Fundamentals, Light

White balance for food photography

This past weekend, here in Canada we celebrated Victoria Day. It was a long weekend, which means one extra day off tagged onto the weekend, woo-hoo! Yay for summer long weekends, they’re up there in everyone’s top five favourite things, right beside brownies, craft beer and kittens.

I have to confess that the long weekend has left me with a great dose of laziness, which I was only able to shake off two days ago, when I finally sat down to write my fifth (huzzah!) blog post. In it, I try to tackle the sometimes troublesome concept of white balance in food photography. I had more trouble writing this one than I thought, mainly because I didn’t want to just regurgitate what others have written. Instead I wanted to understand how the concept applies to my daily practice as a photographer-in-training.

Cool blue tones in a calming flatlay f/3.6 1/125sec 60mm ISO1250

In my first post on understanding light I wrote about the direction of light, and how the position of the subject and camera in relation to the light source affects our image. In the second part, I tried to unpack the intensity of light, discussing the choice between soft light and hard light, and touching on the tools we can use to achieve soft lighting in our images, if that is what works best for your story. Besides direction and intensity, another key feature of light is its colour, or cast.

Colour of light

Have you ever captured an image of a great-looking dish, only to find it having a strange and unappetizing blue, yellow, or even green hue when viewed on your screen? I admit I have. Have you wondered why the photos you take under incandescent light look hepatically yellow? Or the light coming through on an overcast day gives your images a blue tint? I will try to unpack that here, and please let me know in the comments if you think I could do a better job at explaining. For my own sake, I’ll keep this not very geeky, but if you want to dive into the topic a bit more, head here.

Different light sources emit light of different colour. Incandescent bulbs emit citrine light, whereas the light in the shade on a sunny day is typically blue-toned. Tungsten or fluorescent lights have, again, a different colour cast. Our eyes and brain do a very good job of discerning the colour white, no matter the light conditions. Our cameras, however, do not. To the sensor of your camera, a white sheet of paper will look yellow under incandescent light, and that it exactly how it will render it on your screen. Therein lies the problem: we want the image to reflect the true colours of our subject and scene, not the camera’s interpretation of those colours based on available light.

How can this perception flaw be countered? All digital cameras have a menu setting called white balance. What does it do? The in-camera software (called firmware in technical terms) “balances” the colours in the image captured by the sensor, so that the image is true to life, and white appears as white no matter the source of the light. All cameras have automatic white balance (the camera adjusts the colours automatically), but many also come with white balance presets like: incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, underwater etc. When the photographer selects one of these presets, the camera smartly removes the respective colour cast, leaving whites white and true to real life.

Some cameras also give the photographer the possibility to use the Kelvin scale to correct white balance. The Kelvin scale for light temperature (another name for light colour) runs from 2,500K to 10,000K in the camera’s white balance menu (if your camera has this option); it is counter-intuitive in that warm colours like yellow and red have lower numbers on the Kelvin scale, while cool blue hues have higher numbers (from 5,500K to 10,000K). In my experience, and from my reading of professional food photographers’ modus operandi, the camera is typically set on automatic white balance, and any strange colour casts are later corrected in post processing.

How to minimize white balance issues

  • if you are looking for the truest whites/neutrals, try to shoot during the daylight hours when the sky is clear and the sun is high in the sky. Just remember to diffuse that light if you want soft lighting in your image.
  • choose darker backgrounds and props. White balance issues are considerably more apparent in photographs with light-coloured backgrounds, or a lot of white props. White surfaces reflect the light that hits them, and they will appear yellow-ish, or blue-ish according to your light conditions. From this standpoint, shooting the now-trendy dark and moody images definitely makes things easier for the photographer, since we don’t have to worry so much about getting those whites “just right.”
Darker backgrounds create fewer w/b issues f/4 1/6sec 60mm ISO200
  • edit your picture using Lightroom, or an app like VSCO which allow you to correct for any undesirable casts in your image.

How to adjust or correct white balance on your mobile device

If you are using a mobile device, your options for white balance are more limited. As far as I know, the built-in camera applications do not allow users to adjust the white balance before taking a picture. Your device’s camera tries its hardest to automatically adjust white balance, but I have never been fully satisfied with mine. Photo applications like Camera+ will give you more control, but the reality is that a mobile device just cannot match the sophistication of a camera firmware.

There is good news for mobile users, though. You can correct the white balance after the taking the picture. I took some screen shots to illustrate the process, and this is not a plug for Apple, it’s just what I use and am able to demonstrate. I used an almond milk pudding shot I took with my camera and later imported into my phone. Open the Photo app and select the picture you want to edit.

Tap on  and after the photo edit screen opens, tap on . You will see the following options:

Tap the down arrow in the Color section, and this will open a panel with the color editing options that the app offers.

You can see that there is an option for correcting the colour cast of your image. Tap on Cast, and it will open a slider, which allows you to modify the colour cast towards warmer (right) or cooler (left) tones.

To illustrate, I first chose to cool the tones down a lot. The original setting is marked by a small dot above the slider increments. Check out these cool blue tones:

Then, I adjusted towards very warm tones, and you can see how different the image looks now:

If you scroll up and down and check out these last two images, the difference that a colour cast adjustment makes become quite obvious. I started out with a neutral image, but if your original image is very cool- or warm-toned, adjusting the white balance will make for a much more pleasing result.

My own preference (I noticed this recently) is for cooler colour tones in my images, although typically I try to keep colours balanced so as to not make the food look strange. Of course, artistic licence always takes precedent, and if the colour cast is part of the story of the image, then by all means, keep it! Ultimately, it comes down to what you as an artist want to convey with your image.

Have fun shooting your next image, and if you have questions, pop them in the comments, and I’ll be happy to answer!

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “White balance for food photography

  1. Love the information! You explain things in useful terms and give wonderful photographic examples of what you’re discussing. Speaking as someone who uses an iPad exclusively to take pictures, apps like ProCam give the photographer access to that WB/Kelvin scale you spoke about. Also VSCO and Snapseed are two other editing apps that work wonderfully with photos taken on any device. Congratulations on your fifth post! Well done Diana!

    1. Thank you so much for suggesting the ProCam, VSCO and Snapseed apps, Kris! Not familiar with ProCam, but I am looking forward to checking it out! I typically use my camera, but realistically, there are many occasions when I’d simply want to take a quick pic and post on social media, without the hassle. As always, I am so grateful for your support and encouragement! Thank you, my friend!

  2. Can you recommend a free desktop editing program for Windows?
    I am not ready to shell out for lightroom, and I don’t use my phone.
    I am currently using Google photo but want something with more options, so that eventually I can feel confident enough to try Lightroom.
    I also wonder if you or anyone you know does something like a photo critique?
    Like going to my IG (@crustpiespt)and giving some constructive advise?
    Thanks for all the tips so far.

    1. Hi Kelli! I have heard good things about GIMP, although I have not used it myself. I use Lightroom, am paying the monthly subscription, which is $9.99. It seems less overwhelming than dropping a huge sum of money upfront. Through my local public library, I was able to find an introductory online course to Lightroom, and I found it incredibly useful – while not paying a cent for it! I mention this for later down the road, if you feel you want to dabble into Lightroom. If not, totally your choice!
      I found a couple of articles for you: here and here. Check them out and see if you find anything useful!
      As for photo critique, I’d love to give you (or anyone who wants it) my two cents worth. If you are interested, send me a DM on instagram (@craft_and_muse) and let me know if you have a particular image in mind, or your food images as a whole. I hope that I can help!

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