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Setting the White Balance

I always start editing my photos by setting the white balance first, because if you get the white balance right, the color is right, and your color correction problems pretty much go away. You adjust the white balance in the Basic panel, which is the most misnamed panel in Lightroom. It should be called the “Essentials” panel, because it contains the most important, and the most used, controls in the entire Develop module.

  • Step One: In the Library module, click on the photo you want to edit, and then press the letter D on your keyboard to jump over to the Develop module. By the way, you’re probably figuring that since you press D for the Develop module, it must be S for Slideshow, P for Print, and W for the Web module, right? Sadly, no—that would make things too easy. Nope, it’s just Develop that uses the first letter. (Arrrrgggh!) Anyway, once you’re in the Develop module, all the editing controls are in the right side Panels area, and the photo is displayed using whatever you had the white balance set on in your digital camera (called “As Shot”).
  • Step Two: The white balance controls are near the top of the Basic panel, and there you’ll see a White Balance (WB) pop-up menu where you can choose the same white balance presets you could have chosen in your camera, as seen here. (Note: The one big difference between processing JPEG and TIFF images, and those shot in RAW, is that you only get this full list of presets if you shoot in RAW. If you shoot in JPEG, you only get one preset choice—Auto—and that’s it.)
  • Step Three: In our photo shown in Step One, her skin looks a bit yellowish, and the whole tone of the photo looks a bit too warm, so it definitely needs a white balance adjustment. (Note: If you want to follow along here using this same image, you’re welcome to download it from So, go ahead and choose Auto from the White Balance pop-up menu and you’ll see how that would look (as you can see here, her skin actually looks somewhat better, but the gray background behind her is blue, and the highlights in her hair are blue, and well, her skin, while a little better, is kinda...bluish). The next three White Balance presets down will all be warmer (more yellow), with Daylight being a bit warmer, Cloudy being warmer still, and Shade being a lot warmer. Go ahead and choose Cloudy, and you can see the whole photo is much too warm.
  • Step Four: If you choose either of the next two down—Tungsten or Fluorescent—they’re going to be way crazy blue, so you don’t want either of those, but Flash (shown here) while not perfect is at least decent (take a moment and try each of those, just so you see how they affect the photo). The last preset isn’t really a preset at all—Custom just means you’re going to create the white balance manually using the two sliders beneath the pop-up menu. Now that you know what these presets look like, here’s what I recommend when you’re working with your own images: First, quickly run through all the presets and see if one of them happens to be “right on the money” (it happens more than you might think). If there isn’t one that’s right on the money, choose the preset that looks the closest to being right (in this case, I felt it was the Flash preset, which isn’t nearly as warm or as blue as any of the others, but the gray background behind her now looks a tad brownish to me).
  • Step Five: So now that you’ve chosen a preset that’s kind of “in the ballpark,” you can use the Temp and Tint sliders to dial in a better looking final White Balance setting. I zoomed in here on the Basic panel so you can get a nice close-up of the Temp and Tint sliders, because Adobe did something really great to help you out here—they colorized the slider bars, so you can see what will happen if you drag in a particular direction. See how the left side of the Temp slider is blue, and the right side graduates over to yellow? That tells you exactly what the slider does. So, without any further explanation, which way would you drag the Temp slider to make the photo more blue? To the left, of course. Which way would you drag the Tint slider to make the image more magenta? See, it’s a little thing, but it’s a big help.
  • Step Six: Again, after choosing the Flash preset, the background looks a little brownish (too warm), so click-and-drag the Temp slider slowly to the left (toward blue), until the brown is removed from the background and it looks gray (of course, don’t drag too far to the left, or it will turn blue again). In the example you see here, I dragged to the left until it looked right (I started with the temperature at 5500. When I was done, the Temp reading was 5023, as seen in Step Five). That’s all there is to it—use a White Balance preset as your starting place, then use the Temp slider to tweak it until it looks right. Now, if you feel the image is too magenta, then try dragging the Tint slider away from magenta, toward green (again, drag slowly and don’t go too far).
  • Step Seven: Now that you’ve learned those two ways to adjust your white balance (the preset alone, and then the preset with Temp and Tint slider tweaks), I want to show you my personal favorite way, and the way I think you’ll usually get the best, most accurate results, and that is to use the White Balance Selector tool (it’s that huge eyedropper on the top-left side of the White Balance section). First, choose As Shot from the White Balance pop-up menu, so we’re starting from scratch with this. Now click on the tool to get it, then click it on something in your photo that’s supposed to be light gray (that’s right—don’t click on something white—look for something light gray. Video cameras white balance on solid white, but digital still cameras need to white balance on a light gray instead). In the example shown here, I clicked on the background, and just clicking once with this tool set the right white balance for me (you can see the Temp is now set to 5000, and the Tint to −4, which added a tiny bit of green to balance things out).
  • Step Eight: Before we go any further, that big pixelated grid that appears while you’re using the White Balance Selector tool is supposed to magnify the area your cursor is over to help you find a neutral gray area. To me, it just gets in the way, and if it drives you crazy (like it does me), you can get rid of it by turning off the Show Loupe checkbox down in the toolbar (I’ve circled it here in red, because my guess is you’ll be searching for that checkbox pretty quickly). Now you get just the eyedropper (as shown in Step Seven), without the huge annoying pixel Loupe (which I’m sure is fine for some people, so if that’s you, replace “annoying” with the term “helpful”).
  • Step Nine: Although I’m not a fan of the “helpful” pixel Loupe, there is a feature that’s a really big help when you use the White Balance Selector tool, and that’s the Navigator panel on the top of the left side Panels area. What’s cool about this is, as you hover the White Balance Selector tool over different parts of your photo, it gives you a live preview of what the white balance would look like if you clicked there. This is huge, and saves you lots of clicks, and lots of time, when finding a white balance that looks good to you. For example, set the White Balance to Auto, then hover the White Balance Selector tool over the background area (as shown here), and then look at the Navigator panel to see how the white balance would look if you clicked there. Pretty sweet, eh? You could click the tool as many times as you’d like to try out different white balance looks, but honestly, just looking over in the Navigator panel is quicker and easier.
  • Step 10: A couple of last things you’ll want to know about white balance: (1) When you’re finished using the tool, either click it back where you got it from (that round, dark gray circle in the Basic panel), or click the Done button down in the toolbar. (2) In the toolbar, there’s an Auto Dismiss checkbox. If you turn this on, it means that after you click the tool once, it automatically returns to its home in the Basic panel. I leave this turned off, so I can easily just click in a different area without having to retrieve the tool each time. (3) To return to the original As Shot white balance, just choose As Shot from the White Balance (WB) presets pop-up menu. (4) If you’re in the Library module, and you know you need to get the White Balance Selector tool, you can press W, which will switch you over to the Develop module and give you the tool.
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