getting the white balance right

White balance and colour temperature are really quite simple to get to grips with as you’ll find out in this starters’ guide to white balance

What is white balance?

Imagine if you had to click a switch every time you went from the office to a shop to home, just so that the complexion of people you saw along the way looked “right” and “normal”. If you literally saw life through a lens, people would look a bit green in the office or glowing orange in the pub. This is to do with the different colour temperature of various the light source, ranging from sunlight to shade to artificial lights. These all affect the white balance of the images we see.

Luckily, our brains do our adjustments for us automatically. The camera may have the eyes, but not the brain.  In film photography, filters are used to correct the colour cast from different light sources.  With digital cameras, you have a selection of virtual filters to choose from.  Ever wondered what the light bulb, sun, cloud, lightning bolt and shed symbols on your DSLR were?  It’s all about setting the correct white balance.

Different light sources emit light at different wavelengths (measured in colour temperature) and is the reason for different colour casts. Outdoor sunny conditions are pretty close to “white” light while a candle flame will appear much warmer with reds and yellows dominating.

Table of colour temperatures – White Balance
Light source Temperature (Kelvin)
Match flame 1700K
Candle flame 1850K
Incandescent light bulb 2800-3300K
Sunrise, sunset 3350K
Midday sun, electronic flash 5000K
Bright sunshine, clear sky 5500-6000K
Cloud cover, shade 700K
Blue sky 9300K


Why is white balance important?

White balance is one of those topics that can easily slide into increasingly complex and geeky explanations complete with charts and graphs. In the simplest terms, it is important for getting the colours as accurate as possible.

Take a few shots without flash in differently lit locations (tungsten bulbs, fluorescent strips, streetlamps) and you’ll instantly understand what I’m talking about.

In order to correct these variations in colour temperature your camera needs to set itself a suitable reference point for the colour white. In doing so it can make all the other colours of the spectrum look more natural.

Portrait photo with tungsten white balance setting Portrait photo with auto white balance setting
Wrong white balance
What happens when the wrong white balance setting is chosen? In this case, the tungsten white balance setting was chosen instead of flash or auto. The skin tones take on a very cold, blueish tinge while other colours lose their warmth and vibrancy.
Correct white balance 
The same image but now with the Auto white balance enabled. Note the more natural skin tones and warmer range of colours. An entirely different photography, just by ensuring the correct white balance setting.


How do I choose the right white balance?

You’ll need to refer to your manual on how to select the appropriate white balance for your DSLR.  Here’s an explanation the of more common white balance settings on DSLR cameras:

Auto WB icon Auto as you can guess, this is where the camera determines what the best white balance setting is. It doesn’t always get it right but it’sworthwhile using.
Daylight WB icon Daylight The sun setting.  You may not see much of a difference with this and auto white balance but is meant to be used in daylight
Shady WB icon Shade The shed setting.  Images shot in shade can be quite blue so this will add some warmth to it.
Cloudy WB icon Cloudy The cloud setting.  Adds some warm tones to normal daylight pictures.  Be careful with this as sometimes your pictures can look quite yellow.
Tungsten WB icon Tungsten The light bulb setting.  Counteracts the strong colour cast from tungsten lighting (usual light bulbs).
Flurescent WB icon Fluorescent The strip light setting. Compensates the greeny-blue of fluorescent lights.
Flash WB icon Flash The lightning bolt setting.  Using flash can introduce a bit of blueness and this setting adds some warmth.


It’s Your Turn

You can easily experiment with white balance. Try all of them in different settings, starting with Auto.  Take shots outdoors in morning, midday and late afternoon sun, under trees to test the light in shady conditions and indoors in the evening.  Snap a few of your co-workers in the office to see results under fluorescent lighting.

Top tip

Set your white balance back to Auto after changing it otherwise you’ll get some weird colour casts and spend more time correcting it in post-production.