How to Use White Balance to Convey Mood in Urban Photography

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  By Jennifer Berube
How to Use White Balance to Convey Mood in Urban Photography

The science behind white balance and digital photography can be difficult to understand. But, the ways you can use your camera’s white balance settings to give your urban photography images a warm, vibrant look or a cool film noir look is straightforward. If you want to be able to add these effects to your photos, then check out the tips below.

The White balance came about as an issue with digital photography because camera sensors detected light differently than the human eye. Light can be understood to have different “temperatures” (which optical engineers measure in degrees Kelvin). When we look at a dim light, which has a lower “temperature” than bright light, such as a candle or a sunset, the light appears to be orange. Bright light, such as a clear blue sky or a fluorescent light bulb, has a higher “temperature” and seems to be blue. Visualize how much hotter a gas burner (which burns blue) is than a burning match (which burns yellow and orange). This will give you an idea of the difference between various color temperatures.

Lower color temperature
Higher color temperature

When light from that candle or the sky shines on a white sheet of paper, our brains do not interpret the paper to appear differently, even though a different color light is shining on it. Digital cameras, on the other hand, do see the white piece of paper to be different colors depending on what sort of light is present. You can use your camera’s white balance settings to either display your image neutrally or enhance its mood.

Urban Photography and White Balance 

There are a bunch of different white balance settings in today’s camera’s, but they can be broken down generally as follows:

  • auto white balance
  • daylight
  • overcast light
  • fluorescent light
  • incandescent light (also known as the “tungsten” setting, for the element used in light bulb filaments)
  • custom white balance settings

If you shoot in RAW, you can edit white balance in post processing.

Creating Natural White Balance Images

If you are shooting indoors or under streetlights and forget to pay attention to your white balance, you can find that your images have a sickly green pallor. In most cases, you can avoid this problem by setting your white balance to “auto white balance” or to the appropriate setting given your conditions.

A more advanced method of setting your white balance is to use a white balance card. These cards are specially designed to help you adjust your camera’s white balance settings. You can use one to get an entirely neutral image. Just place the white balance card in front of your lens and adjust your camera’s white balance to tell your camera’s sensor that “white” is the color of the white balance card. The Daylight setting also provides a fairly close-to-neutral white balance for imagery. A neutral street scene, like the above image, is critical for highlighting color elements in the photo, such as the awnings and planters.

Creating Cooler Images

Urban photography often relies on a cool blue tone that captures the moodiness of a city. You can see this technique used in crime dramas or advertising images that showcase modern or sleek design. You can create this effect using the tungsten/incandescent setting outside, particularly at dusk. Using a high color temperature is an excellent way to change the time of day of an image from afternoon to early evening (as the viewer associates the blue tint with the hours just after sunset).

Creating Warmer Images

A classic street scene does not always need to have a cold, dramatic look. If you’re shooting an urban scene at sunrise or sunset, you can increase the warmth and vibrancy of the image by manually selecting the overcast setting.

Let’s Go to Extremes

If you want to go to extremes with the warming effect in your urban photography, manually set your white balance to a low-temperature white balance setting, such as 3,000 k or lower (depending on your camera’s capabilities). Shooting with a low color temperature gives a richness to summertime shots and conveys the idea of heat in an image.

If you want to go to extremes with the cooling effect, manually set your white balance to a high-temperature white balance setting, such as 10,000 k or higher (depending on your camera’s capabilities).

White balance, while it initially seems tricky, can be used to convey different moods by changing how the camera’s sensor interprets light. Use it to compensate for overcast skies or electric lights (with the fluorescent and incandescent settings), to create a natural, pure look for your images. You can also use white balance to change color to convey a mood or tone, much like colored filters on film cameras.

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Before I became Editor-in-Chief of PHLEARN Magazine, I spent over five years specializing in Photography Writing and contributed articles regularly to sites like PictureCorrect, Sleeklens, and PhotoWorkout. Photography has always been a huge passion of mine; I may not be professionally trained in the art, but the knowledge and experience I have gained writing about photography techniques, interviewing some of the biggest and most inspiring photographers out there, and covering industry events has been invaluable!

Comments (1)

  1. Heather Guest

    Very useful information. Thanks!