A woman stood outside with her back to the camera. The photo is very misty so some of the background is out of focus.

In our series of how-to guides, we’ve been covering all kinds of photography settings and techniques you can use to take better snaps and create professional-looking bonusprint photo books. As we’ve covered so far, taking a good photo depends on lots of different variables, both creative and technical. To give you more creative options, the best place to start is understanding what tools and camera settings you’ve got to work with, and once you have that basic understanding, you can get more experimental with your shots.

The main dials on your digital camera are there to control the light that hits your sensor. And in our previous guide on using ISO, we explained how to capture as much light as possible when taking pictures in trickier conditions. But taking a great picture doesn’t just rely on light quantity, it’s also down to light quality, and the best way to tackle that is with a setting called white balance.

What is white balance?

A photo of a tram going up a narrow street. The photo is split into three to show white balance; one third has blueish tones, the middle has balanced tones and the right-hand third has yellowish tones.

Not all light is the same, and some light is colder than others. Take a cold blueish neon light in an underpass for example, this is very different from the warm golden tones of a sunset. In a similar way, candlelight seems a lot warmer than the light on an overcast day. Our cameras can’t precisely detect the quality of light in scenes like this. Although there are automatic settings that can work pretty well, the results aren’t always perfect and colours can look a bit unbalanced.

When we take a photo, our camera tries to find a neutral grey point in the shot, and then it will try to balance all the colours around it. If it gets it right, all the colours will look accurate in the picture, if not, you could end up with very yellowy or mainly blue tones. White balance is the setting that can help to fix this. And by correcting white balance, it basically means that you’re balancing all the tones in your photo correctly. Knowing how to use it and how to manually set your camera so it recognises the quality of light in the scene is very important but it’s very simple to do.

How to use white balanceA photo of a pug dog in a red raincoat. The photo shows how white balance can alter the tones in an image; it’s divided into five shades with icons of different camera presets above it.

Whether you want to capture realism or play with colours in your photos, white balance can help you achieve both these effects. The easiest way to set your white balance is to use presets on your camera. All digital cameras have an automatic white balance setting as well as several presets for different conditions, such as sunny, cloudy, shade and indoors.

You might find that the automatic setting works for you, but as we mentioned, a camera can’t tell if you’re indoors or outdoors on a cloudy day so the colour balance might be off in your shot. That’s where the presets come in handy. Try them out so you can get a feel for what your camera can do and find the colour balance you prefer from each preset. As you go, you’ll start to notice that a simple preset change can make the world of difference to your images compared to a picture taken with an auto setting.

How to fine-tune your white balance settings

A Kelvin scale showing light temperatures from 1000 to 10000, with candlelight, artificial light, sunlight and cloudy skies marked on the scale to show their temperature in Kelvin degrees.

Some cameras will let you customise your white balance settings even further. For any shoots where your presets aren’t quite cutting it, you can fine-tune your white balance by adjusting the temperature of light manually. This is measured in a scale of Kelvin degrees. The low values represent the temperature of candlelight, whereas the high values reflect an overcast sky or shade. Take a look at the diagram above to see where different light conditions sit on the scale.

How to adjust white balance after you’ve taken a shot

Screenshots of white balance controls on a smartphone.

White balance is also easy to adjust once you’ve taken a photo with your digital camera or your smartphone. On most phones and photo editing software, you can edit the temperature of an image with a simple slider. These range from yellow to blue and from green to magenta.

There are loads of photo editing apps you can download for your phone, some of which work just as well as editing software. And to change the colour balance on these, you can often use a slider that adjusts the tint or the hue of your image. Loads of smartphones will also let you adjust these settings to an extent in your image gallery too.

By playing around with these sliders, you’ll soon figure out how to balance your colours, and you might even find some new creative options you like the look of as well.

Things to look out for when using white balance in photography

A photo of a woman on a bridge in Amsterdam. The photo shows how white balance can affect an image; it’s split into four, with each quarter showing a different tone, there’s a balanced section in the middle in a circle.

Unless you’re going for a specific look in your photos, it can be very easy to go overboard with your white balance sliders, so be careful not to get too carried away when you’re correcting your colours. To avoid overusing a certain shade, first, try moving the slider to the two extremes so you get a sense of how your image would look if one shade was more prominent than the other. Next, move it back to the middle neutral point, and then try making subtle corrections from there.

For a quick rundown of the rest of our photo tips guides, take a look at our introduction to photography basics. By picking up a few simple tips and tricks, you’ll be taking amazing photos of your favourite moments that’ll look great in your bonusprint photo books.

Create your photo book