo editor, color balance is a useful adjustment. When you learn to master the different color-temperature settings, you have more power to create appealing photos for any purpose.