Photo Tip :: White Balance and ISO

Here's two things on cameras most never touch, leaving it on the auto setting and letting it live in the shadows of your camera's functionality. These are things available on point and shoot cameras too, by the way, and can effect even your quick shots. This is how I can try and explain it to you and why it matters and when and if you should mess with it.


I've talked about ISO a bit before in the beginning glossary of terms post. Here's a bit more of an in-depth explanation because it's that important. ISO is derived from the film days - you know, when you actually had to BUY film and put the roll in and feed it through? Anyone else have to do this? Anyhow, ISO is how sensitive your film is to light and lower number of films were less dense. The term grain comes from this - in higher numbers the grain is higher which means it appears in photos more. In digital, this same idea applies, only instead of film, it's the sensor in your camera that we are measuring sensitivity to light on. A lower ISO is perfect for sunny bright days (100), a middle range ISO is good for shade or cloudiness (320), and a high ISO is good for darker indoor shots (1000). Your camera will have a variety of options - the nicer the camera, usually the more options. I never leave it on auto - your camera will jump around aimlessly with each shot you take trying to gauge so many things and you might end up having a shot taken on a ISO of 500 on a sunny day with an f-stop of 15 meaning you have a grainier and more in focus shot than you ever wanted. This is how I determine what ISO to use.

1 - Where am I? 
christmas photo

I am outside at noon? 100.  Am I in a well lit place with natural light? 320. Is it 7PM in a dimly lit restaurant and I want a photo of that delicious food? 1000+. Maybe the photo above wouldn't be so black if I hadn't set my ISO to 400.

2 - What's my shutter speed?
I generally set my camera at a low f-stop since I think bokeh and blurry backgrounds are the cat's meow. So with my lens set between 1.4 and 2.8 and my ISO set to my first instinct, I look through the camera shutter and depress the shutter button to see what my shutter speed is coming out at. Flashing at 1600 or 1800? I'm outside and have forgotten to change the ISO. Slow at below 15? I need to bump it up a bit. I try and at least get a shutter speed of 15 - I can usually hand hld the camera at that point with little blur. If you are a bit shakier, you might need to go for 20 or above.

3 - Am I tripod-ding the shot or are Jason or I hand holding the camera?
light as a feather

In outfit shots in some of the shady parks, when Jason hand holds the camera, I set it to about 320. If it's me with a tripod, I set it to 200 because I get less grain and no shake from the hand. On a tripod, it's easier to shoot a lower ISO. The shot above was taken with an ISO of 100 because I didn't have shake from a hand on a cloudy day, but it allowed for a nice blur of my movement and the wind.

4 - What am I shooting?

Food at a shutter speed of 15 is fine. But the dogs? Nope. That's a blurry mess of fur. You can see above that Raynor is just a messy blur, but Teemo who was a bit more still trying to chew on the toy, is focused. This was taken with an ISO of 1250 and a shutter speed of 25 - you can start to see how grain affects the photo here too.

Here's a little cheat sheet for you to use of ISO! Feel free to print this little card or bookmark it to look at.

White Balance

White balance is essentially the color temperature of your photos. Ever had something turn out really blue or yellow? Chances are a color in your outfit threw off the color temperature. Different llight sources have different color temperatures, measured in Kelvin, where 1000K is the light of a candle (warm) and 10000K is a shady or rainy day (cool). Warm has red/yellow undertones where as cool has blue/green. This is something you can change in your camera, but here's the truth : I leave it on Auto White Balance. Thre are many settings - from cloudy to sunny to actually setting the temperature yourself if you have a gauge. I do none of this - instead I shoot in camera RAW and edit the color temperature post production. Usually my camera is decent at gauging white balance, and if I forget to set it (it's a pain to set in my opinion) after a sunny shoot and I move indoors, I'm going to mess my shots up more. The photo lords might smite me for this one, but it's how I do it. I'm photographing quickly most of the time, and I can't remember everything.

jour deux cent treize (happy valentines!)

This above shot is an example of white balance not edited. It's too yellow because it was shot in indoor lighting and the camera gauged it wrong. I should have probably done color correction, but 2009 me was lazy I guess.

To be able to get your white balance edited quickly and easily post production, here's a great tip from my photo professor. Make your own grey card! Go to the hardware store and find the following three paint chips : pure white, pure black, and a middle 50% grey. Google 50% grey swatch on your phone and compare it to that if you need to. When you are taking photos - take a shot holding these three swatches. You can then use these to gauge your color balance and once you get it right, copy and paste those settings onto the rest of your photos.

Here's a screenshot of my camera RAW editing screen with the color temperature circled. I play with those two until the photo turns out right. If you are wearing white or grey - you can use that to gauge too!

I hope this helps, and as always, please ask any questions below. 


  1. love this! thanks for sharing lady. :) i love messing with ISO when i have time
    kw, ladies in navy

  2. Oh I am loving this post, thank you for sharing. I need to pull my camera out again now its getting warm out again, I kind of went into hibernation if you cant tell haha

    Sara :)

  3. This is so helpful. My pictures? They obviously stink, but I want to get better. This was really informative and I'm going to save this post on my computer :)

  4. Ace post. I'm always terrible at white balance, and often play with the levels in iphoto (I KNOW, I'm lazy) afterwards. I'm not that great at THAT either.
    Also my biggest pet peeve about my camera at the moment is that it doesn't have a very high ISO range and it's very grainy. I'd be happy as larry if I could get a better camera with a wider ISO range (I don't even need all the other funky stuff cameras have these days).

  5. Katherine you always have the BEST photo tips ever! Thank you so much for sharing your lovely expertise with us. It comes at a good time for me since I just got a new camera a month or so ago. Going from a Powershot to a DSLR has been quite the educational experience! You've helped! Thank you so so so much!

  6. Keep these photo tutorials coming girl, I love them! I recently took actual darkroom photography classes in college and loved them and then recently took an online DSLR photography class, but I am still no where near where I want to be in terms of photography! (In part due to lack of practice/ knowledge and in part due to just having the kit lense my camera came with)! I like that you include photos with the info too it definitely helps when I can see what you're talking about!

  7. A bunch of this is over my head, but I'm saving it for when I know more! haha

    The Occasional Indulgence

  8. I love photography but I can never seem to get the shutter and aperture right! It is just such a hassle for me haha

  9. More excellent tips! I've played with white balance a little on my camera. At work, I do some product photography where the lighting is pretty much the same, so I find that it helps alot there. It can help outdoors too, sometimes, but I agree that it's a pain and it takes a while to get right if you're not used to it. And it does suck to have to keep changing it everytime you move elsewhere. One thing I still haven't gotten the hang of is capturing in, making movement stay still. I think it has to do with shutter speed, but I'm not sure how to go about it.

  10. Katherine, this post was so awesome! I've never taken a photography class, so this really helped. It was very easy to understand. I'm definitely going to start paying attention to my ISO. I have a Canon, but I know I'm not using it to its full capacity. Thanks doll! Very kind of you to explain this.

  11. Such a great post!!! Thank you! x

  12. Heh, I actually love the photo of the doggies the way it is. It's like FOOSH! Super Dog!

    That aside, what a fantastic post! I really wish you'd written this like six month ago when I first got my dslr and was really struggling with learning about iso and all of that good stuff, you explained everything so neatly and easy to follow. (That's awesome, every tutorial I read about it just left me so confused.) ISO really is so important to getting the most out of pictures. I do usually adjust the white balance on mine since I'm lazy and don't like to do anything other than resize on the computer, I know with the Cannons it's really easy to do

    Thanks for typing up such a great and useful post, I always admire your photography and every tip I can get helps!

  13. Great post! I just got myself a fancy shmancy camera and I don't want to become addicted to the auto setting, so I love reading about all the things I can do with it!


  14. Hahaha, so I totally suck at using White Balance, and that's one thing I've never been able to key in on... so the fact that you also use the Auto for it makes me feel so much better about myself. Internet high five!! But really, unless you're gonna take a white piece of paper with you everywhere and go from that (however people even DO that) I feel like auto is pretty safe... or you know, the present Cloudy/Sunny/Shady conditions... he he he

  15. Your camera tutorials are seriously the best! I am slowly getting to know my SLR because of you :). Disneyland was great and Jessica brought the camera along with no issues. We just didn't go on Splash Mountain or Matterhorn. I think you should drive to Disneyland, although it's a good 8 hours to get there from Arizona. Oh, and thanks for the future feature! I can't wait!



    Southern (California) Belle

  16. Again! Great tips! Thanks for these~~!

  17. Great post! I a still learning to use my camera. It can all get a bit confusing and I went to film school! But I may take a few lessons from a photographer.

    Ali of

  18. Such a great post!!
    xo dana
    miss you around my blog!

  19. interesting white balance trick. i keep mine on auto too. but i suck at post production. this has definitely given me some inspiration to play around with color temperature now. thanks, missy.

  20. I'm still learning how to use my camera right now, thanks so much for sharing some tips! I'll definitely try to use them :)

  21. these are great tips. I must admit that I am lazy with my camera and never change the white balance even though I should. I do play around with ISO depending on the lighting etc but don't always get it right. Oh well it is still fun
    xo Ilana @ My Modern Vintage

  22. Oh my gosh, so much great information here. I am so bad at using my DSLR so I'm going to try some of these tips-thank you!

  23. Thanks for the tips love.
    I feel like I'm getting better with my camera but I still mess up my indoor shots.


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