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Choosing the right white balance setting will change your life!

Well, not really. But it will make your photographs better. I know what you’re thinking. “White balance? Isn’t that technical? Eyes. Glazing. Over.” Don’t worry, it’s really simple to understand, just as easy to adjust, and it will make your photographs better.

I was recently helping a buddy of mine get some shots with a new lighting setup he built (I’ll talk about that in a future article because what he built is really, really cool). He’s shooting a Canon Powershot G5 which is a little long in the tooth but has respectable controls including full manual and white balance. One of the main problems he was having when test shooting under this new setup was that the color was always off. Everything he shot had a bad yellowish-orange cast. We talked a lot about light bulbs and color temperatures but my first thought was: white balance.

What is white balance, exactly? Light is a tricky thing. The same object in different light can look very different. Think of the light at sunset versus noon. Some light is warmer, some is cooler. And the color of an object changes with the color of the light source. Your brain is smart enough to make a white object look white no matter what the light source. Cameras try to mimic this ability through white balance. Your camera will usually do a fairly good job. But, it is just a machine, it doesn’t actually see what you’re seeing, and it sometimes gets it wrong.

That’s why your camera lets you adjust the white balance setting. Usually, you’ll be able to use one of several presets including Automatic. The presets correspond to different kinds of light sources. By choosing a preset, you are explicitly telling the camera what kind of light is hitting your subject so it can adjust the color accordingly. Presets for white balance usually include:

Auto: This setting is usually accurate but you’ll want to choose a different setting if you aren’t getting good results.
Incandescent: For shooting under normal indoor lighting.
Fluorescent: For shooting under fluorescent lighting.
Sunlight: Choose this when shooting in direct sunlight.
Flash: For flash photography.
Cloudy: For overcast conditions.
Shade: When shooting a subject that is completely shaded.

Some cameras, like my D70, even let you choose a preset and then fine-tune it by adjusting it a little warmer or cooler. Some will even let you create a temporary custom white balance setting by taking a photograph of something known to be white in the lighting you will use for your photograph (read your camera manual to find out how to do that and if your camera supports it).

So, knowing this, we changed the white balance setting from Auto (which was getting the light source completely wrong for some reason) and explicitly chose Incandescent. On the G5, which like most compact cameras has a live preview of the image on the LCD, we could see the result immediately before even taking a shot. Now the color was spot on. The yellow cast was gone and all of the colors in the scene were brilliantly and accurately represented.

One area where white balance won’t be able to help you (by itself) is when you have multiple light sources. For example, suppose you have both fluorescent and incandescent light in a room. Which white balance setting do you choose? If you want accurate color, choose either one and then turn off the other lights. For example, choose the Incandescent setting and turn off the fluorescent lights. That will ensure that you are choosing the right setting for the right light source. Otherwise, you’ll get strange color variations depending on where different kinds of light are hitting your subject.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.
  • Apps like Aperture let you adjust the white balance after the fact (both temperature and tone). Very handy. I’ve got presets in it for fluorescent, tungsten, sunny, cloudy, flash, etc… It’s pretty amazing how easy it is to fix an image with the proper white balance.

  • I’d say white balance is also one of two main reasons for shooting RAW.

    The second is being able to push exposure with minimum loss of dynamics.

  • Asten

    For readers’ information – On some cameras and software, the “Incandescent” setting is also called “Tungsten”

  • parl

    I have also own a Canon G5, and tungsten lighting it the only condition auto mode doesn’t do all very well.
    David hit it spot on. RAW mode give you a second chance at setting the white balance. That’s the main reason I shoot in RAW now.

  • I just started messing with some custom white balance stuff a few weeks ago and you are so right, it’s a whole new world. I finally had to resort to my manual and my brain to get to the bottom of the strange and sometimes unpredictable color casts my images had. Now that I have begun to really understand the WB thing, it’s making a huge difference. I don’t shoot RAW yet so I need all the help I can get.

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