It’s A Balancing Act – Understanding and Using White Balance

Many photographers leave their white balance set to the factory default setting of AUTO or AWB, because they think the white balance feature is too complex to use. In reality, white balance is easy to both understand and use.

White Balance Examples

What Is White Balance?

In a nutshell, the white balance feature lets you change the color of white in an image to match the color of white in a scene. My human eye sees the color as white, but to my digital camera, the color white in an image takes on the colorcast of the color of light illuminating the scene.

For example, if you and your child are sitting on the couch with a table light turned on, reading a magazine printed on white paper, your eyes see the paper as white. However, when a family member takes an image with their digital camera, with the white balance set to DAYLIGHT, the white paper in the image shows up as a shade of yellow. Why?

Because the color of light emitted from the table light bulb is of a different color than what the camera set at the DAYLIGHT setting can record. For the paper to record as white in the image, the white balance setting must be changed to INCANDESCENT (assuming your lamp has an incandescent bulb) and the image shot again.

And really, that is all there is to white balance – matching the camera’s white balance setting to the ambient light’s color.

White Balance Settings

Let’s look at some of the popular settings and when to use each of them. Most digital cameras have pre-set settings of AUTO, DAYLIGHT, CLOUDY, SHADE, INCANDESCENT, FLUORESCENT, and one adjustable setting called CUSTOM.

White Balance Settings

Now let’s cover each setting in detail, so you know under which circumstances to use each setting. The text in parenthesis denotes the symbol to look for on your camera:

  • AUTO (or AWB) accurately interprets the color of light in most situations. If you are happy with your image color, continue using the AUTO setting. However, there will be times when the color is off and you have to know both how to change the white balance and which setting to use.
  • DAYLIGHT (symbol of the sun) is the setting to use for those outside sunny-day shots, like when at the playground with your children. For many people, the DAYLIGHT setting renders everything too blue. Try CLOUDY instead and see if you like the color better.
  • CLOUDY (symbol of a cloud), renders colors “warmer” than the DAYLIGHT setting. The color of light on a cloudy day contains more blue and the “warmer” CLOUDY setting offsets the blue cast.
  • SHADE (symbol of a house casting a shadow) is “warmer” than CLOUDY because shaded light contains even more blue than cloudy-day light. Use this setting when your subject is in the shade, but there is bright light all around.
  • INCANDESCENT (symbol of a light bulb or titled INDOOR or TUNGSTEN) is the setting to use when your subject is indoors and illuminated by standard household lights. Otherwise, with your camera set to DAYLIGHT or AUTO, you will get an overall yellow cast in your images. If the tungsten lamp bulbs were recently changed to the newer compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), then use the FLUORESCENT setting.
  • FLUORESCENT (symbol of a long rectangle or fluorescent tube) offsets the green cast normally associated with fluorescent, sodium vapor (school auditoriums) and metal halide (street lights) bulbs. Use this setting when encountering light from these sources.
  • CUSTOM (symbol of a dot and two triangles) is different from all the other settings. As you know there are many different shades of white ranging from bright, to eggshell, to a light blue, or even a very light gray. With the CUSTOM setting, you can actually match white color to a specific shade of white. Use this setting for those unique situations when none of the other settings render color correctly.

Because each digital camera manufacturer uses a different procedure to set up and use their CUSTOM setting, consult your owner’s manual on the exact steps. When finished shooting, don’t forget to set your white balance back to AUTO or one of the other settings.

White Balance Examples

So, now you can see there really isn’t any mystique surrounding white balance and how to use it. Just match the color of light in your images to the color of light in your scene. Experiment with different settings the next time you are at the park and enjoy capturing images of your children while they are still young!

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