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Digital Photography White Balance

In the old days of film photography, each film type had different color sensitivity based on the materials and photo sensitive chemicals used. Film types that enhanced red hues were called "warm film", and film types that enhanced blue tints were called "cool film". Flesh tones (portraits, etc) were better captured with warm film, since the skin color would be more lifelike.

Scenery such as skies or grass would look better on cool film, since the shades of blue and green would be more pronounced. The type of light also affected the different types of film, certain film would produce strange color shifts if used with an inappropriate light source.
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In modern day digital photography, the image is captured on a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) that mimics the behavior of traditional film. Millions of light sensitive elements on the surface of the CCD (pixels) emulate the photo sensitive emulsion on the film of days past.

The CCD requires a frame of reference against pure white for the light source and subject being photographed. The White Balance setting on Digital SLR cameras allows us to choose this setting. White balance is usually set with a graphic icon indicator, such as sun, clouds, flash, etc. More advanced DSLR units also provide a more granular setting with histograms and color balance ratios.

Note that since the White Balance in a DSLR camera is an emulation feature, in some cameras it is possible to change the white balance setting on existing photographs (if they are saved in a native or TIFF format), this creates a copy of the existing photograph with the new white balance setting. While this is a powerful tool, it is generally time consuming and a hit-n-miss method; it is preferred to select the correct white balance before taking the shot rather than trying to repair it after.
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Sunlight makes for brighter whites, the "sun" setting in the White Balance control compensates for this and prevents washed out (overly white) images. Dim light, such as cloudy skies, have a lower white light ratio and the "cloudy" white balance setting will enhance the whites in the image to compensate.

Artificial light can create reddish or bluish tints if the wrong white balance setting is used. Halogen and tungsten lamps, such as often used in outdoor illumination, can make the image overly red. Other indoor lights such as florescent lamps, or flash illumination, may cause a bluish tint in photos.

The correct white balance setting will prevent this color shift and preserve the whites in the photographs taken.
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While most digital SLR cameras do have an "auto" setting, it should be avoided. The camera computer may not correctly guess the lighting type and subject tones, resulting in odd looking pictures.

Using manual settings is always preferred. If in doubt, try test shots under the lighting with different white balance settings and compare the results. Most cameras tag the image with the camera settings, this way you can choose the best results and peek at the camera settings embedded in that maybe image.

If it is not possible to take test shots in advance, you can simply take multiple pictures and change the white balance settings for each batch. This way you will have at least one correctly exposed set of photographs.

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