Accurate White Balance Adjustments in Photoshop

Sometimes the white balance in your images is “right on,” and other times it’s miles off—don’t worry, it happens to all of us, and it’s easy to fix in Photoshop!

Before we dig in to this tutorial, let me first say that it’s always best to try to get your white balance correct in-camera. This results in less post-processing time, and it gives your images a head-start in the event you do need to make some white balance adjustments in post-processing.

These days, virtually all digital cameras have white balance settings. If you’re shooting outside on a sunny day, you would set your camera’s white balance setting to “sun,” and if you’re shooting outdoors on a cloudy day, you would set your digital camera’s white balance setting to “cloudy,” etc.

A lot of the higher-end digital camera also allow you to manually set custom white balance values. To take advantage of this option, you could use one of several devices such as a simple “gray card,” an ExpoDisc, or X-Rite Photo’s ColorChecker Passport.

This tutorial is for those “special times” when you either forgot to set the white balance setting on your camera, and/or you forgot to pack your ColorChecker Passport or other white balance tool in your camera bag before you left for the shoot. Like I said earlier, don’t be to hard on yourself…it happens to all of us, and the white balance can still be easily fixed in Photoshop.

To fix the white balance in Photoshop we’ll be locating and setting the black point, white point and gray point in an image. Each of the color point settings will reside on their own Curves adjustment layer, so you’ll be able to adjust the opacity of each individual layer separately for additional tweaking.

Watch the video

The steps

To begin, we’ll locate the black point in the sample image shown below. Feel free to use this image, or use one of your own to follow along with this tutorial.

Original Unmodified Image

Original Unmodified Image

Locate and set the black point

Open the image in Photoshop, and set the Image Mode to 16 bits by selecting Image | Mode | 16 Bits / Channel. Setting your image to 16 bits is optional, but I always work in 16 bit mode to minimize information loss.

Click on the “Create a new fill or adjustment layer” icon, and select “Threshold.”

Selecting the Threshold Option

Selecting the Threshold Option

In the Threshold dialog box, move the adjustment slider all the way to the left. Next, slowly drag the adjustment slider back to the right until black areas begin to appear in the image.

Threshold Dialog Box and Adjustment Slider

Threshold Dialog Box and Adjustment Slider

When some people apply this effect, they drag this slider to the right until just a few black dots appear on the screen—this is incorrect because these small black spots typically don’t contain any color information. For example, these black spots are equivalent to RGB 0,0,0—they aren’t actual blacks, they are just void of color, and as such, they are also lacking the color contamination that we are attempting to remove. For this reason, it’s important that you move the Threshold adjustment slider until you can see actual blacks.

So how can you tell when the actual blacks are showing? You can’t be 100% certain, but moving the adjustment slider to the right until you begin to see some “form” in the image is a good start. You can also temporarily turn off the visibility of the Threshold layer by clicking on the eyeball icon—this will reveal the original image, which should give you a good idea of where the blacks are in the image (be sure to turn the layer’s visibility back before you make further adjustments to the Threshold).

The Layer Visibility Icon

The Layer Visibility Icon

Once you’ve identified some blacks in the image, select the Color Sampler Tool. If you don’t see this tool, click and hold on the Eyedropper Tool, and in the resulting sub-menu, select the Color Sampler Tool. Using the Color Sampler Tool, click once in the area that you’ve determined to be black to set the Color Sampler point. If you happen to miss the spot you were trying to click on, you can drag the point you placed to the correct location by clicking and holding your mouse button down on the point while you drag.

Selecting the Color Sampler Tool

Selecting the Color Sampler Tool

It may be helpful to use the Zoom Tool to zoom in on the image to get a better idea of where you’re clicking. The easiest way to zoom in, is to press and hold the “Z” key while you click on the image with your mouse. To zoom out, press both the “Z” key and the Option key (PC: Alt) while you click.

The next step is to create a Curves layer that will contain this black point. Click on the Curves icon in the Adjustments panel, or use the main menu and select Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Curves.

Clicking on the Curves Adjustment Layer Icon

Clicking on the Curves Adjustment Layer Icon

Once the Curves adjustment layer has been added to the layer stack, delete the Threshold layer you created in the previous step by clicking once on the layer to highlight it, and hit the Delete key (PC: Backspace). Don’t omit this important step! Immediately after creating each of our 3 Curves layers, we will need to delete the Threshold layer created in the previous step.

After deleting the Threshold layer, make the upper layer active again by clicking once on it (the Curves layer).

In the Curves dialog box, you will see 3 eyedropper icons. From top to bottom, they represent the black point, the gray point, and the white point.

White Balance Sampling Eyedroppers

White Balance Sampling Eyedroppers

Because we are setting the black point in this step, click once on the black point eyedropper icon to select it. Next locate the Color Sampler point we created earlier and click once directly on it to set the black point. When you do this, you’ll probably notice that the curve shown in the Curves dialog box has changed to reflect the black point change.

It may be helpful to use the more accurate version of the selection tool when trying to precisely click on the Color Sampler point. To use this alternative version of the selection tool, simply turn on the Caps Lock key and you’ll see your cursor change. Note that this handy trick works with nearly all of the Photoshop selection tools.

Locate and set the white point

Click on the “Create a new fill or adjustment layer” icon, and select “Threshold.”

In the Threshold dialog box, move the adjustment slider all the way to the right, then slowly drag the slider back to the left until some white areas begin to appear.

Just like when we set the black point, it’s important that you have true whites appear on the screen. You don’t want the whites from a bright window in the background that may have the whites blown-out—these types of whites aren’t actual whites, and they won’t contain the color contamination that we are trying to remove. The same logic applies to specular highlights found in the catch-lights of eyes or the reflection in glassware—these aren’t true whites.

To help you find a location in the image that may have whites, you can reveal the original image by turning off the layer visibility of all layers except for the background layer. The easiest way to do this is to hold the Option key down (PC: Alt) while you click on the layer visibility eyeball on the background layer. When you’re ready to make further adjustments to the Threshold layer, Option+click (PC: Alt+Click) on the background’s eyeball again to make all layers visible again.

Once you’ve identified some whites in the image, use the Color Sampler Tool again to set another Color Sampler point. To add this Color Sampler point, click once in the area that you’ve determined to be white.

Next create a new Curves Layer by clicking on the Curves icon in the Adjustments panel, or use the main menu and select Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Curves. Once this new Curves Layer has been created, delete the Threshold layer you created in the previous step by clicking on the layer once to highlight it, and hit the Delete key (PC: Backspace).

After deleting the Threshold layer, make the upper layer active again by clicking once on it (the Curves layer).

Because we are setting the white point in this step, click once on the white point eyedropper icon in the Curves dialog box to select it. Next locate the white Color Sampler point we created earlier and click once directly on it to set the white point.

Locate and set the Gray point

Setting the gray point is similar to setting the black and white points as we did earlier, but there’s a couple of intermediate steps we need to make. Start by creating a new layer by either clicking on the new layer icon, or using the keyboard shortcut Shift+Cmd+N (PC: Shift+Ctrl+N).

Clicking the "Create a new layer icon"

Clicking the “Create a new layer icon”

Next open the fill dialog box by using the keyboard shortcut Shift+Delete (PC: Shift+Backspace), and select the option to fill this layer with 50% Gray and click on OK.

The Fill Dialog Box

The Fill Dialog Box

Once this new layer is filled with 50% gray, change the blend mode to Difference.

Selecting the Blend Mode option

Selecting the Blend Mode option

Selecting the Difference Blend Mode

Selecting the Difference Blend Mode

Add a new Threshold adjustment layer by clicking on the “Create a new fill or adjustment layer” icon, and selecting “Threshold.”

In the Threshold dialog box, move the adjustment slider all the way to the left. Next slowly drag the adjustment slider back to the right until gray areas begin to appear. There’s no need to be careful that you select actual grays—because the underlying layer is filled with 50% gray, and its blend mode is set to Difference, the only colors that will appear on the screen will be gray. Because of this, you can stop dragging the adjustment slider when just a few small gray spots appear.

Because the layer is filled with 50% gray, and the Difference blend mode is applied to this layer, only grays will appear when the Threshold slider is adjusted. You can verify this yourself by creating a new Photoshop document. Fill the background layer with black, and then add a new layer filled with 50% gray, and set this layer’s blend mode to Difference. When you do this, the only color you will see will be gray. For more information on Blend Modes and their mathematical formulas, read my article “Photoshop Blend Modes Explained.”

Once again use the Color Sampler Tool to set a Color Sampler point on the area that you’ve decided to use as your gray point.

Next create a new Curves Layer by clicking on the Curves icon in the Adjustments panel, or use the main menu and select Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Curves.

Once this new Curves Layer has been created, delete both the Threshold layer and the layer with the 50% fill that you created in the previous step by clicking once on the layers, and hitting the Delete key (PC: Backspace).

After deleting the Threshold and Fill layers, make the upper layer active again by clicking once on it (the Curves layer).

Because we are setting the gray point in this step, click once on the gray point eyedropper icon in the Curves dialog box to select it. Next locate the gray Color Sampler point we created earlier and click once directly on it to set the gray point.

  • Use Cmd+H to hide/show the Color Sampler points (PC: Ctrl+H)
  • Delete sample points by Option+Clicking on a sample point with the Color Sampler tool (PC: Alt+Click)

Below is an example of what the layer stack in Photoshop should look like. There should be 3 separate Curves layers, one for each of the white balance color points we set. If you want to make any further adjustments to the image, you have the option of adjusting the Opacity for any of the 3 Curves layers. I should also probably mention that it could be considered a “best practice” to name your layers for easy identification. While I do typically name my layers when working on more complex projects, it’s not really necessary for this procedure. After you’ve done this a few times, and you always apply the color sampler points in the same order, you just “know” which layer is which.

Example of the Final Photoshop Layer Stack

Example of the Final Photoshop Layer Stack

That’s it! You’ve just successfully corrected the white balance for your image!

Before

Original Unmodified Image

Original Unmodified Image

After

Final Image with White Balance Adjusted

Final Image with White Balance Adjusted

35 responses to Accurate White Balance Adjustments in Photoshop

  1. sebomoto

    Very good tutorial, liked the CAPS-Lock hint and the different curves for white, gray and black point!

    Sebastian

  2. Dustin

    Very nice! Couldn’t you use an 18% gray card in your image to select the gray point as well?

    • Robert Thomas

      Absolutely! As this post mentions:

      “A lot of the higher-end digital camera also allow you to manually set custom white balance values. To take advantage of this option, you could use one of several devices such as a simple “gray card,” an ExpoDisc, or X-Rite Photo’s ColorChecker Passport.”

      “This tutorial is for those “special times” when you either forgot to set the white balance setting on your camera, and/or you forgot to pack your ColorChecker Passport or other white balance tool in your camera bag before you left for the shoot.”

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Kdmorrisphotography

    Since I have began using Lightroom, I rarely edit photos in Photoshop. I will share this information with my students – I teach free photography lessons – and they will be sure to use the techniques you offer here.

    Appreciative,
    k/d/morris –
    Operation Give Back: Photography (Facebook)

  4. John Elstad

    Very helpful. Thanks for sharing. I saved the final PSD to use as a template for future use. No point in creating all the curve layers and such all over again.

  5. Mark Hutchings

    I really liked this tutorial. Is there any way that I can do this to a group of pictures or save these curve layers and aply them to other layers that the WB was at the same level?

    • Robert Thomas

      Yes, you can apply the same settings to other files. You could copy a new file into the existing layer stack, move this new layer/image to the bottom of the stack, and delete or hide the original background layer. Another option would be to make the current background layer a Smart Object. Once the layer is a Smart Object, you’ll have the option of right-clicking on the layer and selecting the option to “Replace Contents.” Depending on how many other images you want to apply these WB settings to, you may even consider creating a Photoshop action. Thanks for the comment Mark!

  6. Jos van Riswick

    Thnx for the tutorial, I like it. But I’m not getting it. When you want to set the white balance dont you need an object you *know* is grey in reality? Then by neutralizing its color you can remove a color cast from the image ie correct the white balance. How do you know that the objects you find in the last step are actually grey?

    • Robert Thomas

      Ideally you would have used the camera’s white balance settings, a gray card, ExpoDisc, or ColorChecker Passport to set your white balance accurately. However the goal of this tutorial is to show a way to adjust the white balance when you didn’t use one of these options. As to how it works, after finding the black and white points, you get the grey point via a combination of a layer filled with 50% gray, and using the “difference” blend mode. Because the layer is filled with 50% gray, and the Difference blend mode is applied to this layer, only grays will appear when the Threshold slider is adjusted. You can learn more about blend modes by reading my article “Photoshop Blend Modes Explained.”

      Thank you for the comment Jos!

  7. The Lomography Smartphone Film Scanner | Mortal Muses

    [...] After scanning some more negatives, I even went so far as to download a trial version of Photoshop, in spite of being a Photoshop novice entirely. After much frustrated cursing, trial-and-error and googling for tutorials, I ended up with this, which is the result of inversion + following this white balance correction tutorial. [...]

  8. axelanti

    Hello. I stumbled upon your article looking for some info on how to set the white balance only on specific areas of the photograph in scenes with mixed light sources. I read in different places that the digital image can have the white balance set according to only ONE light source/colour temperature, thus making areas lit with other sources having the incorrect white balance. Is the method presented in your article giving the correct white balance over the whole image? My presumption is yes. Very interesting article. Thanks!

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Hi Axelanti. Yes, this this technique would apply to the entire image.

      Images with mixed lighting, e.g., florescent on one side and incandescent on the other, can be tricky to fix. In situations like this you can try jumping the layer (duplicate it). On one layer correct the white balance for the florescent lighting. In the other layer correct the white balance for the incandescent lighting. Then try blending the two images together by adding a white layer mask to the top layer, and applying a black gradient to the mask. Where you place black on the white mask, the corresponding area in the layer below will show through. Instead of applying a gradient, you could also just paint on the mask with a soft black brush.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Hi Julie.
      Can you give me additional information on the problem you’re having? I also recommend reading the article and watching the video. One or the other may resolve the problem you’re experiencing.

  9. Brandee

    At the end of this technique for setting white balance is it recommended to merge the 3 curves layers with the copy of the background? If not what would you do to continue working on the image?

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Hi Brandee. It’s really up to you.
      I typically save my image as a jpg using “Save for web.” I then save it as a layered PSD for future work if needed.

  10. Anil

    Excellent article on white balance. I tried this and it worked for me most of the time. But some time it is changes total color tone of the image after setting gray point. This is particularly happening with images which doesn’t have gray color. Is there any way to overcome this problem in image where there is no gray points?

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Hi Anil.
      There’s a couple of additional steps you need to take when setting the gray point (steps you don’t take when setting the white and black points). Are you sure you’re following the correct steps to set the gray point?

  11. Rotem

    Hello

    A great tutorial for accurate white balance. However, on any other tutorial I’ve read on this subject it is done on the levels layer, and not on the curves layer. Is there a specific reason you’re not using levels?

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Hi Rotem.
      There’s no particular reason I’m using curves instead of layers—both techniques do the job. I do however think finding the gray point is faster using this method.
      Thanks for the comment!

  12. Jo

    Hi Robert,
    This is excellent article and really helped me after hours of trying to figure out how to make my images consistent. I was rushed on an assignement and could not do proper white balance correction in the camera. Anyway. I followed the steps, all ok. Now I am replacing content on the Smart Object Background, but I have a problem when switching between landscape and portrait orientated images. The canvas does not change so I end up with half of image. I tried rotating but did not help, the whole image rotates…Any advice? Thank you. JO

  13. Lauren

    Thank you so much! I was just editing some photos for my blog and felt like something was a little off…a little too much green in the image. So, I used your tutorial, and my photos are a million times better! So subtle, yet very effective. I appreciate this detailed tutorial.

  14. Paul Coddington

    I wonder what options there are when you have an image of known colour temperature and you don’t want to fudge it. Say you have a screen capture of a DVD that is mastered at 9300K and you want to correct it to 6500K?

  15. Carol McAlester

    I am just starting to learn photoshop and the pacing and information you gave was so helpful! Thank you!

    • Robert Thomas Post Author

      Glad to hear you found the article helpful.
      Thanks for the comment Carol!

  16. CLS-CCD filter on a full spectrum camera - Page 2

    […] To me this looks like a typical cls ccd image taken with auto white balance on in a really badly light polluted area. In fact this is what subs look like when I take them from my yard, I'm surrounded by 3 car dealerships and a super wallmart. It takes 90 seconds to clear the red channel from the shadows with a CLS CCD at iso 1600 in my area, and the data captured in 90 seconds is worthless. That image taken above will give you the same types of problems, if you have to absolutely work with that data for imaging I would recommend dropping the iso to 800 or 400 and take lots of subs. When I drive out to my normal imaging site 15 miles from here the cls ccd can expose for between 900 and 1500 seconds to clear the red channel from the shadows region of the histogram, in fact I almost don't need the filter out there but it helps with emission nebula. If you have a darker location nearby to shoot from, take advantage! In the mean time however I understand it is important to learn your equipment and tighten up your guiding skills. The cls ccd does make it really hard to see stars in live view, in fact you will only see the brightest stars which in my opinion makes it possible to achieve better focus than usual. When you read that the red and blue channels were out of focus, they actually just meant that those channels were not aligned properly, it is true that the cls ccd is a pain to calibrate properly but if you follow this procedure you will have perfect white balance no matter what every time you process an image …. Accurate White Balance Adjustments in Photoshop – Photo Blog Stop […]

  17. Fernando

    Hi, thanks for the info. Very useful. I’m not quite sure why you are using three Curves adjustments instead of one only containing black/white/grey adjustment…

  18. Ezekiel Victor

    This is a fantastic tutorial given all the notes on best practices, keeping things organized, and shortcut keys. Thank you!!

  19. ssray

    Wonderful tutorial…I had been struggling before reading this tutorial in terms of making my photos correct in terms of white balance. However, this tutorial has taught me to do it the correct way. Very much appreciated for sharing this knowledge

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