White Balancing for DSLRs and Camcorders

There are many factors that contribute to getting a good looking shot. Setting your white balance correctly saves time and frustration when it comes time to edit and opens up artistic options in the field. In this segment, we talk about the basics of color temperature, when to use auto white balance, setting your white balance manually by dialing it in or using a white reference object and how to ensure good results in tough situations.

Video Transcript


There are many factors that contribute to getting a good looking shot, and setting your white balance correctly saves time and frustration in the edit room, and opens up artistic options in the field.

In this segment, we talk about the basics of color temperature, when to use auto white balance, setting your white balance manually by dialing it in or using a white reference object, and how to ensure good results in tough situations. Knowing how to white balance properly can keep your shots looking consistently good, so you can focus on putting together a great project.


Before we dive into white balance, we need to briefly explore the concept of color temperature. Here’s what you need to know. Every source of light has a color temperature. The color temperature of a light source is measured in degrees kelvin, and can range from 1700k for a lit match, to upwards of 10k for skylight. The lower temperatures produces an orange color cast, while the upper temperatures produce a blue color cast. Professional lights are designed to operate at specific color temperatures. A tungsten light operates at 3200K, which produces an orange cast, while daylight balanced lights operate at 5500k or 5600k, which produces a blue cast. Some LED lights even have adjustable color temperatures that cover that whole range. Your camera must shoot at a specified color temperature, and setting the white balance properly counteracts the color cast so your footage looks natural.


So, when do you need to white balance your camera? Every single time your light sources change. Whether you’re moving from indoors to outdoors, changing your lighting setup, or a cloud covers the sun, white balancing should be a normal part of your routine. Almost all cameras have an auto white balance setting. This setting is appropriate when you have a setup that has uncontrollable or unpredictable color temperature shifts in a scene, when stopping to change white balance isn’t practical. DSLR cameras and some lower-end camcorders also have built-in presets such as daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, and fluorescent. While these presets can get you in the ballpark, the best method is to white balance manually.


There are two ways to achieve a manual white balance. you can use a white object for reference, or manually adjust your white balance to match the color temperature of the scene. These procedures are a little bit different depending on whether you use a camcorder or a DSLR. Let’s start with manually adjusting to match your scene. Most pro camcorders will typically have a white balance switch with “preset”, “a” and “b” positions. The “preset” position will use a white balance setting that you pre-determine, typically by using your camera’s menu system. The a and b positions store white balance that is achieved by using a white object or card for reference. Let’s start with the preset position, and see how it works on the JVC hm600u.


We’re shooting this scene with tungsten lights, so our color temperature is 3200k. Our white balance is currently at 5600k, so our scene has an orange cast. With the white balance switch on preset, hit the menu button. Under camera process, scroll to white balance, and then click on one of the preset temperatures. Now simply select 3200k as the color temperature. Comparing the two settings, you can see that matching our white balance setting with the color temperature of the scene achieves the proper color balance.


Manually setting your white balance on a DSLR has a similar process. The specific order of operations will vary slightly from camera to camera, but let’s take a look at the canon 5d mark III

Here’s the previous scene lit with tungsten lights, which are 3200k. Our white balance is set to 2500k, and you can see that the scene has a blue cast to it. First, hit the white balance button on top of the camera, then use the quick control dial to select the color temperature setting, which is a K for kelvin. Now you can use the main dial to change to white balance to 3200k. Taking a look at the two shots side by side, it’s clear that 3200k is the right setting for this setup.


One advantage to using this dial-in method, is that it can be used artistically to achieve a warmer or cooler tone to your shots in camera. Dialing in a color temperature that is higher than the “neutral” setting will give your scene an orange cast to it, while dialing in a lower temperature will give your scene a blue cast. One example of this would be shooting a sunrise or sunset, when you want that golden look for your shot.


Many experienced shooters use the dial in method, and achieve great results. It works well if you know the exact color temperature of your scene. But scenes with mixed lighting and even outdoor scenes can be little tougher to pinpoint, so let’s take a look at setting your white balance with a reference card or object. Just about anything will work as a white reference point, but you should avoid highly reflective objects, and ensure that the object is actually pure white without any tint, otherwise you’ll get poor results. Let’s see how to do this on the JVC.


We’re shooting this scene using the sun as our light. Our white balance is currently set at 3200k, and you can see the scene has a definite blue cast to it. With the white balance switch set to A, take a simple white sheet of paper, and position it in the scene where your subject will be. Zoom in and fill the frame with the white object, making sure you’re in focus. You can probably get away with filling about 80 percent of the frame, but filling the entire frame is ideal. Now press the white balance button and let the camera do it’s magic. Looking at the two shots side by side, you can see what a difference proper white balance makes.


Now let’s take a look at using a white reference for a DSLR camera using the 5D mark III. Other DSLR camera’s will have a similar process. Back in our outdoor scene, our white balance is set to 10,000k and is clearly incorrect. Let’s bring in our white reference and zoom in to fill the frame of our shot. You want to make sure your focus is sharp, using the edge of the object if necessary. On the 5d, using the shutter button will take a photo even in video mode. On other cameras, you might have to switch into photo mode. Take the photo, hit the menu button, and navigate to page two of the camera settings menu. Scroll down to custom white balance, and it will then bring up the reference shot you just took. Press the set button, and select ok to confirm. A reminder will pop up to set your camera white balance preset to custom. Since you’re in the menu already, scroll up to white balance, hit set, and select the custom icon. Once selected, hit the menu button. Again, looking at the two shots side by side clearly demonstrates why proper white balance is so important.


Using this reference method is a foolproof way of ensuring that your white balance is correct for the scene you’re shooting, even if you don’t know anything about color temperatures. But there are a few things to remember to make sure you get a good result when using this technique. First, is the exposure. Typically, you’ll be able to set the exposure you want for your scene, and then white balance. But if the lighting setup in your scene causes the white reference to be overexposed, or severely underexposed your camera won’t return a proper white balance. Let’s take a look at an example.


We’ve got a scene that is mostly dark colors, and we’re throwing a lot of light on it. If we bring our white reference in, It’s overexposed. Taking a photo and attempting to use it as a reference results in a warning from the 5d, and overriding the warning results in improper white balance. Just take a look at the resulting color balance. The solution here is to adjust your exposure for your white balance card, set your custom balance, and then return to the exposure you want to shoot once it’s set. Looking at the same setup with our JVC, you get a similar warning and we need to iris down a bit to grab our white balance, and then return our exposure to the desired setting. You’ll also need to think about any gels you’re using. If you’re using color correction gels on lights, you’ll want to make sure those are on before white balancing. However, if you’re using colored gels in a scene for artistic effect, you’ll want to turn those lights off when you white balance. You don’t want that amber gel fooling your camera into the wrong white balance setting. If you find yourself in a mixed color temperature situation, such as outdoor light from windows streaming into a fluorescent lit office, and you want a balance between the two temperatures, you need to make sure that portions from each lighting source are hitting your white reference object when you balance. Finally, If you’re using any neutral density filters for a shot, you want to make sure they’re on before you white balance to get proper results.


Whether you’re trying to achieve a perfect color balance in your scene, or striving for a particular effect, white balance is a great tool that every video producer should understand. So take that switch off manual, and take more control over your shots. Thanks For Watching.