White Balance Explained

A spectacular view of a low lying cloud hovering over mountain peaks on South Georgia Island.

Your camera offers a variety of white balance modes providing you with the opportunity to neutralize the color of the light under which you’re photographing and, thereby, produce more accurate rendition of color.

A lovely detail from the recently restored ground floor arcade at the Nicholas Building, Swanston Street, Melbourne.

Auto White Balance

Auto White Balance (i.e., AWB) empowers the camera to determine both the color of light under which you’re working and to select what it thinks is the correct white balance setting to achieve accurate color rendition.

AWB is a relatively unsophisticated judge and, as a consequence, either does a good job or makes a mess of things. It can, however, be useful under mixed lighting conditions when the right color balance sits somewhere between two of your camera's default white balance settings.

Afterglow following a spectacular sunset above Mitre Peak on Milford Sound in Otago, New Zealand.

The problem with AWB

Let’s imagine you’re photographing an incredibly beautiful sunrise. The camera doesn’t know where you are or whether you’re photographing a baby, a landscape or a birthday cake. So how could it possibly know that you’re photographing a spectacular sunrise. It can’t!

Under those conditions your camera will, more than likely, see the dominance of warm light (e.g., red, orange, yellow, magenta colors) and do its best to neutralize them. As a result your camera fails to record much of the beauty that drew your attention in the first place. No, AWB is not for me. I would rather get the white balance correct in camera and then, where appropriate, alter it to achieve a particular mood or effect on the desktop.

A poorly set white balance is a complete disaster for folks photographing with their camera’s set to JPEG. That’s because the white balance, whether manually selected or automatically set by the camera, is literally baked into the file. You can adjust a JPEG image with poor white balance, but you cannot completely fix it when a significant change in white balance is required. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Looking up through the leafy canopy, towards the light, on Mount Tamborine, Queensland, Australia.

Folks photographing in RAW mode will know that this isn’t such a big deal. Many choose to leave their camera set to AWB and, in a few seconds, change the white balance to any one of the very same options (e.g., Sunny, Cloudy, etc) in your camera within a RAW converter like Lightroom. Sadly this feature is not available when working with a JPEG.

So, strictly speaking, working on AWB is not a problem for folks photographing in RAW mode. However, I still prefer to get the white balance right in camera. That’s because the better the image looks on the camera’s LCD screen (and what we’re looking at is always a tiny JPEG image, even when working in RAW) the happier I’II be and the more confident I become making photos. More confidence leads to more experimentation (e.g., composition) and, often, more interesting images.   

Your camera also allows you to manually set the white balance to one of a range of options including the following:

  • Daylight/Sunny, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten/Incandescent, Fluorescent and Flash.

However, be wary of the obvious logic that the sunny white balance is for a sunny day. To my mind that is very much a flawed logic. From my way of thinking this is what those white balance settings actually mean, in the real world.   

A carefully composed image exploring the often facile nature of fashion and celebrity.

Daylight/Sunny

No White Balance applied, records the actual color of the light. A good starting point for night time photography featuring city lights.

Cloudy (Add Yellow)

In photography yellow is the opposite of blue and, living on the blue planet, light is often bluish in color. Cloudy is my default setting when photographing under natural lighting. While not always the best option, but more often than not it is.

A lone iceberg, having broken off the Breiòamerkurjökull Glacier, skims across the surface of the water on Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon on it's way to the sea off the southern coast of Iceland.

Shade (Add Even More Yellow)

I'II move to the Shade white balance when the Cloudy setting, though it improves the result, doesn’t remove all of the bluish color cast in the image.

That is, of course, assuming I want to reduce the bluish color cast in the image. Because blue is such an evocative color there are times when I decide to embrace the mood associated with the color blue, as is evident in this photo of an iceberg on the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland.

A steep staircase leads the visitor through a narrow alleyway in the City of Melbourne, Australia.

Tungsten/Incandescent (Adds Blue)

The Tungsten/Incandescent setting in your camera adds blue to neutralize the yellow/orange color of light emitted by this kind of light source.

Of course where you want to showcase the color of this light, as I've done in the above photo, a good starting point for white balance would be Daylight/Sunny.

Fluorescent

Some cameras have several Fluorescent white balance settings due to the range of fluorescent tubes in use. Cameras that have a single fluorescent setting likely add magenta/blue to compensate for the greenish/yellow color emitted by the most common type of fluorescent tubes.

An environmental portrait of photographer, Craig Goldsmith, at Grytviken on South Georgia Island.

Flash

The color of light emitted from your camera's flash is not, strictly speaking, white. It has a slight bluish color and the Flash setting adds a small amount of yellow to counter that. I don't use this setting for flash photography, preferring to use one of the other manual white balance settings to change the color of the background and allow the almost neutral color of light from the flash to illuminate the face.

Light is Rarely White

A mantra, worth repeating often, that might help make sense of white balance is that Light is Rarely White. We know and expect that sunrise and sunset will be warm in color. What we don't realize is that the color light, outdoors, changes throughout the day; that shadows are often bluish in color; and that artificial lighting comes in a wide range of different color temperatures.

The moon goddess statue photographed against the soon to set sun at Snow World in Harbin, China.

Earth is the Blue Planet - Why?

Our planet looks blue from space, right? And folks often say that’s because of the sea. Yes, but the sea is not actually blue (well it is, but only very, very slightly blue in color). To all intensive purposes water is clear, right?

So where does the blue color come from? It comes from the sky. Light is broken up as it passes through the atmosphere and more of the blue spectrum gets through. Simple! (Please, let’s keep things simple).

So that blue light, actually more often a blue/cyan (think of cyan as aqua) colored light, is reflected off the water which is why water appears bluish in color. The color is strong because water is a highly reflective surface. But so is snow and sand, and the color of the sky is particularly strong when reflected off such otherwise highly reflected areas and from shadows/shaded areas in our photos.

A luminous piece of street art at Hosier Lane, Melbourne made with the Sony a7r II camera at ISO 800 1/250 second @ f4.

The Brighter the Light the Darker the Shadows

My second favorite (self penned) mantra is the brighter the light, the darker the shadows will photograph.

So, have no doubt that, on a bright sunny day at the beach or when skiing your image will display really bluish shadows. Likewise, if you move your portrait subject into the shade so as to avoid squinting, bright spots on the face, dark shadows under the eyes and wrinkles on the face you’ll find the image feels cool. That’s because of the bluish light that exists in the shadows. Why? Because the shadows are not lit by the sun, they’re lit by the bluish light from the sky. 

Even though it’s a sunny day you would normally be best avoiding the sunny/daylight setting under these conditions. That’s because the sunny/daylight setting actually records the color of light that’s present, and when the light is blue, that’s usually not what you want.

If you’re new to working with white balance I’d suggest you photograph a series of scenes at different white balances to see how differently they'll record. For outdoor photography I'd suggest the following:

  1. Daylight to see the real color of the light
  2. AWB to see what the camera thinks is best
  3. Cloudy because it's my recommended default white balance for natural light photography

Next determine which of the three is best for that particular subject, environment or the mood your exploring and let that be the white balance you've chosen until the lighting changes. If cloudy produces the best result, but you feel the image is still too cool, then switch to Shade.

When working under predominantly artificial light substitute Cloudy from the above scenario with either the Tungsten/Incandescent or Fluorescent white balance setting.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru