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White Balance or Exposure

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Should you check your White Balance or Exposure?

Achieving perfectly balanced images

In all the years I have been teaching digital photography, this question is one of the most common ones I get asked: “When a photo does not look right, should I check the white balance or the exposure?”

In this article I will discuss the answer to this question. Let’s begin with a few definitions.

What is Exposure?

Exposure is the brightness and contrast in a photo. A correct exposure is one that provides enough brightness and contrast of the scene, somewhat close to what our human eyes can see.

Normal Exposure

White balance or exposure
A correct exposure provides the brightness and contrast that our eyes can see

Under exposed photo

An under exposed photo is dark
An under exposed photo is dark

Over exposed photo

Over exposed photos do not have contrast
Over exposed photos do not have contrast

What influence does White Balance have?

White Balance controls the rendition of the colours. If the colour in your photos appears off and doesn’t look right, you need to check the white balance setting.

Correct White Balance

A correct White Balance photo. Check the colour black on the camera body. There is no colour cast.
A correct White Balance photo. Check the colour black on the camera body. There is no colour cast.

Incorrect White Balance

Incorrect White Balance caused a yellow colour cast, which is more visible especially on camera body.
Incorrect White Balance caused a yellow colour cast, which is more visible especially on camera body.

A simple tip to diagnose what is incorrect in a photo by evaluating exposure or white balance.

If the photo is too dark or too bright and lacks contrast, look to the exposure as the reason why. If you don’t already do this, I encourage you to get into the habit of using your Histogram to help you to judge the exposure precisely.

On the other hand, if the colours are not correct, for example too yellow or blue (Colour Cast), this is due to an incorrect white balance setting.

Histogram for a correct exposed image

Histogram shows all different tones which are available on the image
Histogram shows all different tones which are available on the image

Histogram for an incorrect exposed image

Notice how histogram changed and shifted to left. You don't see the wide range of tonality.
Notice how histogram changed and shifted to left. You don't see the wide range of tonality.

Keep in mind that most of the time an under exposed picture can show a blue cast so my suggestion is to check the exposure first and make sure it is correct and then check and adjust the white balance.

Under exposed photo and colour cast

An under exposed or over exposed photo can create unwanted colour cast.
An under exposed or over exposed photo can create unwanted colour cast.

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