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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, W for Web, etc., 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 in Step One, his skin looks a bit reddish (well, magenta-ish if you want to be technical), and the whole tone of the photo looks kind of clammy, so it definitely needs a white balance adjustment. (Note: If you want to follow along using this same image, you’re welcome to download it from We need to make it warmer, so choose Daylight from the White Balance pop-up menu and see how that looks (as you can see here, his skin actually looks somewhat better, but this looks pretty yellowish, so it’s probably too much yellow for his skin tone). The next two White Balance presets down will both be even warmer (more yellow), with Cloudy being a bit warmer, and Shade being a lot warmer. Go ahead and choose Cloudy (just so you can see it), and now 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, and Flash is pretty close to Daylight, so it’s out, too. Let’s choose Auto white balance (shown here). While it’s not perfect, it’s probably the best of our built-in choices (take a moment and try each of those, just so you see how they affect the photo). By the way, 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: 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 Auto preset, but it’s definitely not “on the money.” He now looks a bit too blue [cool]).

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.


Here’s the White Balance temperature settings when you choose the Auto preset


To make his skin tone look less blue (cool), I dragged the Temp slider away from blue toward yellow and dragged the Tint slider away from green toward magenta (see Step Six)

Step Six: Again, after choosing the Auto preset, his skin tone now looks a little too blue (or too cool in “white balance talk”), so click-and-drag the Temp slider slowly to the right (toward yellow), until the blue is removed (of course, don’t drag too far to the right, or he’ll turn yellow again). In the example you see here, I started with the temperature at 4550, and dragged to the right until it looked right. When I was done, the Temp reading was 5000, 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 (I started with the tint at 0 and dragged to +16. 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, or press W). 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 ideally, you’d 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). All you have to do for this image is click the White Balance Selector tool on the background (I clicked just to the right of his jacket collar) and the white balance is fixed (as seen here).

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 Nine), 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 As Shot, then hover the White Balance Selector tool over the edge of his hair (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? This live preview makes finding a white balance you like pretty easy (and you’ll know if it looks wrong—look at the three I did here just by moving the White Balance tool around the photo).

Step 10: A couple of last things you’ll want to know about when setting your white balance: (1) In the toolbar, there’s an Auto Dismiss checkbox. With this on, after you click the White Balance Selector 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. (2) If you turn off the Auto Dismiss checkbox, 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. (3) If you’re in the Library module, and you know you want to use the White Balance Selector tool, you can press W, which will switch you over to the Develop module and give you the tool. (4) To return to the original As Shot white balance, just choose As Shot from the White Balance (WB) presets pop-up menu.

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