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Are your smartphone photos weird colors? Here’s why

Two images of a page from a book showing the difference in a white balance preview.
Harry Guinness

Have you ever taken a photo with your smartphone and thought that the colors do not look like the ones in front of you? Maybe it was way too orange or a little too blue. Here̵

7;s why they look like this and what you can do about it.

The problem with our eyes

Unique a camera, our eyes do not register an exact recording of what lies ahead. Instead, everything we see is interpreted by our brains. Yes, this is based on what lies ahead, but also on what the brain thinks it should see. This is why optical illusions are so effective – our eyes are not fooled, but our brains.

One of the areas where this is really clear is when you stop and think about the color of the light. Specifically, how orange or blue is a “white” light source?

Imagine reading a book next to a fire. What color are the pages? They are white. How about out on a sunny sunny day or under a fluorescent lamp? They are obviously still white.

However, this is: we only see the pages of the book as white because we know they are white. In different situations, the light that reflects from a book and in our eyes is a different color. What we think we see is not what is really there.

Four pictures on the same page in a book showing different levels of white balance.
I used my custom white balance setting for daylight to keep the DSLR’s color settings identical in both images. The corrections were made in Photoshop. Harry Guinness

When I took the pictures above, the pages looked white to me. But now, on your bluish computer screen, you should see what light color the pages really reflected.

Although this effect is most obvious with white and other neutral colors, it affects everyone.

White balance and photography

The “temperature” of the light source refers to how white, orange or blue it is. This is measured in kelvin, which corresponds to how hot an ideal black body radiator must be to emit that color light.

For example, candles have a color temperature of about 1850 K, while daylight is about 5900 K. To confuse things, orange (“warm”) light is emitted from sources with a lower color temperature than colder or bluer light sources.

A series of light bulbs showing light temperatures from 1000-10,000 Kelvins.
Rashchektayev / Shutterstock

When you take a photo with your smartphone, it tries to correct for the temperature of the light. It also tries to correct for the green-magenta hue axis, but the orange-blue axis is more important.

If you take a photo next to a warm light source, the image automatically becomes a little bluer so that everything looks more neutral when you look at it later. It will do the opposite if you are close to a bluish light. Everyone knows that the pages of the books are white, not orange or blue.

Two pictures on the same page from a book before and after correcting the white balance.
Notice how similar the colors are in the two pictures now? Harry Guinness

This is called white or color balancing, which is an important aspect of photography. Professionals do this manually or correct it in post-production (the images above were corrected in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom). However, your smartphone does it most automatically.

The problem is that if you do not work with controlled studio lighting and balance from a color reference chart, it is impossible to achieve really correct white balance. For example, if there are two light sources in a scene, you cannot balance them both without doing a lot of work in Photoshop. Both images above look more accurate than the originals, but neither is really right.

A pier at sunset with a creative adjustment of the white balance.
Is this white balance correct? No. Does it look good? Yep. Harry Guinness

A truly neutral white balance is not necessarily what gives you the best, most interesting or even the most accurate images. If you are taking a photo of someone who is lit by a candle, you need a little orange glow in the picture to make it look natural.

Automatic white balance that overcorrected the orange glow from forest fires in the United States was a major problem for people trying to share exactly what they saw. Managing white balance is one of the things that requires a more artistic than scientific approach to photography.

Check the white balance with your smartphone

An advance portrait of a man in the white balance adjustment menu in Halide.
The white balance screen in Halide for iOS. Harry Guinness

In general, white balance is not something you have control over when shooting with a smartphone. If a scene you shoot throws the camera’s automatic white balance algorithm wildly from the base, you need to take more manual control.

On an iPhone, you can use a third-party app; We recommend VSCO (free) or Halide ($ 8.99).

If you have an Android phone, things get a little more complicated. On a Samsung phone, you can control the white balance in Pro mode. Others may also have the option built into their camera applications; if not, you may need to use a third-party camera app, such as Open Camera (free).

In a camera app that supports it, the white balance option will usually have presets for different lighting conditions, such as cloudy, daylight, shady, tungsten and so on. If not, there may be a slider that you can adjust to shoot at a custom Kelvin value.

Correct the white balance after a shot

A portrait of a man adjusted in the Color Correction menu in Adobe Lightroom.
In Lightroom for iOS, you can correct RAW photos after they are taken. Harry Guinness

Getting the white balance correctly when shooting is an option, but it is easier to shoot and then correct it afterwards.

When your smartphone saves photos as JPEG or HEIC files (as they almost all do by default), the white balance is baked into the final image. You can make rough adjustments later, but you can not change it too much. Fortunately, there is another format you can use if you want to be able to edit later: RAW.

A RAW file saves the white balance information along with the image. Then in a RAW editor (like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop) you can change the white balance to whatever value you want. The only downsides are that you have to process the images before you can share them and they also take up more hard disk space.

Both iOS and Android support RAW photos, but again, you may need to use a third-party camera app to shoot them.

If all this seems like a lot of hard work it is. As soon as you start digging into manual controls, photography becomes much slower because you need a deeper understanding of what is happening to get decent results.

The easiest option is to let your smartphone handle things as much as possible. But if you want a more accurate white balance (or more creative control over it), install a third-party camera app that you can use when you need it.

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