How To Use White Balance To Alter The Mood In A Picture

Evolution made our eyes and brain very good in judging the proper white balance in different light conditions. That is not the case with digital sensors, however. That is why every camera adjusts color temperature with software in order to try to achieve natural white. More often than not the camera will do a bad judgement and the photo will have blue or orange tint.

Our first intuition is to correct that, and while that is a fairly easy process (especially when shooting raw) we can also use that to our advantage (check Understanding White Balance).

Using offset white balance to our advantage is all about how our brain perceives color and how it connects it with certain emotions. That is why you’ll often hear “warm” and “cold” terms being used to describe improper white balances.

Those terms are used due to the fact that orange color cast is connected with warmth by our brain (mostly because the sun and fire are orange by color and they generate heat), and blue color cast being connected to cold (because when it gets dark ambience gets blue and it gets colder).

Sunset by Radwa Samir
Sunset by Radwa Samir

If you wish to create colder feeling image, for example shots in winter with snow, you should tilt the white balance slightly to the blue to give the photo a bit more colder feel. Doing the exact opposite on images being shot on the beach will make them feel warmer and more fun (check How to Choose Your Camera White Balance).

We All Wish For Narnia In Our Own World - Syon Park Winter Snow London by Simon & His Camera
We All Wish For Narnia In Our Own World – Syon Park Winter Snow London by Simon & His Camera

If you wish to go more specific and get out of the cliche white balancing, then you can use offset white balance to achieve all sorts of different things. In property photography, warming up the images a bit is considered to increase customer interest and sales. Going colder on commercial images which advertise winter resorts brings up the peace and snow the image tends to advertise.

How I Photograph Real Estate Interiors by Dave Dugdale
How I Photograph Real Estate Interiors by Dave Dugdale

Warm colors are also connected to the day, while colder to the night. Therefore when shooting at night, going a bit colder increases the impression night has, while the exact opposite works for the day (Fun and Effective Night Photography Tips).

Color temperature is also directly connected to being happy or sad, therefore you can enhance emotions using white balance. If you are trying to capture a sad scene or to point out the sad, nostalgic emotions you tilt the color balance towards the blue tones. On the other hand, if you are trying to show the happy, energetic emotions then you go towards orange (Use Colors to Create Mood in Your Photograph).

All these, can be (and should be for that matter) combined to achieve excellent images.

Most important part is not to overdo it, since white balance can go into extremes if you aren‘t careful enough and all it takes is 500-1000 kelvins plus or minus. For those who aren’t aware, color temperature is measured in kelvins, and it ranges from 2000-20000 in most of the image editing software available. You will find that sometimes it is in percentage but that is rare.

67/365+1 Gray Card by Dave Crosby
67/365+1 Gray Card by Dave Crosby

Finally, if you really want the correct white balance, just get a gray card (usually a dollar or two) and use that as a point of reference to correct the value.

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About Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

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