White balance can be incredibly elusive when you’re new to food photography. Correct white balance can make or break an image, and knowing how to correctly color adjust can save you a ton of studio and editing time. The problem is that it is subjective to a point, and while you can aim to find a pure white, there are many times where a cool or warm balance may actually be better for the image you are creating. So where do you go from here? Learn the tools you have to manipulate white balance and learn how colors can complement each other and work together harmoniously for beautiful food photography.
So let’s start off talking about what white balance is.
On a scientific level, our brains actually do a “white balancing” of sorts so when we see light we see pure, white light. Cameras aren’t quite as “high-tech” as the human brain, so they record the color in the light being reflected. While cameras do have technology that can help them to adapt to light, it’s not completely accurate, and as photographers, we need to be able to account for it.
Light is measured on a scale from 2000 to 9000, with 2000 being the warm end and 9000 being the cool end. The confusing part is that warm light is actually colder and cool light is hotter in temperature, but in photography we are more concerned about the color of the light, so the important thing to be aware of is how the temperature relates visually.
Studio light (strobes, consitnuous bulbs, etc.) is set to 5500, which is a happy medium “daylight” light. But if you’re using natural light you’ll be dealing with the full gamut of light temperature depending on the time of day, hemisphere, season, etc. In both cases you’ll need to adjust your white balance to achieve the overall tone you want your image to convey.
We can adjust light both in-camera and in Lightroom, either to achieve pure white or a warmer or cooler tone, depending on our goals.
Technical vs Creative White Balance
It’s important to know that you can make stunning food photography without trying to achieve pure whites. In a lot of commercial cases you’ll want to achieve a pure white balance, but beyond that you can choose to create a slightly warmer or cooler image to evoke certain feelings and emotions. We’ll talk more about this later.
In-Camera White Balancing
Our cameras are primed for light that is around 5500 K, but this is often too cool or too warm when we’re shooting in natural light.
Our camera has a white balance panel with a range of settings from daylight to cloudy to flash. These can all be effective depending on the light you’re working with, so it’s good to get to know each setting.
My camera is always on the custom white balance setting, which allows you to tell the camera the temperature of the light you’re working with and adjust it in small amounts until you’ve found the right setting. I get some awkward tinted light coming in the studio window of my walkup, so I prefer the control of the custom settings. Once you’ve tried the automatic setting I recommend giving this option a try!
One last note: Make sure you’re shooting RAW files. This makes it super easy to adjust your white balance in post-processing, among many other benefits.
White Balance in Lightroom
Even if you have done some in-camera adjusting, you’ll probably still need to do some adjusting in Lightroom, and you may find that using a cooler or warmer setting actually works better for the intended message.
A lot of new photographers make the mistake of thinking that white balance is about using the eyedropper and calling it quits, but Lightroom actually gives us three tools to adjust white balance, and none of them are as good at judging the final result as you are. I recommend using a mix of the three to adjust your image until you achieve the desired result.
Tool 1: Eyedropper
Use this to select a neutral grey in your image. Lightroom will then adjust the white balance of the image accordingly. You can try this until you get a result that looks correct, or you can use this as a jumping-off point to do some manual adjustments with your sliders.
Tool 2: Sliders
Lightroom has a temperature and a tint slider that you can use to manually adjust your white balance. The best way to do this is to position your cursor over the slider so you can use your arrow keys to adjust in small increments (this is how I edit with every setting in Lightroom so I can make small changes.)
I have a red tint in my studio so I almost always use my tint slider to move a little more to the green end. You might need to do this or the opposite depending on the light you’re working with.
Tool 3: Profiles
Lightroom also has a profile menu that you can use to select a white balance profile similar to how you would choose one on your camera. A good starting place is to try the “auto” option and then use the sliders to adjust as needed. Sometimes you’ll find that this works great, and other times it seems to completely miss the mark.
As you can see, none of these are “one and done” solutions to white balancing, which is why it’s important to have your own vision for your images, and take the time to try each of these options until you achieve the right result. It’s almost freeing in a way to know that the correct way to learn white balance is to spend a little time wandering through it, exploring the magic of color and light.
Ansel Adams famously said that you don’t take a great photo, you make a great photo. So this is where we come back to the different ways we can use white balancing: to achieve perfect white, or to lean more cool or warm for an artistic look. This is a call you’ll have to make on every image that you work on depending on the overall mood that you want to create. If this feels overwhelming, try finding a neutral white, then make a virtual copy of the image and try playing with that one to find a cool or warm image. Compare the two and notice what makes the food look more appealing or more interesting. The answer will be different with every subject that you shoot.
A note on color grading:
Color grading is a bit too complicated to cover in-depth in this article, but basically, it allows you to edit the hues within your shadows, midtones, and highlights. This is a great way to add some warm or cool tones to your images without changing the overall white balance. It can be easy to overdo this when you first try it, so think critically about the effect that a certain color adjustment has on the overall image. Most of my images are cooler because that’s the style I’ve created for myself, so I add a lot of blues with color grading, but this doesn’t always work for the subject. You can play with the range of options available to you to see what enhances your images and makes your subject look even more inviting.
A note on local adjustments:
You can use local adjustment to edit the white balance of your subject if you find that it’s leaning too warm or too cool, but you like the white balance of the overall image. I do this often when I’m shooting browns on a blue background and want to make sure that I don’t lose the warmth of my subject.
Warm White Balance
White balance can completely change the emotion in our images, and a warm image can come across extra cozy and indulgent. It’s great with rich, savory foods or for creating a warm summer scene. I like shooting on coral or tan background when I know I want to create an extra warm image, that way I don’t have to do too much white balancing that will mess with the colors in my food, and am already set up for a warm, golden image overall.
The image below is an example of a warm white balance. My goal was to create a scene that felt like a moment from a long summer day in Tuscany. I set my camera white balance manually to a warmer setting so the only editing I had to do was removing the magenta tint from the studio color cast, then adding a bit of color grading into the shadows and midtones to add some more orange and red tones.
Cool White Balance
Food photography with a cool white balance can come across crisp and refreshing. I find that cool white balance looks especially great with a scene with a lot of greens, or with a food that feels a little too orange. I also lean very cool when I’m shooting dark and moody, as warm black tends to look awkward.
The below image of a bowl of ramen is an example of a cool white balance. Ramen might not seem like an obvious choice for a color palette, but I love turning a food item on its head to see how I can give it a new life. Sometimes it’s a flop, but otherwise it’s surprisingly pleasing!
Since cool colors recede and warm colors jump out at the eye, shooting on a cool background and leaning slightly cool can be a great way to make an orange food item look appealing. You may need to locally adjust the orange in your scene like I did on the egg yolks above to keep them warm and orange in an otherwise cool scene.
I also tend to move my greens to the cool end in most of my cooler images. The key to pulling this off is to also desaturate them and increase the luminance, which keeps them from looking unrealistic.
Many photographers don’t think that cool white balance can work for food, but I think it can be especially intriguing, and love playing around with it!
Hopefully, now you feel a little more confident with your white balancing skills. Don’t be afraid to try new edits and experiment with warm and cool–you might be surprised with how effective it is!