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Photographing LED Christmas Lights and Displays: 
White Balance Adjustment

Introduction to White Balance



To give the photographer even more tools to successfully photograph LED light displays, digital white balance adjustment will be explored and explained. White balance, often abbreviated as WB, is the process of properly adjusting color to make objects that are white in person show up truly white in the photo. Proper camera white balance relies heavily on the color temperature of the light source. The human eye is very good at judging the correct color of white under different light sources, but digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance, or AWB. An incorrect WB can create blue, orange, or green discoloration, which are unrealistic and often unattractive. Adjusting the WB in traditional film photography requires attaching a filter for each lighting condition. With digital photography, however, this is no longer required. Understanding digital white balance can help you avoid discoloration created by the camera's AWB, improving the overall photo quality under a wider range of lighting conditions.

Color Temperature Basics

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin, indicated with the letter K. The color temperature of 5000K produces roughly neutral light, while 3000K produces orange light and 9000K blue light. As the color temperature rises, the color becomes “cooler" like in our higher color temperature pure white LED Christmas lights.  This may not seem intuitive, but makes sense when one considers that shorter wavelengths contain light of higher energy. The following list is a rule-of-thumb guide to the correlated color temperature of some common light sources:

Color Temperature and Common Light Sources

  • 1000-2000 K Candlelight
  • 2500-3500 K Tungsten(Incandescent)Bulb
  • 3000-4000 K Sunrise/Sunset with Clear Sky
  • 4000-5000 K Fluorescent Lamps
  • 5000-5500 K Electronic Flash
  • 5000-6500 K Daylight with Clear Sky
  • 6500-8000 K Moderately Overcast Sky
  • 9000-10000 K Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky

Neutral Reference

A neutral reference can be from the photograph itself, if there is a truly white object in the photo, or it can be a portable item carried by the photographer. Pre-made portable references are typically a more accurate choice. Portable references can be expensive and specifically designed for photography, but inexpensive household items may be used as well. Examples of common household neutral references are the underside of a lid to a coffee or Pringles container, or simply a white piece of paper. These are inexpensive and reasonably accurate, although professionally made photographic references are best.

Auto White Balance(AWB)

Many cameras can automatically adjust the WB using the auto white balance setting. Unfortunately, certain subjects create problems for a digital camera's AWB, even under normal daylight conditions.  One example is if the subject has significant warmth or coolness.  The camera will try to compensate so that the average color of the image is closer to neutral, but this tends to create unrealistic color tones. 
The photographer should keep in mind that a digital camera's auto white balance is often more effective when the photo contains at least one white or bright element. Regardless, AWB is not the best option for shooting the subject in accurate color.

Manual White Balance

Many cameras also have presets for white balance, which can be used on their own or in conjunction with AWB. These presets offer more flexibility for the photographer because the settings can be changed depending on the particular lighting situation. Some common presets include:

  • Auto – The standard selection for AWB. The camera will adjust the color on a shot-by-shot basis.
  • Tungsten – Often symbolized with a bulb and is commonly used for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten (incandescent) lighting. This cools down the colors in a photo.
  • Fluorescent – This compensates for the cooler light of fluorescent lighting and will warm up the photograph.
  • Daylight/Sunny – Fewer cameras have this setting because it uses fairly standard white balance settings. Photos will be made slightly warmer with this setting.
  • Cloudy – This setting tends to warms things up a touch more than daylight mode.
  • Flash – Using the flash on a camera can be very cool light, so choosing Flash WB mode will warm the shots to compensate.
  • Shade – Lighting in shade is generally cooler than in sunlight, so this mode will warm things up a little.

RAW File Format

The best white balance solution is to photograph using the RAW file format if this setting exists on the particular digital camera. This format allows the photographer to set the WB after the photo has been taken. Performing a white balance with a raw file is quick and easy.  You can either adjust the temperature and green-magenta sliders until the discolorations are removed, or you can simply click on a neutral reference within the image. More on this topic will be available in future articles.

Final Thoughts

As with many aspect of photography, finding the correct WB for a particular photo is a matter of experimentation. This is especially true for sensitive subjects like LED light displays or LED Christmas lights. Using a RAW file format will give the photographer more flexibility in WB adjustment, but this option is not always available and requires post-production software (e.g. Photoshop). AWB is the simplest option, but does not provide the same level of accuracy most photographers demand. Using a digital camera’s preset WB options is a good alternative to AWB, but requires significant guess-and-check adjustments to get the perfect balance. For the absolute best WB without post-production software, a professional premade neutral reference is the most appropriate choice. These can be purchased from online photography businesses, other online merchants such as Amazon, and can also be found at local photography stores.