Simple Rules for Perfect White Balance

A blue-hour shot with daylight/sunny WB is certainly dramatic.

Camera white balance (WB) is one of those camera settings that most people don’t want to fool with, but it is the setting that can dictate the feel of your image and give it mood. Digital camera makers are always refining their Auto WB settings, but sometimes you need to know that life can be simpler using a preset white balance. The trick, of course, is knowing just what setting to use.

Let’s start off by asking the fundamental question: Why do we need a White Balance setting at all? We use the white balance setting to tell our cameras what “color” should be rendered as neutral white. Unlike our eyes, which adapt to changing light temperatures easily, your digital camera just records colors as they appear. That means that different light sources will produce different colors, and your camera has no way of knowing if they look “neutral” or have a color cast.

Take, for example, the following light sources:

  • Sunlight (mid-day)
  • Incandescent (Tungsten) Bulb
  • Fluorescent Tubes

Our eyes perceive each of these lighting sources as being roughly “white,” but in fact, their output spectra and color temperatures are quite different. To your digital camera, sunlight might seem mostly white, incandescent lights are yellow/orange, and fluorescent tubes have a green cast. One reason we like shooting during the “golden hours” of sunrise and sunset is that the light is much warmer (orange) than it is during other times of day.

As photographers, we want to get the “right” white balance for the scene. In other words, we don’t normally want green, magenta, or orange casts in our images. In the film days, we had two options for white balance: daylight-balanced film and tungsten-balanced film. That was it. If you were shooting indoors with incandescent bulbs (or product shots), you’d use tungsten-balanced film. For everything else, including flash photography, you’d choose daylight-balanced film. With only two options, you were bound to get color casts unless you had uniform daylight or tungsten bulbs. Shady scenes would appear blue with daylight-balanced film, and the “golden hour” looked, well, golden.

Leave it to DSLRs to complicate matters. The camera makers give us tons of options for adjusting the camera white balance settings to get neutral tones. They also provide an “auto WB” option so that you don’t have to fret with getting the WB right. The problem is, auto WB isn’t very good outside normal daylight conditions, and in fact, it can lead to some significant problems. A big reason why I shoot RAW is to be able to easily modify my WB as needed to get it “right.” But what is “right?”

The case for preset WB settings

As an outdoor photographer, it’s important to recognize conditions where color casts are actually desirable. Remember, with daylight film, shade was bluish and golden hour was orange. I want to keep that general look in my images most of the time, and I don’t want to mess with custom WB settings, either in my camera or in post. Consider a shot of arctic ice. It’s blue, right? Your eyes don’t perceive ice as being orange… so why would you want to render it that way? If you shoot during the golden hour to get a “warm” look, why would you want your camera to neutralize that color cast? Remember, the idea is to get a starting image that is good to begin with, not something that requires fixing later.

Rule #1: If you’re outside, choose “Sunny” or “Daylight” WB preset

The case for this rule is simple: if you’re outside, the illumination source is the sun. So daylight/sunny WB will give you the appropriate look most of the time. This can be especially true during golden hour conditions. Whereas Auto WB might try to neutralize a warm scene, the sunny preset won’t. You’ll get warm tones during the golden hour and cool tones in shady areas.

My camera's Auto WB setting was fooled by the shade and rendered the snow too orange.
Setting a daylight preset neutralized the whites and made the shadows blue, similar to daylight-balanced film.

Rule #2: If the scene has a blue sky in it, avoid “Cloudy” or “Shade” WB

In scenes with a blue sky, your camera’s Auto WB setting can sometimes be fooled if there are lots of shady areas. The camera tries to neutralize the cool tones by making your image more orange. And that results in a “muddy” sky. You’ll get even worse results if you set to a preset “Shade” or “Cloudy” WB. Only use the “Shade” setting on scenes that are in full shade, with no sky. Otherwise, you get mud in the heavens above. This same rule applies for post-processing. I find it easier to warm shady areas in the scene locally than it is to try to correct a muddy sky.

With AWB, the blue sky isn't quite right.
By setting the camera WB to daylight, the blue sky doesn't look muddy anymore.

Rule #3: Choose a fixed preset WB with telephoto lenses

I was practicing my telephoto technique with my 600mm lens during the golden hour, and I couldn’t understand why the shots lacked any warm tones. It was because I was using Auto WB. Telephoto lenses, especially the big ones, have very narrow angles of view. Even in full sunlight, your camera’s auto WB sensor may be fooled by warm or cool background elements. Switching to the Sunny/Daylight preset made my shots look better right out of the camera.

This shot was taken with my 600mm lens using AWB during the golden hour. Something's just not right...
Setting the WB to daylight preserves the warm color cast of the scene as I saw it.

Rule #4: When faced with mixed lighting, choose the WB setting that is appropriate for your subject.

If you’re shooting indoors, you’ll often get a mixed lighting condition. Your subject may be in tungsten light, while daylight is coming in through a window. There is no perfect in-camera setting for these conditions, so set your WB to one that will render your subject properly and worry about the other lights later. If you’re using a flash indoors with incandescent light, consider using a CTO gel to balance the light sources. If the mixed lighting is truly horrible, you can always convert to monochrome.

Rule #5: Use a fixed WB preset anytime you shoot a panorama (stitch) or HDR sequence

Whenever your final output is a composite of multiple images, as is the case in stitched pans and HDR (High Dynamic Range) images, you can’t have variation in WB. Changing light or changing composition can result in subtle WB differences if you’re using Auto WB, which will make the composite image difficult to process.

Does this mean you should never use Auto WB? No. Auto WB is fine in most situations, especially outdoors or indoors with a flash. Auto WB doesn’t generally do well under tungsten lighting (incandescent) conditions, especially in dim light. Just keep these simple rules in mind, and your images will not only look better, but you’ll save time during post-processing, too. Of course, if you shoot RAW, you can always go back and dial in settings that you like later on to fine-tune the image to suit your needs.

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