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How to Understand White Balance in 4 Simple Steps

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Related course: Photography for Beginners


Color—it all seems so simple. We take a picture, the color looks great… if we have the perfect white balance.

How often have you returned home, uploaded images and thought, ‘Hmm I am sure that sunset was more golden’? Or ‘this snow was much whiter’?

We’re going to look at the first stage of that equation. This article is all about what is white balance in photography. And how to understand white balance in four simple steps.

A colorful apartment block building - white balance photography

What Is White Balance in Photography?

With film photography, white balance is controlled by the film that you buy. In digital photography, the white balance is controlled by the settings on your camera. Both are also controlled by the lighting situations.

The way our eyes see color is very different from the way our digital devices decode it. Add to that the fact that different devices interpret color in different ways.

There is huge potential for your images to look wrong when you get them up on the screen. But there is a system photographers use to get color right. From the camera to the final image.

It’s called color management. It involves camera settings, colors in your post-production software and monitor calibration.

All light has a color and that color is itself a temperature. Different light creates a temperature hue in your image. The color temperature scale used for light is the Kelvin Scale.

At the lower end of the scale, 2000-4000k shows warm light of reddish yellows. At around 5500k, the color is pretty much what we see at noon on a sunny day.

As the scale climbs, the light gets progressively bluer. At about 10,000 K we reach the very blue light of a typical flash gun.


Our cameras have a sensor that determines what the color cast of the light is. We can let that sensor to select the right camera white balance. We do this by using the AWB (auto white balance) setting.

For the most part, this sensor is very accurate. But a large block of a single color can fool it. For example, a woman wearing a bright red dress.

In this case, the color sensor will see the image as being redder than it actually is. And it will overcompensate by turning the image bluer.

This is often what happens with those wonderful sunset pictures. The overabundance of red light fools the camera sensor into adding bluer. This neutralizes the scene.

A grid of cityscape photos comparing of colour temperature settings
The results you would see by setting your white balance to these specific presets

4. How Do I Deal With Camera White Balance?

Modern digital cameras give you the option to change the white balance manually. You also have the auto white balance (AWB) option.

Auto White Balance is often suitable for daylight situations. In most other situations, it’s guessing what the white balance should be. The most common example for this is when shooting indoors in tungsten light.

Canon, in particular, are bad at getting the color right on Auto mode. It can often come out far too warm.

Custom: This is for setting the photography white balance accurately using a grey card. More about this in section 3.

Temperature: This is for experienced professional photographers. More about this in section 3.

These modes tell your camera how much it should adjust the color of the photo it’s taking.

To show how these modes affect the temperature of an image, check out the photo below. The model had the sun setting behind her.

In a typical digital SLR these are the white balance settings you can choose from:

Auto: Good if you don’t know what you’re doing. It works well in sunlight but is unsuitable for most situations.

A cold portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, using white balance in photography
Photo comes out quite cold.

Daylight: Auto mode can be good in daylight but not perfect. I would use this balance in daylight.

Most people tend to stick to auto. It’s because they’re worried about forgetting to change the White Balance when they go back indoors.

A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Not bad, but the camera is trying to compensate for a much brighter environment. It’s overcompensating.

Shade: Auto mode makes photos look a little cold in the shade. Using this preset will be a lot more accurate.

A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Very accurate, it captures the spring evening perfectly.

Cloudy: Again, this is pretty self-explanatory.

A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Very good but still a little colder than the environment actually was. This setting is for much warmer light

Tungsten: This light comes from incandescent bulbs found in your home. Left on auto, your photos will come out very warm with an almost orange color cast in this environment.
A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Fluorescent: This comes from tube lighting conditions found in offices and hospitals. It’s a very cold light and can make your photos appear blue. This is also why offices have that nasty sterile feel.

A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Far too cold. This setting is for much warmer light and , as you can see, cooled the photo accordingly.

Flash: This compensates for the somewhat cool light of the camera’s flash.

A portrait of a young girl posing outdoors, demonstrating adjusting white balance in photography
Worked surprisingly well. It’s more accurate than auto mode for this sort of lighting.

You’ll see that the ‘Shade’ setting is most accurate for that situation.

3. How Do I Change My Camera White Balance?

There is no exact answer to this, hence I have left it to the end. Changing camera white balance very much depends on the make of your camera and the model.

Using the principles in this article, you should be able to adjust the settings on your camera. In doing so, you achieve the right white balance photography.

Professional-level cameras often have direct access to white presets. And manual white balance photography. This happens through buttons and dials on the body itself.

On lower-level cameras, you may well find that presets can be set from the body.

But the manual settings will be buried in the menu system. More often than not in the shooting settings.

My best advice here is to experiment with different white balances on some non-essential shoots.

As with many things in photography, the more you expose yourself to their use, the more natural they will become to you.

Setting a perfect white balance photo and understanding different color temperature is an important part of the photographic process.

I would say that after mastering the exposure triangle, mastering camera white balance photography should be your next stop. As you can see, the white balance definition is easy to understand.

It’s about understanding how the color of light affects the way your image looks. By dictating the photography white balance you can set the mood and feel of an image. Auto won’t do this for you.

Set Manual In-Camera White Balance Settings

Now you’re armed with an understanding of the color of light and its temperature. You can set degrees K to get perfect white balance photography.

Not all tungsten lights, for example, give out the same color temperature.

If you are shooting under one that is less red, you can increase the color temperature. Try going from the preset 2500 K to 2800 K to get a more natural look.

You can experiment with different color temperature to get the best look for your image.

We have a great article on how to correct white balance in Photoshop you should check out too.

An arm in white shirt against a pure white background

2. How to Get Perfect Color Reproduction

Custom and temperature create the most accurate camera white balance photography. First though, you need to learn about grey cards.

Grey cards determine which white balance settings your camera should use. They are 18% grey; a neutral hue.

To use grey cards, take a photo of the card so that it fills the whole frame of your camera. Then set this as the white balance inside your camera.

The camera sees the difference between the result and the neutral hue. It determines the balance from that.

The reason you’d use a grey card and not a white one is simple. If you overexpose any color enough, it’ll come out as white. White balance is about color, not brightness.

You took the grey photo in the same lighting environment as the rest of your photos. So the camera knows exactly how much to adjust the balance.

Custom: This is where you would take the photo of the grey card and set it in your white balance settings. All cameras are different so I recommend looking in your manual to check how to do this.

This is the most accurate way possible to capture color on the cheap and I fully recommend it.

Color Temperature / Kelvin: This is for professional photographers setting the white balance value themselves. The value is in Kelvin (K) – named after the man who created the scale.

For example, sunlight is approximately 5200 K. Tungsten is approximately 3200 K.

Paint rollers with colorful paint - white balance photography tips

Use White Balance Photo Presets

All modern digital cameras not only have Auto White Balance settings but also have a number of presets. The include Tungsten lights, Fluorescent lights, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy and Flash.

If you find that a deep, overcast day gives you too much blue, switch to ‘Shade’ or ‘Cloudy’. These should warm your image up.

If you are shooting under tungsten light using AWB, switch to ‘Tungsten’. This will balance out your color temperature.

You don’t have to use a specific preset for a specific light. A classic way to maintain the saturation of sunsets is to set the Shade or Cloudy preset. This adds extra warmth to the image and keeps that sunset looking real.

Presets are a quick and simple solution to getting good white balance photography. But they are not always perfect.

Your best bet is to use a white object, or as close as you can get, to set an automatic white balance. After that, you can teak the white balance as you see fit in post-processing software. Preset white balance can only get you so far for accurate colors.

For more help, there are plenty of photography tutorials helping you get the best out of your scene, be them with a blue sky or overcast sky.

Shade Preset comparison diptych - white balance photography
By using the shade preset the saturation is much better in this sunset shot

Creating Your Own White Balance Settings

The color sensors in our cameras read the light reflected back from our scene. But it can get confused by large blocks of color.

There is a technique that can give us perfect white balance photography. You just have to carry a piece of white card.

By placing the white card in front of your camera you are reflecting back the pure untainted light.

This light information can be stored as a preset. As long as the light source does not change too much. Then it will give you correct and consistent white balance.

1. Which Setting Is Best for Me?

You have 5 options:

1 – Spend all your time shooting on auto mode and hope for the best. This is alright if you’re still trying to get to grips with exposure but after that I recommend you move on.
2 – Try to produce accurate results using the preset modes inside of your camera. This is a step in the right direction. But they’re still ballpark figures and won’t always produce 100% correct results.
3 – Shoot in custom white balance mode. This is the most popular choice by professional photographers. It can have a learning curve and requires carrying around a grey card.
4 – Use a light temperature meter. This is a very accurate solution but can cost a lot of money. It’s not a realistic option for most.
5 – Shoot in RAW. For those of you who don’t know, RAW is an uncompressed file format. It allows you to change things on a computer after you’ve taken a photo.
One of these things is the white balance.

Shooting RAW

Many of you already shoot RAW. One of the reasons that you do so is because you can manually set the white balance in post-production.

When you shoot a RAW file, white balance is measured and applied as a reference. But you can change this in Adobe RAW, Lightroom or any other RAW processing software.

There is an issue here though. If you shoot only RAW, you have no real reference to how the light was in the original scene. You only see the camera’s interpretation of it.

A better option is to to use one of the techniques above when shooting RAW. Presets, manual white balance or creating your own white balance settings.

You give yourself a more accurate base white balance reading to use in your post-production.

But, even with shooting Raw, problems can arise from trying to find an automatic white balance. For example, when you use mixed lighting. Shooting a scene that uses flourescent lighting and natural lighting means there isn’t one light source to base your white balance on.

Screenshot of adjusting white balance in post production
Using RAW gives you full control over white balance but it is still good practice to set the balance yourself

We have a great article on how to correct white balance in Photoshop and Lightroom you should check out too.

And have a look at this video before you go.

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13 comments
  1. Shooting RAW doesn’t only allow you to adjust white balance after the shot in post-processing — it *requires* you to do so. Shooting RAW ignores any white balance setting in the camera, since white balance is actually treated like a post-processing option in cameras.
    So shooting JPG and setting white balance to cloudy first makes the camera capture the shot as RAW internally, and then applies the white balance settings as it created the JPG image.

  2. What Jonas states could well be true for some cameras, but it’s not true for all of them. I use Nikons and I shoot in RAW. Which setting I use DOES make a difference!

    1. I’ll have to plead ignorance on this one, care to go into more detail? Is is a certain range of camera’s, and do you have an article you could link us to?
      Thanks for the intriguing comment.
      Josh

      1. I use a Nikon D3100 and always shoot in RAW, when I open the files in Photoshop they save the cameras WB setting “as shot” (and those settings are slightly different than PS settings for the same thing). The Only difference it makes is that the preview will be in that WB setting until you change it, therefore if you shot it in the correct WB you can save and go on without changing anything, not -requiring- you to do anything.

  3. what Jonas says is true for all cameras,
    a Raw file is just the information as it comes from the sensor, with no post-processing, and no whitebalance, the camera records the value of the evaluated white balance anyway, and it is up to the post processing program weather to use this information or not.
    in Adobe Light lightroom i can change the WB from “as shoot” to Daylight or cloudy and so on.
    You will find that different programms will show the same raw file quite differently, with different contrast, white balance, exposure, and so on, thats because a raw file is not actually a picture, it is just information that can be used to produce a picture ( a .jpg, that looks the same everywhere ) and this information can be interpret differently.
    And i shoot Canon, but the idea behind RAW is the same no matter what camera you use.
    got it?

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