Introduction to White Balance

Introduction to White Balance

Paul Salmon Tips & Tutorials Leave a Comment

All digital cameras have a setting that allows you to change the white balance (WB) of a photo. The concept of white balance is not complex as the concept of obtaining proper exposure, but adjusting white balance can help in creating better photos.

White balance is basically the process of changing the colors of your photos, such as removing an unwanted color cast. Why would we want to change the colors of our photos? Most light sources produce a certain color that affects how our photos look. The color produced in our photos is determined by the “color temperature” of the light source.

Unlike a camera, our eyes and brain adjust to the color temperature of light sources to produce more accurate colors. If you were to look at a white object outside in the sun, and then look at it inside under an incandescent lamp, you may not notice much of a difference in the color of the object. If you were to take two photos of the same object outside in the sun and inside under an incandescent lamp, you will notice a color difference between the two photos.

This difference between the colors produced by different light sources is one reason you may need to adjust the white balance on your camera.

Color temperature

While I won’t go into great detail about how color temperature works, mostly it can be a very scientific and technical topic that is above my ability to really understand, I will provide a brief description of how color temperature can affect your photos.

As I mentioned earlier, most light produces a certain color temperature that your camera will try to adjust for to produce the most realistic photos possible. The color temperature values are are measured in Kelvin (K), so you will often see color temperatures shown similar to “5500K”, which is typically the color temperature of daylight. Outside of photographer, you may notice color temperature values on a pack of light bulbs.

Even though a specific light produces a color temperature, it may not be exact at all times. For example, daylight is typically indicated as 5500K, but it can shift above and below that temperature by about 500K, which is why most color temperatures are usually expressed as a range.

The table below explains the most common light sources.

Light Source Color Temperature (K)
Candlelight 1000-2000
Tungsten Bulb (household light) 2500-3500
Sunrise and Sunset 3000-4000
Fluorescent Lamps 4000-5000
Electronic Flash 5000-5500
Daylight (clear sky) 5000-6500
Overcast Sky 6500-8000
Heavily Overcast Sky 9000-10000

The table above displays a range of color temperatures that can affect the colors of your photos. The good news is that you don’t need to memorize them, unless you want to memorize them, because your camera has settings that allow you to easily adjust for the most common light sources.

Changing the white balance in your camera

When you set your camera to Auto, the camera will adjust all the necessary settings in your camera to take a photo. This includes setting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO for proper exposure, as well as adjusting the color balance to produce a photo with the most realistic colors.

In Auto mode, your camera sets the white balance setting to Auto white balance (AWB). This setting uses an algorithm to determine the best white balance setting for a particular scene. The camera will attempt to find a white object, or an object that looks to be neutral in color, examine the color cast of the object, and then make the appropriate adjustments to remove any color cast.

You may find that the AWB setting doesn’t always produce photographs that have realistic colors. This is why cameras also include additional white balance settings which provide more accurate color results.

How you change the WB setting on your camera will be different than other cameras. Some cameras have a WB button on the back that provides quick access to the options, while others require going through the menus to change the setting.

The following table lists some of the most common white balance options. Not all cameras will include all the options included in the table, and the icons may look different but will be similar.

Icon Description
Auto White Balance Auto white balance. The camera sets the white balance.
Custom White Balance Custom. You set the white balance.
Tungsten White Balance Tungsten. Adjusts for household bulbs.
Fluorescent White Balance Fluorescent. Adjusts for fluorescent lighting.
Daylight White Balance Daylight. Adjusts for daylight (sun overhead).
Flash White Balance Flash. Adjusts for the camera’s flash.
Cloudy White Balance Cloudy. Adjusts for overcast skies.
Shade White Balance Shade. Adjusts for photos taken in the shade.

Cameras will display an icon and sometimes the name of the setting. You will be able to easily recognize the icon as you start adjusting the white balance on a more regular basis. The only one that may seem confusing is the “Custom” white balance option. The Custom option allows you to provide the most accurate white balance setting, but does require some work to use, and the setting is used different from camera to camera.

If you are just starting out with managing the white balance setting on your camera, I would stay with the preset white balance settings and then once you understand how to change those settings, you can then explore the Custom white balance setting.

Adjusting the camera’s white balance

The concept of adjusting the white balance of your camera can lead to a long post that provides a lot of information, perhaps too much information if your are new to the concept. One of the best ways of understanding white balance, at least for me, is to both see examples and then try it out for yourself.

Two of the most common lighting sources that you will come across when taking photographs is tungsten and daylight (the sun). Let’s first look at a photo of that was taken with auto white balance under a tungsten light.

Tungsten lighting

The first set examples will show white balance settings under common household (tungsten or incandescent) lighting. Such lighting conditions produce a common issue among many photos taken with the auto white balance setting, as you will see below.

Tungsten With Auto White Balance Setting

The color temperature for tungsten lighting is very warm, or orange, so as you can see the auto white balance setting produces a very orange color cast in the photo. Many photographs taken under tungstenlights will usually have such a color cast. If you want more accurate results, setting your camera’s white balance setting to tungsten will help.

Tungsten With Tungsten Setting

With the camera’s white balance set to tungsten you can clearly see the reduction in the orange color cast. While the photo colors still aren’t perfect, you can easily see the colors being represented more accurately – look at the more neutral whites, grays, and blacks. Outside of setting a custom white balance, or changing the white balance during post-processing, using the tungsten setting provides a good improvement in the colors.

Tungsten With Daylight Setting

The above photo was taken with the daylight setting. I included this photo to show how a photo may look with the wrong white balance setting. Since daylight is more blue than tungsten, the camera’s daylight setting will warm up the photo even more causing the photo to be overly orange than with just auto white balance.

Mistakes, such as setting the wrong white balance, can be corrected during post-processing, although if you shoot JPEG files instead of RAW, you may be limited as to how much you can correct white balance mistakes.

Daylight With Auto White Balance Setting

When it comes to photos taken under light similar to daylight – meaning the sun is overhead with no clouds in the sky – you will find that cameras do a really good job on the auto white balance setting. In this case, it was almost dead-on when it came to the colors of the photo. For comparison, the same photo using the daylight setting can be seen below.

Daylight lighting

The next set of examples will look at how the white balance setting affects another common lighting condition – sunny day with the sun directly overhead. Under such lighting conditions, you will find that your camera will probably produce really accurate colors when compared with tungsten lighting.

Daylight With Daylight Setting

There isn’t much difference between the auto white balance and the daylight setting unless you can see the images next to each other, as you can here. The neutral colors look a little more neutral under the daylight setting, but not really enough that unless you can see both photos you would notice.

Daylight With Tungsten Setting

Finally, for comparison, the above photo was taken with the tungsten setting under daylight lighting. Since tungsten lighting is much warmer than daylight, the tungsten setting shifts all colors to more blue to offset the warm tungsten lighting. Since daylight lighting is already more blue than tungsten, the additional blue from the tungsten setting adds too much blue to the photo.

Different lighting conditions will generally affect the colors of your photographs. The auto white balance setting on your camera may not be able to accurately reproduce the colors of a photo, such as with tungsten, so changing the white balance may be necessary. In some situations, such as taking photographs outside on a sunny day, you may find that the auto white balance setting is good enough, however, you may still want to change the white balance setting to try to produce more accurate colors, and if you shoot raw files you will have the greatest control over white balance.

If you understand how to change the white balance setting on your camera when taking photos, then you can create photographs that can best represent the colors of your scene.

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About the author

Paul Salmon

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When not annoying his family with taking photos, Paul is usually learning the art of photography is constantly looking to improve his photography skills. Outside of his interest in photography, he is a technology-junkie that enjoys learning and using various technologies.

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