and then it clicked

April 7th, 2013

White Balance, and Why It Matters

All of us have, at some point, taken a photo (usually indoors) and been puzzled by the colour of the resulting image.  Either they end up eerily blue…



or a horrible syrupy yellow…


This is because different kinds of light actually appear as different colours.  This is why everything looks so lovely and golden in the hour before sunset, and why our skin can look horrible in public bathroom mirrors.

Usually, our brains know what colours are supposed to look like, so they make a correction so things look right.  White looks white.  Our cameras, as smart as they are, don’t know what “white” looks like.  Setting your camera to auto white balance is asking your camera to guess.  If you are outside during the day, the camera usually does a decent job.  If, however, you are inside under a tungsten or fluorescent bulb, the camera has a harder time deciding.  And if you are in a combination of different kinds of light – for example, in a kitchen with a window and an overhead tungsten bulb – then the camera has an even harder time figuring it out.


Some cameras might have additional settings, and some may be missing one or more of the above, but these are pretty typical.

Today I took these photos using only the natural light coming in through the window.  It was fairly cloudy outside, and the sun wasn’t shining directly on the subject of my photos.  For each shot, I changed my white balance, and as you can see, the results of using different settings are very obvious.



When I compared these images to the actual scene, the Cloudy setting was definitely closest to real life.  Auto didn’t fare too badly in this example, but the colour is still “off”.  Tungsten and Fluorescent look completely wrong.  The Tungsten setting, for example, told the camera that the light was very warm – reddish orange – but in reality the light was just barely yellow. The camera compensated for the orange that it thought it was “seeing” by shifting the colour temperature way into the “cool” range, which appears blue to our eyes.

Does this mean that you always have to match the exact conditions? Of course not.  Colour temperature can be used to great effect to make photos look better.  For example, many people (including me) prefer a slightly “warmer” look to their photos.  I often shoot using the Cloudy White Balance setting, even if skies are clear.  This setting assumes that the light is cooler than it actually is, so it compensates by warming up the resulting image.  This saves me a step in my post processing, because I have already warmed up the image a little bit.  This photo was taken just before noon on a sunny day.  By shooting using the Cloudy setting, I was able to warm up the image and avoid the blue cast that shooting in the middle of the day usually causes.

Great Lakes Lavender Farm


This week, switch your camera out of Auto White Balance Mode and try the different White Balance settings your camera has.  Getting this setting right “in the camera” may improve your photos and can save you lots of time editing. It also gives you one more way to control your camera to get the effect you want rather than the one it decides is best.

Do you ever “trick” your camera by using a white balance setting to give you the effect you want?

P.S. Digital Camera World has a great Colour Temperature “cheat sheet” if you want to know a little more!