Basics of White Balance

So why do we need to bother with white balance? It’s simply because we want our pictures to look the same, in terms of colour, as we remember seeing them with our naked eye or possibly we want to make them look even better, writes Andrew James.

But as a starting point we want them to look natural, not with odd colour casts. These colour casts are created because all light sources from the sun to a fluorescent lamps emit light in different ways. This is called colour temperature and some light sources are more orange, while some are bluer. Colour temperature is measured using the Kelvin scale.

Auto White Balance has warmed this indoor scene up far too much but by using the Fluorescent WB Preset the unwanted colour cast has been taken out.

The reality is, you don’t really need to know the scientific side of it, just how it can affect your images and what to do about it if it does. The human eye automatically adjusts to these variations in colour temperature whenever we move from one light source to another but the camera doesn’t. This is why it needs help selecting the correct white balance to remove colour casts and make the resulting image look natural.

Every digital camera has a set of white balance presets for different lighting conditions. Here are the standard ones:

Auto This puts the camera in complete control and it will do its best to get the right white balance to avoid colour casts. It can work a lot of the time but will also frequently mess up.

Daylight The standard white balance setting used by most pros for normal average daylight conditions. It’s the perfect starting point for raw processing, especially if you are going to put in some more colour during post processing.

Cloudy/Shade This is the setting many photographers learning how to use their cameras get wrong. Setting either of these values on a cloudy day, as the name suggests you perhaps should, will result in an orange colour cast that looks completely unnatural. But they do have their creative uses that we will come to later.

Tungsten/Fluorescent Traditionally used for shooting indoors under these types of lights, these WB Presets also can be used for creative outdoor effect.

Flash Used to set the correct white balance whenever you use flash as your primary light source. It’s actually very close to Daylight WB in colour temperature.

Custom Used for tricky situations. It will give you the true white balance every time and ensure consistency but takes a bit more setting up.

Raw and white balance
If you are shooting in RAW then you can of course adjust the white balance quickly and easily at the processing stage via your converter. Lots of photographers just leave the camera set to Auto WB and that’s okay but in our opinion you should try to get white balance as close as you can in camera, then use raw processing tools tweak as necessary.

JPEG and white balance
It is virtually impossible to correct white balance perfectly at the processing stage for a JPEG file so if you are a JPEG shooter then you have no choice but to get it all right in camera and here is how to do that.

1 Use the LCD in Live View
This is a really simple way of selecting white balance in tricky situations like indoors. Switch to Live View and look at the scene you are looking at on the screen. Now just scroll through the WB options until it looks right to your eyes.

2 Use a piece of white card and custom white balance setting
If you ever go and watch a movie being made, or any TV show, you might see the camera operator holding a piece of white/grey card in front of the camera at the start of the shoot. It is used to set the white balance of the camera and is the most accurate method of doing it. You can buy purpose made gadgets such as the Seculine ProDisk 3 in 1, that consists of three round discs, hinged together to provide to help you get exposure, colour and white balance right. If you to take the route then select the Custom WB setting of your camera and follow the instructions in the manual. This will set the value into the camera and it will stay that way until you change it. So don’t forget to change it again when you move to a different lighting position or else your images may look wrong. While setting a Custom WB isn’t actually very difficult, it is a bit fiddly and certainly not appropriate for anything other than controlled lighting situations such as studio portraiture or product photography. In most cases, you will use Auto or one of the Presets.

3 Use your experience
If you are shooting outdoors in normal lighting just set Daylight WB as this gives a neutral temperature to your images. It’s a good starting point for processing. One caveat here is in snowy conditions, when Daylight WB can result in an image that’s too blue, especially if your image is dominated by snow. In these conditions revert to Auto WB.

Auto WB often gives the best setting in snow.
Daylight White Balance is too blue.

White Balance is much more just a setting to get the colour looking natural; sometimes it can really be used to enhance the mood and atmosphere of an image. Take a look at the two elephant images below and scroll between.

The first image is Auto WB and the result is pretty horrible but instead by switching to Tungsten WB at the time of shooting, we were able to capture a much more evocative image. While you can do this at the processing stage, it pays to be aware of the potential and the silhouette shown here was created by using -1 stop exposure compensation to ensure strong blacks.

You can also use White Balance to warm up your images and help retain the vibrancy that made you shoot them in the first place. For example, if you want to keep or even boost the colours in a sunset, changing white balance setting to Cloudy or Shade can make a big difference. Where Auto WB or Daylight WB may well result in colours being lost, Cloudy or Shade can really kick them into life, although you have to be careful it doesn’t overdo it. Shade is the stronger of the two options but don’t use them on dull, overcast days when they tend to result in an unnatural orange cast on your image.

Auto WB
Daylight WB
Cloudy WB
Published in Camera Skills
  1. This an article and I have read it.

  2. And I learned something new, so thanks AJ

  3. This is, indeed, an article, and I am happy to report that I, too, have read it. I shall still bugga up the W balance setting in perpetuity, though, but thanks for the nod for aspirational improvement anyway (:O)))))

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