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How to “Tame” the White Balance on Your Digital Camera

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White balance is a photography setting that many photographers have heard of but rarely use. Yet it is a simple and helpful tool not only to make your colour images look better, but also to give them an additional creative sparkle. As you might have already guessed, we are talking not about brightness or darkness of your photos, but about colours. We prepared this short guide to help you better understand white balance on your digital camera, and to use it in your photography for stunning results.

While photographing, we deal with different sources of light. Natural light comes from the sun and can be direct or indirect, in the shade or under a cloudy covering. On the other hand, artificial light comes from all sorts of light sources: the most common ones are tungsten light bulbs, fluorescent lights, candlelight, LED lights, along with many others. Each of these light sources has its own colour cast (or temperature): some of them look “cooler” (bluish or greenish) and others look “warmer” (yellowish, orange or reddish). While our eyes are quite good at adjusting to different types of light, our cameras may sometimes need a little help to get the correct colours. This is where the white balance setting comes into play.

White Balance Sample

The White balance setting on your camera helps you keep the colours in your image as accurate as possible, to ensure for example that white looks white. This setting is particularly important if you are shooting in JPG format since there is not much that can be done in post-processing if the colours do not look right. In RAW format, white balance is easily adjustable while converting the files without any loss of quality. Bearing this in mind, even when shooting in RAW, keeping the white balance as accurate as possible in camera will save you some post-processing time later.

The most common white balance settings are:

  • Auto: usually cameras are pretty good at guessing and will give you accurate colours in your photos. Definitely a good start for beginners and professionals alike.
  • Daylight: well adapted for good weather days and often very similar to Auto mode.
  • Shade: anything photographed in the shade tends to have a slightly bluish cast, so Shade WB will warm it up by adding a bit of yellow. 
  • Cloudy: on an overcast day, everything looks dull and cold. White balance set to Cloudy will warm it up. It is quite similar to Shade WB, only with a slightly different hue.
  • Tungsten: good to use with regular light bulbs, both indoors and outdoors after the sun goes down. Cools down the orange cast and makes faces look more natural.
  • Fluorescent: warms up the usual greenish cast of fluorescent lighting.
  • Flash: if you use on-camera flash, it may provide some bluish tones to your image. Use this WB to warm up the colours by adding a touch of magenta.
  • Custom: when you need to be very precise about the white balance in your image and the pre-set options do not work for you.

White balance can also be used for a creative effect: by intentionally setting a different WB than what the ambient light calls for, you can add a particular mood to your images. 

Here are some ideas to start:

  • Setting WB to Cloudy or Shade on a sunny day will add some extra warmth to sandstone architecture and will make images more appealing;
  • Play with white balance during night photography. In cities, the light from street lamps often makes the sky look orange, especially on a cloudy day. Using Tungsten WB will reduce the orange cast in the sky and make the lights look more white, therefore more natural. It will also enhance the sky during the 'blue hour' by making it deeper. However, if you prefer the warmer look of the lights, choose to leave your camera on Auto or even try the Cloudy WB instead.

White Balance at Sacre Coeur

The best way to get to know your camera and its White Balance settings is to try them out. Here’s a simple exercise: take a few images of the same scene with different white balance settings and notice the difference immediately. Now it’s up to you to choose the one that appeals to you most and share your creative results with us.

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.