White Balance for city night scenes

When you are photographing the urban environment at night, which is very often the most atmospheric time to capture it, your camera is going to be dealing with lots of technical hurdles, writes Andrew James.

For example, the light will be mixed and less intense, and you will have plenty of contrast between the unlit zones and the artificially lit ones. But I think you can use all this to your advantage to create some really cool images.

The one thing I NEVER worry about for night shooting is White Balance (WB) and that’s because I shoot everything raw. I actually just leave it on Auto WB, or switch it to something like Fluorescent WB, which is likely the best WB setting if you prefer to capture JPEGs.

My point here is that for a raw shooter, WB is an easily adjustable element at the post-processing stage and in a city night environment, where you have all sorts of different temperature lights mixing, it’s actually quite fun to be creative with it as it’s hard to determine what is technically the correct WB for a scene that’s illuminated with several different types of artificial light.

If you want to experiment with the WB look at the time of shooting, then with a DSLR you can use Live View, or simply look through the EVF of a mirrorless and scroll through the WB settings until it looks how you want it.

The next two images are of night-time Hong Kong and show how you can create the look you prefer by playing with the WB of your raw image.

Image one
This is captured with Auto WB and I think it has slightly neutralised the colours of the actual scene – or at least as my eyes saw the scene at the time. It’s okay but I think it needs some more mood.

Image two
Here I’ve opted for a cooled down futuristic atmosphere at 2,800K that suits the scene. It doesn’t look as ‘real’ but I think it has bags more sci-fi appeal, a bit like a Ridley Scott movie. Perhaps you’d prefer something part way between the two treatments and if it was your image, that’s exactly what you could do!

I’ve often heard people talking about getting the WB correct. This is a slightly odd concept because although light has different temperatures our eyes adjust it, so what really is correct anyway? I think we all know that if something looks wrong, it is wrong. This is because the colour temperature isn’t conforming to what we think something should look like. So, a scene on a wet overcast day shouldn’t look too warm, or a warm day with low sun shouldn’t look too cool.

But we have no preconceptions of what a mixed urban night scene should look like so the human brain will pretty much accept anything it sees. Basically, you can do what you like as long as the effect is visually interesting.

An image like this next Hong Kong photo full of glowing neon signs can do what the hell it likes. You couldn’t describe the colours as such if someone asked you – all you’d say is the colours were mixed, leaning to magenta, and really vibrant.

Next time you are shooting at night in the city, let Auto WB do the work for you, but be prepared to indulge yourself when it comes to the processing.

Published in Camera Skills
1 Comment
  1. I do this at gigs all the time. Constantly shoot on auto WB, and concentrate on capturing the moment more than anything else. ISO is also way up. When it comes to processing I either find something white in the frame and take the white balance from that if I want something more natural looking or otherwise I play with the white balance to find something more unique that fits the mood of the music. This often helps when there are several bands on at the same venue, support acts, etc, but with the same lighting and you want to create a separate look for each. Actually thinking about it I use auto WB about 99.99999% of the time as I shoot RAW and always adjust in LR later. The only exception to this is when I’m shooting in JPEG. Love the blue Hong Kong shot, works much better than the original one.

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