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Are your smartphone photos strange 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 the colors didn̵

7;t match the ones in front of you? Maybe it was way too orange or a little too blue. Here’s why they’re looking the other way and what you can do about it.

The problem with our eyes

Unlike a camera, our eyes do not record exactly what is in front of us. Instead, everything we see is interpreted by our brain. Yes, this is based on what is ahead of us, but also on what the brain thinks it should see. This is why optical illusions are so effective – our eyes are not deceived, but our brains.

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

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

But this is the thing: we only see the pages of the book as white because we know they are white. In different situations the light that is reflected into our eyes from a book has a different color. What we think we see is not what is really there.

Four shots of the same page in a book with different levels of white balance.
I used my custom daylight white balance setting to keep the DSLR color settings the same in both shots. The corrections were made in Photoshop. Harry Guinness

When I took the photos above, the pages looked white to me. Now, however, you should see on your bluish computer screen what color of light the sides were really reflecting.

While this effect is most evident with white and other neutral colors, it affects everyone.

White balance and photography

The “temperature” of a light source refers to how white, orange, or blue it is. This is measured in Kelvin, which corresponds to how hot an ideal blackbody radiator has to be in order to emit this colored light.

For example, candlelight has a color temperature of around 1,850 K, while daylight is around 5,900 K. To confuse matters a little, orange (“warm”) light is emitted from sources with a lower color temperature than cooler or bluer light sources.

A range of light bulbs with light temperatures from 1,000 to 10,000 Kelvin.
Rashchektayev / Shutterstock

When you take a photo with your smartphone, an attempt is made to correct the light temperature. Attempts are also made to correct the green-magenta color axis, but the orange-blue axis is more important.

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

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

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

The problem is that it is impossible to get a really accurate white balance unless you are working with controlled studio lights and balancing against a color reference chart. For example, if a scene contains two lights, you can’t balance both without doing a lot of work in Photoshop. Both photos above look more accurate than the originals, but neither is actually correct.

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

Truly neutral white balance isn’t necessarily what will give you the best, most interesting, or even most accurate pictures. If you are taking a picture of someone lit by a candle, you need an orange glow in the picture to make it look natural.

The auto white balance, which overcorrected the orange glow from the US forest fires, was a big problem for people trying to share exactly what they were seeing. Managing white balance is one of the things that requires an artistic rather than scientific approach to photography.

Control the white balance with your smartphone

A pre-recorded portrait of a man in the Halide white balance setting menu.
The white balance screen in Halide for iOS. Harry Guinness

In general, when taking photos with a smartphone, you have no control over the white balance. If a scene you’re shooting throws the camera’s automatic white balance algorithm badly off the base, you’ll need to take more manual control.

You can use a third-party app on an iPhone. We recommend VSCO (free) or Halide ($ 8.99).

When 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 apps. Otherwise, you might have to use a third-party camera app like Open Camera (free).

Generally speaking, the white balance option in a camera app that supports it will have presets for different lighting conditions like cloudiness, daylight, shade, tungsten, etc. If not, there might be a slider you can adjust to set in a custom Kelvin Worth photographing.

Correcting the white balance after a shot

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

Getting the white balance accurate while shooting is an option, but it’s easier to take a picture and then correct it afterwards.

If your smartphone saves photos as JPEG or HEIC files (which almost everyone does by default), the white balance will be burned into the final image. You can make rough adjustments later, but don’t change them too much. Fortunately, there is another format that you can use if you want to edit it later: RAW.

In a RAW file, the white balance information is saved with the image. You can then use a RAW editor (such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop) to change the white balance to any value. The only downsides are that you have to process the images before you can share them and they take up more space on the hard drive.

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

If this all looks like a lot of hard work, it is. Once you get into manual controls, photography becomes a lot slower as you need a deeper understanding of what is going on to get decent results.

The easiest thing to do is to let your smartphone do as much as possible. However, if you want more precise white balance (or more creative control over it), install a third-party camera app that you can use if necessary.

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