The Bride Wore White, But Can You Tell? Why White Balance Matters
How often have you seen pictures like this one in a friend’s photo album, or even in a professional photographer’s portfolio? It’s a typical shot of the wedding party helping the bride get ready for the ceremony, but there’s something unappealing about it to almost every eye.
Check out the same photo with just one simple change:
Looks much better, right?
Suddenly the gorgeous white gown is popping off the page. The bride’s skin looks clear and smooth, and the pretty blush of her cheeks makes her appear…well, bridal.
In the first picture, the bride’s skin was nearly the same color as the wall behind her. In this one, she’s the focus of every eye.
What’s the difference?
Just a little photography trick called white balance.
What is White Balance?
Every type of visual item, whether it’s a photograph or an apple sitting on your table, has a characteristic called color temperature. Just like your thermostat in your house, colors can be warm or cool. There are several things that make a color warm or cool, but the main thing to know is that any color that falls on the red/orange/yellow side of the color wheel is warm, while any color falling on the blue side is cool. Green and purple can go either way, depending on how much blue they have mixed with yellow or red.
White is a unique “color” because it’s not actually a color at all. If you define color as the way our eyes interpret the wavelengths of light, then white is actually every color mixed together.
(There is an argument that white is not a color, based on the definition that color is made up of pigments, but let’s save that for another day.)
Because white, under this definition, is made up of both cool blue light and warm red/orange/yellow light, it can be seen as either warm or cool.
Now that you understand that, you can easily understand white balance. White balance is just the phrase photographers use to describe how warm or cool the white appears in the photo. If the whites in the photo appear crisp and pure, like the corrected image from the example above, we say that the photo has the correct white balance. White in its natural state is cool, by the way.
In many cases, the natural light of the room or space can throw off the white balance of an image. That’s what happened in the first picture above – the room’s yellow bulbs made the white balance all wrong. The photographer adjusted the white balance to create the stunning corrected shot.
Here’s another great example that shows how whites can look like other colors when the white balance is off:
In the picture on the left, the groom’s suit, the bride’s dress, and the décor behind the couple appear perfectly crisp against the pink flowers and the purple backdrop. This image has a cool color temperature.
In the picture on the right, the whites are very warm, appearing more yellow than white. Not only does this make the whites look less appealing, it also causes the flowers and backdrop to look more yellow as well. Instead of pale pink flowers, the wedding décor now looks very peach.
How Photographers Balance Colors?
Correcting white balance has to do with the lighting equipment (or natural ambient lighting) that the photographer is using, or the camera setting that is being used.
Most professionals will use a camera that has color correcting settings on it, and they’ll adjust those to get the right temperature. These settings change how much light the lens takes in as it snaps photos; depending on the type of light in the area, more or less light can make the shot warmer or cooler.
A flash is almost always a very cool light, which is why flashes are frequently used indoors to balance yellow light bulbs. Some photographers may also use manual color correction, by holding up a card or standing a white piece of material nearby. This won’t be seen in your photo, but is used just before the shot is taken to tell the camera what white really looks like. The camera then auto-corrects to ensure that all whites look the same as the color card.
When Wouldn’t You Want to Correct White Balance?
Just because corrected white balance makes a picture look clearer, doesn’t mean that you want to use it all the time. In fact, some couples may prefer the look of the uncorrected photo – and that’s okay!
Consider these two images:
The image on the left has had white balance correction applied. The image on the right has “extra” color temperature making the picture warmer, and incorrectly balanced from a technical point of view. But for many brides, the picture on the right would be their first choice. Why?
In certain photographs where the lighting is more natural, warmer photos can look more lively and fresh. Outdoor photographs are a great example. The image on the left, while technically correct, looks a little flat compared to the warmer image on the right. In the warmer photo here, the whites are still nice and white, but the bride’s face is glowing. There is more definition in her hair, and the warm yellow sunlight across their arms is very romantic.
The most important thing is always that you love your pictures. If the warmer image is what draws your eye the most, then that is the picture you should choose. However, the best rule of thumb to follow is to avoid any picture in which the whites (especially the gown) appear yellow.
Here’s another great outdoor shot for comparison:
In this image, the color corrected photograph is on the left. You can see that the white suit and gown are very pure, and that the red roses are deep in color, popping against the groom’s suit for a very eye catching detail.
On the right, the image has a warmer color temperature, and the groom’s suit does have a more yellow tinge to it. The flowers no longer look quite as dramatic, taking on a bit of a faded appearance. From a technical standpoint, the image on the left is the more “correct” photo.
Don’t forget that your preference is what matters the most. Despite the fact that the photo on the left is technically better from a photographer’s point of view, that doesn’t mean you won’t love the warm tone that highlights the couple’s skin in the photo on the right. Your view matters most at the end of the day.
Want a Fast Rule of Thumb?
Generally, outdoor shots can look great without white balance correction, while indoor shots really need the correction to get the clearest image. That is not a hard and fast rule, but just a guideline to go by. All that matters is that you love the photo, and that the whites don’t appear completely yellow like in our very first example.
Not sure which style you love the most?
Check out our blog at Fiona Image for more photographs for inspiration and comparison.