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Dive Photo Guide

White Balance in Editing Underwater Photos

Knowing how to adjust white balance in post-processing is a critical editing tool


By Joseph Tepper


There are lots of reasons to shoot in RAW format: High quality, dramatic dynamic range, and non-destructive editing are just a few. But for underwater photographers, perhaps the greatest advantage of shooting in RAW is the ability to customize white balance during post-processing.



White Balance Makes a Difference


Ideally, white balance achieves realistic color temperatures for your images so that subjects and the background appear natural. However, shooting underwater presents a number of challenges because of the way water absorbs light—too often we see images that have an unnatural blue or green hue caused by improper white balance.


Your camera has a number of white balance settings, depending on the model. However, these are the most common: Auto White Balance, Custom, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, and Shade. Each of these situational white balances has a corresponding Kelvin temperature value that determines the hues in the image, ranging from 1000K to 9000K. Typically, underwater photographers keep the camera set to Auto White Balance or Shade, because the latter tends to reproduce colors more accurately when reviewing images underwater.


Regardless of your in-camera white balance setting, as long as you’re shooting in RAW, the coloration can be altered after the fact. While you can customize your white balance underwater, perhaps the most efficient way to reproduce realistic color temperatures is to set the white balance in post-processing.  


What a difference white balance makes. Four different white balance settings in Lightroom (left to right): Auto, Cloudy, Tungsten, and Custom



What Is the White Balance Tool?


The primary goal of proper white balance is to make the neutral colors of an image accurate, which is where the element “white” of the term comes from. It is important to note that gray tones are also valid as a determining point when setting white balance.


The nearly ubiquitous Adobe image-editing software (Camera RAW, Lightroom, and Photoshop) offers a simple-to-use white balance tool. By using this tool, you can quickly adjust the white balance and remove undesired color casts in your image.


The white balance tool is denoted by an “eye dropper” icon in Lightroom (left) and Camera RAW (right)



Using the White Balance Tool


You can find the white balance tool in Adobe Camera RAW as an eye-dropper icon. The shortcut for the white balance tool in Camera RAW is “I” on your keyboard. In Lightroom, the shortcut for the white balance tool is “W” and can be accessed via the “Edit Tools” tab. In Lightroom, selecting the white balance tool zooms into the highlighted section at a pixel level for accuracy in selecting points. In Camera RAW, you can zoom in on the image to achieve the same effect.


The goal is to use a neutral white or gray area to determine the proper coloration of the image. By clicking this neutral area, the program will remove any unwanted blue or yellow tints in that section—and in doing so will adjust the rest of the colors in the image.  


The neutral color of the hammerhead shark’s underside serves as a suitable white balance selection point



Of course, finding the right neutral point is critical in this process and differs from image to image. For wide-angle underwater images, there are a few frequently photographed subjects that can serve as the perfect white balance point. The first go-to is the gray area of a scuba tank or another neutral color on a diver’s body (fins, weight belt, or mask). You can also use white sand (as long as it’s not overexposed) as a starting point. For macro critters, try looking for some neutral gray or white around the eyes.


One thing to consider is the distance between the camera and the point in your image where you’re taking your white balance. Ideally, you should select a white balance point that is at least partially lit by strobes, as this will take their output temperature into consideration. Regardless of whether you are using strobes or relying only on natural light, it is important to choose a white balance point that is either in the foreground or mid-distance in the image. Otherwise, you could end up with too much of a red tint when selecting a neutral spot too far in the background.


On macro critters, look for white or neutral color markings or the white of the eye



Because of their natural gray color, scuba tanks are ideal selection points for determining the proper white balance



Fine-Tuning White Balance


In a perfect world, you would be able to set the proper white balance with a single click. However, sometimes what the editing software finds as the “right” coloration might appear slightly off. Often, the workflow involves using the white balance tool and then fine-tuning the results with the Temperature and Tint settings.


Temperature adjusts the color temperature from warmer to colder. If you select a white balance spot and the image looks too warm—reddish hues in the foreground—you can bring down the temperature. This over-warmth often happens when including human skin in the image. Alternatively, you can increase warmth of the temperature if there’s still too much blue hue after setting the white balance.


The Tint setting adjusts the green to magenta scale, which is helpful for creating blue backgrounds that “pop.” If the mid-water blues appear dull or not rich enough, try sliding the Tint setting towards the magenta side. Ultimately, setting white balance is somewhat dependent on personal taste—and these fine adjustments will come in handy.


The white balance tool comes close with the coloration (above), but increasing the temperature and tint manually makes the blues richer and color in the foreground “pop”



Final Thoughts


For many underwater photographers, setting the white balance is the first go-to adjustment in post-processing. The light-absorbing properties of water pose challenges when trying to accurately reproduce colors. Fortunately, the malleability of RAW files makes it possible to change the white balance to taste. Don’t be afraid to go past the one-click simplicity of the white balance tool and make small adjustments with the Temperature and Tint settings.



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