Correct Poor White Balance in Photos With GIMP

Balance the colors in your pictures with GIMP

Digital cameras are versatile and can be set to automatically select the best settings for most situations to ensure that the photos you take are as high quality as possible. However, in some cases, they may have problems in selecting the correct white balance setting.

GIMP — short for GNU Image Manipulation Program — is open source image editing software that makes it relatively easy to correct white balance.

How White Balance Effects Photos

Most light appears white to the human eye, but in reality, different types of light, such as sunlight and tungsten light, have slightly different colors, and digital cameras are sensitive to this.

If a camera has its white balance set incorrectly for the type of light it is capturing, the resulting photo will have an unnatural color cast. You can see that in the warm yellow cast in the left-side photo above. The photo on the right is after the corrections that are explained below.

Should You Use RAW Format Photos?

Serious photographers will proclaim that you should always shoot in RAW format because you are able to easily change the white balance of a photo during processing. If you want the best photos possible, then ​RAW is the way to go.

However, if you're a less serious photographer, the additional steps in processing RAW format can be more complicated and time-consuming. When you shoot JPG images, your camera automatically handles many of these processing steps for you, such as sharpening and noise reduction.

Correct Color Cast With Pick Gray Tool

If you have got a photo with a color cast, then it will be perfect for this tutorial. 

  1. Open the photo in GIMP.

    GIMP image with incorrect color
  2. Go to Colors > Levels to open the Levels dialog.

    The Levels command
  3. Press Pick Grey Point, which looks like a pipette with a gray box next to it.

    The Pick Grey Point button
  4. Press somewhere on the photo using the gray point picker to define what is a mid-color tone. The Levels tool will then make an automatic correction to the photo based on this to improve the color and exposure of the photo.
    If the result doesn't look right, select Reset and try a different area of the image.

    The Reset button
  5. When the colors look natural, press OK.

    The OK button

While this technique may lead to more natural colors, it is possible that the exposure may suffer a little, so be prepared to make further corrections, such as using curves in GIMP.

In the image to the left, you will see a dramatic change. There is still a slight color cast to the photo, however. We can make minor corrections to reduce this cast using the techniques that follow.

Adjust Color Balance

There is still a little bit of a red tinge to the colors in the previous photo, and this can be adjusted using the Color Balance and Hue-Saturation tools.

  1. Go to Colors > Color Balance to open the Color Balance dialog. You'll see three radio buttons under the Select Range to Adjust heading; these allow you to target different tonal ranges in the photo. Depending on your photo, you may not need to make adjustments to each of the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights.

    The Color Balance item under the Colors menu
  2. Select the Shadows radio button.

    The Shadows option
  3. Move the Magenta-Green slider a little to the right. This reduces the amount of magenta in the shadow areas of the photo, thus reducing the reddish tinge. However, be aware that the amount of green is increased, so watch that your adjustments don't replace one color cast with another. Do the same for the other colors, as needed.

    Adjust the Magenta-Green slider
  4. In the Midtones and Highlights, adjust the sliders accordingly to get the most natural color results possible.

Adjusting the color balance has made a minor improvement to the image. Next, we will adjust the Hue-Saturation for further color correction.

Adjust Hue-Saturation

The photo still has a slight red color cast, so we'll use Hue-Saturation to make a minor correction. This technique should be used with some care as it can accentuate other color anomalies in a photo, and it may not work well in every case.

  1. Go to Colors > Hue-Saturation to open the Hue-Saturation dialog. The controls here can be used to affect all the colors in a photo equally, but in this case, we only want to adjust the red and magenta colors.

    Select Hue/Saturation under Colors
  2. Choose the radio button marked M and slide the Saturation slider to the left to reduce the amount of magenta in the photo.

    Select Magenta and adjust saturation
  3. Select the radio button marked R to change the intensity of the red in the photo.

    The Red radio button

In this photo, magenta saturation is set to -10, and the red saturation to -5. You should be able to see in the image how the slightly red color cast has been further reduced.​

The photo isn't perfect, but these techniques can help you salvage a poor quality photo.

GIMP image colors corrected
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