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Tutorial: Adjusting White Balance in Photographs

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Before I talk about adjusting white balance, I want to apologize. I have been “missing” from the blog these past few months. I certainly have not been able to post as regularly as I usually do. And yet, I’ve been working on the blog incessantly all of this time! I hope to reveal my behind-the-scenes projects by the end of this month, so be a little patient with me for a little while longer. I promise it will be worth it!

Now, on to the tutorial!

As I have mentioned before, I have been blogging since 2008. I have discussed about my budget techniques for food styling and food photography in last month. I get many requests from friends about editing their pictures. Although I will be using Photoshop in my tutorial, these options can be found on any photo editing software.

Confession: I have been known to randomly grab off-color pictures from my fellow food blogger’s sites, edit them and then email them to the blog owner. I recently did this for my friend, Valentina, over at Cooking on the Weekends. Valentina has a wonderful blog, where she is always enticing my senses with her gorgeous creations. I have watched her photo styling evolve and her work is just beautiful. She posted a wonderfully styled potato dish that made me want to reach into my screen and eat it. Except for one thing. The color was off. It was a little too yellow and too magenta. In two minutes, I grabbed her pictures, adjusted the color and emailed them back to her.

I think the email started like, “Hi, Valentina, this is totally random so don’t be offended, but I had to fix the white balance on your gorgeous picture…” She wrote me back and was thrilled that I did this for her as she was struggling with the same issue.

“What software do you  use?” I asked.

“I edit using iPhoto,” she answered.

Ack!

Now, I am not picking on my friend. Valentina is a terrific photographer and always creates lovely photograph. But we all have those odd days when the lighting just doesn’t work for us. I can’t stress enough to food bloggers: If you want nice pictures and you are willing to spend time styling your shots meticulously, and you are willing to shell out money for nicer cameras, why not invest $40-$60 on editing software like Photoshop Elements?

I personally use Photoshop, the full version with all of the bells and whistles. Bought it with a student discount, if you must know. After almost 20 years of using Photoshop, I still do not know how to use all of the bells and whistles. And quite frankly, I do not need to know how to use all of the bells and whistles! My techniques are far from industry standard. I do not use the masking tool, which to this day, still baffles me. But by knowing what to look for, you can easily take your off-color-this-dish-was-photographed-on-Mars picture and bring it back to normal, or Earth. Whichever you prefer.

Yes, you can by-pass all of this by getting it right in your camera first. But even I struggle with white balance on my camera. Sometimes I don’t have my mojo and I can’t get the color right. But I don’t sweat it. I fix it in post production. If super models with perfect bodies get photoshopped, why can’t my food?!

Let’s begin, shall we?

Here is my sample picture, straight out of the camera. Seriously bad. Hiding my head in shame:

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It’s supposed to be this awesome crab dip I made. I took this picture at a family new year’s eve party. I was not in the mood for too much fuss with styling and photography, as you can tell! The picture is obviously yellow because it is lit with indoor incandescent light bulbs.

So, for this shot, I start by selecting color balance. In Photoshop, you can find it under Image>Adjustments>Color Balance.

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You will see this little window pop up:

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You have several options in adjusting your white balance/color balance. You can adjust the colors in the mid color range, the highlights and the shadows. I typically start with the mid color range an tweak it. Since this picture is obviously very yellow, I slide the triangle away from yellow and over to the blue side.

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A little better. Yellow is gone, but let’s try removing some of that red. Slide my triangle over to cyan…

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Getting there. Now let’s work on adjusting white balance in the highlights and shadows and we get this:

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The color has improved, but it’s hard to tell for sure because the picture is a little dark. So even though we are talking about color balance, I want to introduce you to a lighting tool called “Levels.” Levels are your friend. Repeat with me: “Levels are your friend.” Good! You can find it in Photoshop under Image>Adjustments>Levels.

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You get this bell curve looking thing. ACK! I’m back in high school! No, this doesn’t show your grade, per say, but how the light balance is demonstrated in your photograph. If it’s dark, the lines will be skewed on the dark end of the graph. If the pictures is too light, it would be the reserve.

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Since our picture is dark, I slide the triangle thingie that is positioned on the right side where the light side is, and slide it over to the left toward the dark side. I suppose this would be the only time I would advise you to go toward the dark side.. heh… heh. Yes, I’m a science fiction fan. Okay back to editing.

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See the improvement? Next, I slide the middle triangle, that represents the mid-range light and slide it slightly over to the left to brighten things up. This grays the picture a little so I slide the far left triangle (representing the dark shadows) and move it a midge to the right. The result is a tighter bell curve with even lighting.

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Now that my lighting is fixed, I can see that my white plate is still yellow. Sometimes it is hard to see this, so I make a little white box to compare my whites. You do not need to do this. You can compare it with any window you can open on your computer, whether it’s a blank white page in your word processor or some white space on a website. Either way, compare your white to true white. This really helps tremendously when the white balance is just so ever so slightly off, but off enough that your photo gets rejected by the food porn sites. Ah! I have your attention now!

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As you can see, my white balance is off still. So, I go back to color balance and adjust all three color channels on all three levels until I get it right. Don’t be afraid to over tweak. You may think it’s only yellow, but when you fix the yellow you see magenta that needs fixing. And there is a bit too much red. The whole point of learning about color balancing is to see how easily it can be adjusted. I like to slide the triangles to every extreme to see if there is improvement or not. So slide away, you can always hit cancel and try it again. And our resulting picture is this, my nice shiny white plate is shiny and white:

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Now let’s compare with our ever-so-dramatic before and after shots. Well, not as dramatic as “What Not to Wear” or any room renovation, but I love my Photoshop.

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All in all, this picture takes me 5 minutes to color correct, if that long. But that’s after years of practice. And I’m anal. I was a lousy food photographer when I first started, and I just couldn’t get the color balance right for YEARS. I do less color tweaking, now, but pictures still need a nip here, a tuck there. A warm sunny day gives off a warm yellow glow to your picture if you do not fix it in your camera’s settings. A cloudy day gives you a bit of blue. Or the blues, if you don’t like grey days. Either way, with a bit of editing and practicing, you can do it.

Now I wouldn’t just publish this picture as is. I would tweak it more, because I can, to fix those dark spots on the red tablecloth and some of that dark green garnish. Why my parsley turned out so dark I have no idea. But it did. And I am leaving that part of the editing for ANOTHER tutorial!

Now let’s look at iPhoto’s options for editing pictures. Not too much control, which is why Valentina was struggling so much with the white balance.

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You can make adjustments, but many times you just can’t get it totally right. And that could mean a difference from a rejection email to an acceptance email from our food porn friends. Valentina’s first picture was rejected by these sites because of the color balance. She submitted the edited picture and was thrilled to see it get accepted. IT JUST TAKES FIVE MINUTES.

For my Mac users who are on iPhoto and your photo library is starting reach the 60-70,000 range in inventory, please upgrade and get Aperture. It’s meant to organize big libraries. I crashed iPhoto with my 90,000 pictures and lost some family photos as a result, the newest ones that I didn’t back up yet. Of course, I had my food photos all backed up. I have my twisted priorities, I suppose.

Aperture has more editing options than iPhoto, so if you can only get Aperature right now, it’s worth the investment. Because if you lose your pictures because you crashed iPhoto, you have nothing to edit in Photoshop. Here is what color adjusting in Aperture looks like.

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So many more choices than iPhoto. Plus, if you don’t see the adjustment you are looking for, select that drop down menu under the bell graph that says “Add Adjustment.” You’l have more goodies to play with there. When I am lazy and I’m doing quick edits for many pictures, like when I take 50 pictures at a school party, I do them in Aperture. It saves me time and it does a decent job. When I need more precise editing, I use Photoshop.

Photoshop Elements is a great software for non-techies. They have easy filters to help you get the right effect for your photo.

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Everything is on the side. There’s the edit tab and you have three options here: Full, Quick, Guided. It truly is awesome for beginners or those afraid of technology. Yes, I know you are out there. I really wish I had this when I first started editing pictures. Would have saved me countless hours of fixing and fidgeting. And yes, I use Elements for quick edits, especially repairing old pictures. Saves me a ton of time.

Check out what happens when you do Auto Color Balance. Select the Edit Tab>Guided>Enhance Colors>Auto:

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That is pretty darn good, and what? Took like a second? A push of the button? Okay, you had to open the file, so I give you ONE minute. Dang, I’m impressed. I should use Elements more often! Auto correct options on most software do not work. It worked beautifully for this picture, it’s possible it won’t work so well in another one. That’s why it is good to learn the basics of adjusting white balance in your photographs.

Any-hoo, I hope this helps. I do not have Lightroom, so I can not show you where the options are on that software. BUT, I know it’s a quality software, because I hear it recommended by many food bloggers. And it’s an Adobe product.Not as high-end as full Photoshop, but more than what iPhoto and probably Elements gives you. Amazon has it listed for about $120. All photo editing software have a color balance option. The real question is how much control does it give you. I am a control freak. I like full Photoshop because I’ve used it for so long. You beginners don’t need full Photoshop. You get your pictures edited nicely with Aperture or Photoshop Elements.

No, this is not a sponsored post. I am not representing Adobe. Didn’t even link to Amazon to make a few pennies if you buy through my link. I bought Elements at Costco for $40-$50. It’s $68 at Amazon. Do you think it’s worth it?

I have used Photoshop since way back to my advertising days, when I left my house to go to work! It’s primo software. And Elements is AWESOME for you non-techies, and techies alike. I’m sure Lightroom is just as good – it’s from Adobe and it’s a different level of Photoshop.

Take the few minutes adjusting white balance on your photographs. PLEASE. I don’t have time to hunt you all down and fix the pictures for you!

If I missed anything, please leave a comment below. And if this help, share the love and share this post clicking any of those social media buttons you like.

My other photography articles:

Food Photography Tips on a Budget

How to Edit Your Pictures to Look Professional on Your iPhone

Disclosure: I woke up at 2 am this morning and never went back to sleep. If I sound odd or quirky in this post, I was not high or drunk. Just a little sleep deprived as I’m suffering from some serious insomnia! Can you say, “Nap time?!”

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17 Responses to Tutorial: Adjusting White Balance in Photographs

  1. Thanks so much for the tip!!! Will try this out!!!

  2. What if you just take all my photos for me ;) No, seriously, this is very informative. I will think about jumping from iPhoto to Aperture. And, yes, take a nap!

  3. Liz at #

    Wow, you ARE a pro! I use lightroom, but I’m certain I don’t utilize all the bells and whistles. You’ve inspired me :)

  4. Okay, I’m being absolutely serious here. You’ve totally just changed my world. I’ve been struggling, yes, STRUGGLING with PSE forever. And boom. In a few seconds you’ve changed my world. I am just…SO thankful. Thank you SO much Laura!

  5. Hate at #

    Fabulous tutorial! You are welcome to edit all my pictures, lol! I don’t have a fancy camera and had no idea how to do much editing! I’m saving this post and will try out your tips, although I won’t be buying Photoshop just yet!

  6. Carole at #

    Laura: thanks so much for the great tutorial! I’m going to purchase Photoshop and start working on this!

  7. We have lightroom but still A LOT to learn. I don’t think we’re maximizing the use at all. So much to learn and so little time, and I know one day I have to get to it. Very important to have good food photos to be successful. You are so generous to share your knowledge with us!

  8. WOW – I feel like you wrote this post just for me! : ) Seriously, this is incredibly helpful and I am so amazed that you took the time to share all of this information. Now excuse me while I go and upgrade from iPhoto…

  9. I love this tutorial. I use Lightroom at home but Photoshop at work. There were a few tricks there that have helped. Thanks.

  10. Such a helpful tutorial; love that line about giving the photos a nip and a tuck! ;)

  11. I’ve been wondering where you’ve been! Glad to hear you’ll soon be revealing something of interest to all of us! Anyway, good post. If your white balance is off, your whole photo is off. Since you have the full version of Photoshop, you might try adjusting white balance first in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). I believe this is also in Elements, although I’m not sure. It’s essentially what Lightroom uses for its engine, and it’s wonderful if you shoot in RAW (which I do, although you can also correct jpegs with it). You can access it through Bridge. Much more powerful and subtle controls than going through PS’s Adjustment tab. Anyway, really useful post – thanks.

  12. This was wonderful, thank you!! So easy.

  13. I use Lightroom–had it for months before I got the courage to use it. Even now I still use only a fraction of the features it offers. Getting the right white balance is so hard in the beginning–this tutorial is so useful. When I finally jump to Photoshop, I know I’ll be referring to this post; it will make the transition that much easier! Thanks!!!

  14. Pat ~Forgetmenotcelebration at #

    This is a very informative post. I’m fortunate that I have my husband to do the photography for my blog. I need to learn how to do it too; and this is a great tool to get started.

    Thank you.

  15. Laura, needless to say, I love this post! You are an excellent teacher and your unbelievably gorgeous photographs are so inspiring!

  16. Thans for the tips. I have a really hard time getting the white balance among other things with my jewelry pictures. I have improved some since I started using Corel pro3 that came on my computer. It has helped improve my pictures, but it has so many choices that I have no clue about. Guess I need to start going through the tutorial and learn how to use it. Thank you for sharing your tutorial.

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