How to Master White Balance

Reader Question: What is white balance and why is it important? Is there a downside to setting my camera to “auto”?

My Answer: Before the rise of digital photography most magazine pictures were shot on color transparency film, more commonly known as slides. Slide film was calibrated to be used in certain lighting conditions because different light sources change the color of the things they illuminate.

We don’t notice the color shifts because our brain’s visual perception tends to correct for radical color shifts. That meant you had to choose to use daylight-balanced film, which was by far the most common, or tungsten-balanced film, which was meant to be used indoors under incandescent lights.

Many photographers didn’t bother to use tungsten film indoors, so their photographs, taken with regular old daylight film, ended up having a pleasing yellow “warmth” that many people took for granted. As a photo editor, this was one of my pet peeves.

Digital cameras were a big improvement in this regard, allowing photographers to adjust for different lighting conditions by changing the white balance settings from one shot to the next. Incandescent lights can make a picture that has been white-balanced for natural daylight look warm or yellowish. Likewise, a photo taken outdoors in the shade will probably look blue because the subject is lit by the huge expanse of sky, not the sun. Having the ability to adjust for these changing conditions helps photography impart a truer reflection of reality.

Taken using the "daylight" white balance preset (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Taken using the “daylight” white balance preset (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Digital cameras are usually set by default on auto white balance — which works well most of the time. But this auto setting can fail spectacularly.

Imagine waiting for the last rays of the sun to hit the subject of your photograph, adding just the right twist of color to make the picture exceptional. Click! Then, when reviewing the photo on your screen you see that, though the image is lovely, all the extra color you had waited for is gone. That’s the auto white balance thinking it’s doing you a favor by removing the unnatural color cast! Here’s what I’m talking about:

Taken using the "auto" preset. Notice the blue hue. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Taken using the “auto” preset. Notice the blue hue. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Auto white balance also can cause problems when making portraits. If the subject is wearing colorful clothing, their skin tone will change from one picture to the next depending on how much of what they are wearing or their surroundings are included in the frame.

To really wrap your head around how white balance works — and why it’s crucial to good photography — I would recommend setting your camera to take JPEGs, then photographing the same scene over and over using the different white balance presets. When you’re through, have a look at the results on your computer so you can start learning to see how your camera sees.

Alternatively, you can shoot with your camera in raw format and adjust the white balance later. But even when I’m shooting in raw I try to manually set the white balance using the presets to match the particular situation I’m in. I spend enough time at the computer without having to adjust the white balance on every picture I take.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? Join him for a live Twitter chat on January 28 at 12:30pm EST. Follow along and ask your travel photography questions using #enroute.

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Comments

  1. ANANDA B K
    India
    January 21, 7:45 pm

    ANANDA. B.K.
    BANGALORE, INDIA
    January 22, 6.05 am
    Mr DAN, excellent intelligence in capturing beauty of nature using white balance precisely . Thanks for sharing your experiance .

  2. Tangonan,rodiric r
    Phillippines
    January 21, 4:43 am

    White blend it blue for contras lite gray become

  3. danny
    Yokosuka Japan
    January 20, 1:49 pm

    I’m an old guy with no knowledge of photography, and I took some really great pictures of sunsets in California using a pre-digital Kodak. I had the negatives enlarged, and they are now hanging in our living room. I currently use either of two Kodak digital cameras and have not been able to duplicate the quality of my old 35mm. I wish I knew more about the other than auto settings, and I appreciate the info..
    PS: Don’t volunteer me to take photos of volcano interiors, Great Whites, cobras in India, etc.

  4. Herling
    indonesia
    November 26, 2013, 12:22 pm

    When I use manual white balance I never get the result I want. I usseally switch to auto has it give better results. I problaly need to experience more with white balance.

  5. seema bhardwaj
    mp
    October 8, 2013, 1:54 am

    all pictures are touching

  6. Ralph Wilson
    New Bern, North Carolina
    September 12, 2013, 2:47 pm

    I am using a Canon Zoom Lens – 75mm – 300mm lens. I would like to increase the Zoom length but the converter lens I purchased is giving me a problem with Chromatic Vibration/ Color infringing. Is there a lens I can use on my Canon T4i Camera that would give me increased zoom capability.

  7. Varun Thakre
    Freiburg
    August 25, 2013, 7:03 am

    Thanks for the good advice on white balance! I usually prefer to shoot in RAW just in case, I get the white-balance wrong. But I have quite often faced with one particular problem. Most softwares like Photoshop and Gimp offer an option of “white balance correction”. If you apply this to a photograph, the color contrast comes out much more vibrant. This is all without a filter ofcourse. What would be your suggestion to avoid this this correction and get the contrast “as it is” in my photographs? One general opinion that prevails is that one can set a custom white balance using a white card board. But that would be rather difficult a case when shooting at sunrise or sunset, where the light changes every 2 minutes or so. Any suggestions on that?

  8. Kamenev Andrew
    Moscow, Russia
    August 24, 2013, 1:29 pm

    How master white balance? I’m sorry, for what set master balance? It’s waisting your time.
    Simple shoot camera in RAW format, (because data from camera sensor didn’t contain any color information – it’s just black and white) and white balance you may set to “AUTO” forever. Color balance adjustment need only for JPEG.

  9. Mike Nicholson
    Austin, Texas
    August 24, 2013, 1:16 pm

    White balance settings can at times appear to be a black art. One trick I use for white balance setting is taking a white balance reading using my hand, much like the gray card we used back in roll film days.

  10. Tali
    Costa Rica
    August 24, 2013, 12:54 pm

    Hi Dan, I was wondering whether it would be a way for capturing waves in the beach as real as we see them, It happens to me every time I take a magnific wave breaking picture that when I see it in my computer it just seems like a white spot, instead of the beautiness of the white foam in the sand. Is it any special setting I could adjust to my camera? Thanks!

  11. Douglas Chin
    New York, NY
    August 24, 2013, 12:34 pm

    Thanks, Dan. Great points.
    Any tips about when and how to use custom white balance (using a card)?
    Also, any tips on how to set white balance when there is a mixture of “temperatures”– say ambient daylight streaming through a window into a room with incandescent lighting?

  12. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    August 22, 2013, 11:18 pm

    Great advice about taking pictures on various settings to get a feel for what they all do. I still take multiple shots of the same thing just to mess with the settings, even though I now have a really good idea of what various situations call for. Sometimes random settings can surprise you.

    Ian Faulds
    http://IanFaulds.com

  13. Himadri Pal
    Bangalore, India
    August 22, 2013, 8:54 am

    Nice tips about the while balance.

    Totally agree with you. If we choose ‘ Auto’, then nothing is in our hand. ;-)

  14. Joe Sellars
    Panama City FL
    August 19, 2013, 7:15 pm

    Dan, using my camera’s TTL metering system where do I “point” the meter to ensure getting the correct exposure?