How to Make Indoor Photos Not Look Yellow

One of the first lessons you learn when you graduate from taking snapshots to taking photographs is that cameras don't see the world the way our eyes do. The difference between our view of the world and our camera's view can be frustrating at first.

Color temperature is one of the ways that our camera sees the world that we often don't notice, and it is the primary reason that your indoor photos come out looking yellow.  The color temperature coming from light bulbs is what causes a color cast.

This is an example of a white balance/light temperature display at the Home Depot.  You'll see how most lightbulbs (incandescent) produce a very yellow photo.
This is an example of a white balance/light temperature display at the Home Depot. You'll see how most lightbulbs (incandescent) produce a very yellow photo.

Do yourself a favor. If color temperature is unfamiliar to you, take a trip to the Home Depot or some other hardware store. With the end of incandescent bulbs, you can usually find a display demonstrating the light coming off of the new CFL and LED lightbulbs. The display gives an excellent side-by-side comparison of different color temperatures. When looking directly at the differences, you should easily notice that some of the light bulbs produce a yellowish light, others produce a more bluish light. This is color temperature in action.

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin.  A daylight bulb is around 5000 kelvin, and an incandescent bulb (the most common type of lightbulb in homes) is around 2600 kelvin.

But you don't really need to worry much about that to start. What you do need to know is that there are warm tones and cool tones. Your camera measures color temperature using the white balance. Most of the time, your camera is set to Auto White Balance (AWB) and makes its own decisions about the color temperature of your subject. If the camera thinks the color temperature is the same as daylight, but you are actually getting indoor light, the photo will often come out too warm. The result will be a yellow looking photo.

Normally, a camera is excellent at choosing the correct white balance for the lighting conditions, but in a home, cameras have mixed light sources.  All homes have windows, which bring in daylight balanced light for most of the day.  So if you take a picture of someone indoors, the camera sees the warm light from the lightbulb and the neutral light from the window, and it usually picks the color temperature from the window to control the white balance (since it is far brighter than a lightbulb).

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to correct this.

Shoot with the right color temperature

You can set the white balance in camera before you shoot. The technically correct way to do this is to set your white balance manually using a white or neutral gray card. A large one can be picked up for around $10 (one side white and one side gray). You will have to read your manual to determine how to navigate to the correct menu for Custom White Balance and also to understand the process to set the white balance. Whatever the process, it's important that the card is placed in the same light as your intended subject.

Another option is to set the white balance using one of the camera's pre-determined settings. These include settings like incandescent, tungsten, and florescent for indoor lighting. Tungsten was the filament used in incandescent light bulbs and the color temperature it emits often results in the yellow color cast in photos. Since many of the new light bulbs have the same color temperature they will cause the same problems.

Setting your camera to incandescent or tungsten will help eliminate this problem. The florescent setting is used with florescent lights which have their own color cast issues. Many point and shoot cameras have a color temperature setting like I mentioned above, so it is a widely available fix for color cast issues.

Fix RAW photos in Post

This is my preferred method of handling White Balance but it assumes you are shooting in RAW and that your camera handles white balance fairly well. In most cases, shooting in RAW allows you to fix a multitude of problems in post, and White Balance is one of the handiest. If you are using a program like Lightroom, you can set the White Balance to a particular color temperature, or use one of the pre-determined settings I mentioned above. If your photo is too yellow, slide the temperature a bit to the left. If it gets too blue, slide it back to the right. Lightroom also has an eye dropper tool next to the color temperature slider (other programs do as well). If you have a neutral gray color in your photo, or if you took a photo with a gray card as I mentioned earlier, you can place the eyedropper on that gray area and click. This will set the photo to the appropriate white balance. You will then want to sync that white balance setting to the rest of the photos taken at that time.

Fixing Jpegs in post

If you are not shooting in RAW, there is still an option to change your white balance. Even in the basic editing programs that come with your OS, there is usually an option to adjust temperature. You will want to remember to adjust the temperature down if your photo is too yellow. However, I've found that jpegs with a color cast are difficult to get right if I only adjust the temperature (iPhone photos struggle with this problem).

For jpegs with a color cast, my best results have been from using the color dropper on a neutral gray area of the photo. Using a gray card at the beginning helps in these scenarios. If I don't have a gray color, I like to use the Auto color setting, then tweak the temperature up (if it comes out too blue) or down (if it turns out too yellow).

If you don't like to shoot in RAW, or to do a lot of work in post, you will have to anticipate color temperature issues. If you know you will be indoors and working in ambient light, a little bit of anticipation can save a headache later.

9 thoughts on “How to Make Indoor Photos Not Look Yellow”

  1. Don’t forget florescent! Standard florescent long tube style bulbs usually seen in offices/schools are almost green in some cases and can make your subject look sick. Also I’ve found that AWB does a decent job most of the time if you’re on the run and gun, but the best easiest way to fix it is to just shoot something white in your environment and custom white balance to that (AND always shoot RAW when you can!).

  2. I wanted to change out all our light bulbs after listening to your podcast about this.
    Now I’ve read that bluish tinted lights can mess up sleep cycles. Yellowish to red lights before bedtime help you fall asleep.
    I guess I will color correct my RAW files instead of changing out the bulbs!

    1. What we need are lights that start out warm in the morning, gradually shift to a more daylight balance towards midday, and then fade back to warm in the evenings. You know, like happens in nature! 🙂

  3. Novice photographers need to learn about color balance. I’ve been in the photography business for 38 years and I have noticed lately a lot of photographer posting yellowish tinted images. Some of these people don’t even have a clue that their color is out of wack and are passing themselves off as professionals. The thing that is facilitating this is the cameras that are being made now with super high ISO capabilities and people are shooting more available light. White balance needs to be adjusted ahead of time or in post production. Flash is also a consideration to give more balanced light.

  4. How interesting there are led light that works with remote control to choose the hue of the light here in japan and i always thought why would one need this and now i know… 🙂

  5. Thank you, duh I forgot up the white and grey card and white balance, I put my camera on Tungsten light and bam big difference. that will save me a lot of time edited them.

  6. What abou about the mixed light conditions when shooting indoor , lights are on and there is daylight coming from windows. In some case my photos are yellow with blue hue on the windows. When custom set the light balance the photos are no longer yellow but blue hue on the windows remain. Maybe i am not setting light balance correctly and should be set on a place in the room where both light sorces mix together?

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