Photoshop Tools - Adjusting White Balance

One of the best times to capture beautiful light begins about 30 minutes before sunrise and ends a few minutes after the sun appears over the horizon. And during that short period, the sky colors can change dramatically. Take a look at the two images above. Notice the change in sky tones from 6:07 am to 6:13 am. I knew some where in that sky there were colors that needed to be coaxed out. I also knew with some editing, the two images would yield very difference results from each other. Here’s how I went about doing that.

Shoot in RAW. When using a digital SLR camera, you have the choice of recording your images in RAW or jpeg file formats (or both). Jpeg files are compressed and all the color data are “baked” into the file. This means changes cannot be made to the image during editing without significant loss of quality. What is done is done! A RAW file, on the other hand is analogous to a print negative that can be edited in the darkroom. Basically, a RAW file contains all the color data, which allows the photographer tremendous leverage when making edits without loss of quality.

Automatic white balance (AWB). Although I manually control the camera's exposure settings, I allow the camera to adjust the white balance automatically. White balance is basically a way to adjust color so that white objects appear white under any light condition. During the time period when the sun is rising over the horizon, the light changes and so does the camera’s white balance when it is in automatic mode. Take a look again at the two images above. Notice that the white balance values are very different within 6 minutes!

Once I had my images uploaded to Photoshop, I began my edits. What I notice in the first image (6:07 am) was a hint of magenta coming through the blue tones. In the 6:13 am image, I noticed a slight yellowish red. I wanted to bring those colors out but without affecting the trees and grass. To do that, I first created a layer mask that would isolate the sky from the trees and landscape. This technique is beyond this blog, but please contact me if you want to learn more about it. Nevertheless, it is a very important step because I wanted to make selective changes to the sky without affecting the trees. I then applied that mask to a Color Balance Adjustment layer as you see below.

Next, I set the color balance adjustment to ‘Highlights’ and adjusted the sliders as you see below. The adjustments did not have to be that great to coax out those colors. Take a look at the before and after results below. Amazing!

Below, you can see how I adjusted the 6:13 am image. Slightly different settings but with equally amazing results. I also took the liberty of increasing the size of the moon, but that’s another story for another blog.

Below are the final two images. As long as I shoot in RAW and allow the camera to adjust white balance, I can take two shots within a few minutes of each other and create two very different images with colorful skies to compliment the beautiful trees.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop layers and masks in Photoshop, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please contact me at