1-7: White Balance and Color in Digital Photography

Introduction to White Balance

Simply put, your “White Balance” (WB) setting is used to correct the colour in your photo so that white looks white and all other colours fall in place accordingly.  If you can get a white or grey to look accurate in your image, the rest of your photo (greens, blues, reds) should look great.

As mentioned earlier, back in the day I would buy film that was ‘balanced’ for Daylight (shooting outdoors) or balanced for Tungsten Light (shooting indoors). This was a choice made by photographers so that they could get more accurate color depending upon where they were shooting. Another option was to screw a filter into the end of the lens that would change the light which hit the film. So I would use a ‘light magenta’ (FL-D / Fluorescent-Daylight) filter to compensate for the green light of the fluorescent tubes when I was using daylight film.

Thankfully, those days are over for most of us. I now have a camera that can shoot in all kinds of light, and I only have to change one setting. This is awesome news to anyone who used to shoot film! The setting that I make is called “White Balance” – and it does what the name implies. It will balance the color to provide white when it should be white (and not green, or blue or pink).

This tutorial will explain how to work with White Balance in Digital Photography.  Remember that WB does not affect exposure and is not part of the ‘Exposure Triangle’.  It only affects your overall color cast.

Auto White Balance (AWB)

Even the simplest digital camera will have an Auto White Balance setting – or just have it built in and not tell you. This is the setting that is the catch-all. It will do a good job most of the time. Sometimes, it will even do a great job. Sometimes, it will miss the mark entirely and then you have an off color image.  Just like exposure and ISO noise, each camera model will be a little different.  It all depends upon the software in your camera’s computer.

One thing that makes working with artificial lights difficult is that your eye and brain have built in WB correction. If you are looking at a sheet of white paper in the office, you’ll see that it looks pretty much white. If your eye didn’t adjust the colour, the paper would look green as it reflects the green fluorescent light.

Here’s three photos taken of a standard color card.  They were shot will all of the same settings, except that I changed the WB setting on each of them.

auto white balance
Auto White Balance
daylight white balance
Daylight White Balance
fluorescent white balance
Fluorescent White Balance

These were taken outside on a sunny in direct sunlight.  As you can see the Auto setting did a good job.  I was able to make the white look white and everything else looks like it should.  The Daylight image shows pretty much the same colors.  Either one would work fine in this example.  The third image is much different.  It looks like this because I set the camera to Fluorescent light, but it recorded daylight.  This will always give me a color cast that I don’t want as the camera was expecting fluorescent lighting and I gave it daylight.

Default White Balance Settings

You may have seen your camera has a few default  options that you can choose from.  If you are going to be shooting in JPG, I recommend that you try using the closest setting to the actual light you are in. Take some test shots of typical scenes shot with AWB and a default WB.  Look at the colours and see if you can notice a difference.

Here’s a list of options I can choose from with my Nikon D800e; your camera may have a similar list. Each of these settings should be self-explanatory.

  • Auto
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent (7 types)
  • Direct sunlight
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Flash
  • Preset manual (up to 4 values can be stored)
  • Color temperature setting (2,500 K to 10,000 K)

Sometimes you will be in a situation where you have mixed light sources.  You could be inside a room lit with fluorescent lights as well have daylight coming in through the windows.  Now what?  In most cases, you will want to use Auto and hope that the camera will figure it out for you.  It might not be perfect, but it will be close.  Another option is to create a ‘preset’ custom white balance (more on that later in the lesson).

Always check your WB settings each time you pick up the camera for a new session of shooting.

Custom / Preset White Balance

A lot of newer DSLRs will have a Custom (or Preset) WB setting.  This is a great option to use, it’s easy and is the most accurate way of getting a WB setting in your camera.  This approach allows you to take a WB reading which the camera will then use for the rest of your photos.

Check your camera’s manual to see if you have this option.  Here’s 2 shots taken seconds apart, one is using Auto WB, and other is with a Custom WB.

auto white balance
Auto White Balance
custom white balance
Custom White Balance

Here’s a video that shows some of these concepts and a quick look at how you can correct your WB in Photoshop.

Shooting in RAW

If I shoot in JPG, I would have to make my adjustments manually in Photoshop or whatever editing program I use..  If I shoot in RAW, I would be able to change the WB setting when I opened the file in Photoshop using Adobe Camera Raw “ACR” (shown in the video above).

photoshop raw setting

Instead of selecting WB in my camera, I can select it in Photoshop’s ACR.  In the droplist, you can see how I just change the WB from “As Shot” to “Daylight” and my image may look much more natural.  I can even open multiple files and change them all at the same time.

It’s for this reason, and others that I’ll explain along the way, why I almost always shoot in RAW format (or jump ahead here).  For now, I’ll just say that RAW images contain more data than JPGs and give you much more versatility when editing your photos.


As you can see, cameras have advanced to the point where they can take good photos automatically.  It’s up to you as the photographer to take it to the next level and create, instead of take, images.  White Balance is important in getting the colors correct – even with a perfect exposure, if your WB is off, your whole image is off.

You can also use the wrong WB on purpose to create an effect.  Try shooting a daylight scene with a Tungsten WB to create a cold feeling to your image (effective in winter scenes).  Or use daylight settings under Tungsten light to get a warm look. I often use a Tungsten setting for my nighttime lightning shots.

Colors are subjective.  Your eye might not see the same as mine or anyone else’s.  You might think that you have captured the correct colors when you’re actually quite far off.  Take time to learn about the various WB settings that your camera has and use them to your advantage.

Your monitor will also display colours a little differently than mine – or the next one you buy.  Ideally, you will calibrate your monitor to get the best viewing and editing results (more about that later)

Just like with exposure, you can practice all day learn from your mistakes and successes.  You can now see how just a few settings in your camera (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and White Balance) can greatly affect your photos.  Learn how to set these on your camera one at a time and let the camera take care of the rest.

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