Setting Your Camera’s White Balance

White Balance Illustration

Setting Your Camera’s White Balance

Manually Set Your White Balance For Accurate Color

I generally recommend that photographers shoot in RAW mode which means that you can easily set your white balance in post as if you had done it in the field. But that does mean that you spend (waste) time in post when you could have easily done the right thing in camera.

I have come to a point in my life where I realize that I would just rather get things right in camera. I prefer my finger on the shutter button as opposed to a mouse button. So now I almost always try to set my white balance according to the conditions I am shooting in.

Let’s quickly discuss what white balance is all about.

Nearly all cameras (from the most basic “point & shoot” to the most advanced DSLR) come with the ability to set white balance. It’s usually found either in the camera’s menu system, on the camera – in the form of a button often marked “WB”, or both.

Here are the typical choices found on most modern cameras. Not all will be important to all photographers, but I will list them here anyway.

  • Auto – The Auto setting helps in adjusting the white balance automatically according to the different lighting conditions.
  • Tungsten – This mode is used for light under a little bulb like tungsten, and it is often used while shooting indoors. The tungsten setting of the digital camera cools down the color temperature in photos.
  • Fluorescent – This mode is used for getting brighter and warmer shots while compensating for cool shade of fluorescent light.
  • Daylight (also called Direct Sunlight or Sunny) – This mode is for the normal daylight setting, while shooting outdoors.
  • Cloudy – This mode is great when shooting on a cloudy day. This is because it warms up the subject and surroundings and allows you to capture better shots.
  • Flash – The flash mode is required when there is inadequate lighting available. This mode helps pick the right White Balance under low light conditions.
  • Shade – A shaded location generally produces cooler or bluer pictures. You use this setting to warm up the surroundings while shooting shaded objects.
  • Manual – This mode allows you to set your camera to a very specific color temperature. The kelvin is a unit of measure for temperature based upon an absolute scale. It is one of the seven base units in the International System of Units (SI) and is assigned the unit symbol K. I won’t get into a deep discussion on this system since it is beyond the scope of a basic blog post like this.
Eagle Photo by Scott Bourne With Auto White Balance
Auto White Balance

While selecting the appropriate white balance requires more thought than setting your camera to Auto White Balance (AWB,) it’s worth the effort. This will deliver photos that have the same general color tones in any sequence of images shot under identical conditions.

There are three WB modes that will impact most photographers. If you are making photographs on a cloudy day, set your WB to “cloudy.” Then forget about WB until the sun comes out or the clouds disappear. Likewise, if you are shooting on a sunny day, set your WB to “daylight” until it gets cloudy. If you are shooting in open shade set your WB to “shady.”

Eagle Photo by Scott Bourne With Manual White Balance
Manual (Correct) White Balance

There is one other application of manual WB that I want to mention. If you want to (for artistic reasons) trick the camera into making an image that offers colors which are bluer than normal then use the “shady” or “tungsten” WB even when shooting in sunlight. And you can also set your WB to “daylight” or “fluorescent” when you want to purposely warm up a photo.

Manually set the white balance that is appropriate for the lighting conditions you are working with. This will help you achieve much more consistent color in your photographs and help you avoid doing extra work in post.

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4 Responses

  1. Hi Scott,
    Great reminder about white balance. Couple of questions:
    I see you shoot eagle pics in the snow often, do you still set the white balance based on the sky, or something else when the ground is covered in bright snow? I know I need to add exposure compensation, but I get random different tints when I shoot snow pics, and I can never seem to get a pure white snow, nice blue sky, etc.
    Second question, do you typically just use one of the preset options, or do you ever use the grey card?

    1. Hi Jeff I think you are mixing up a few things – exposure compensation has only to do with exposure – not white balance. When shooting eagles I usually shoot manual and set my exposure based on holding details in the white feathers. As long as the light doesn’t change, everything else falls into place. As for the presets – I often just rely on the presets and in studio might use a grey card but never in the field. Too much to keep track of, carry and mess with in a fast-paced environment like eagle photography.

      If you are shooting aperture or shutter priority your snow will turn white if you usually add about two stops exposure comp. But again – this isn’t a function of white balance. You can add exposure compensation and if your white balance is off – you will still have oddly colored snow.

      I hope this helps.

      1. I guess throwing the question of exposure comp in relation to white balance was overly complicated for the discussion, I get it that it’s two different things.

        What I read of the above is even when it’s snowy, you adjust white balance based on the sky (Sunny, Cloudy, Shady, etc) and then expose for the feathers, which usually takes around +2 of exposure comp. Thanks

      2. Hi Jeff – What I wrote is hopefully what you read. 🙂


        (And in case anyone else is confused – it’s best to separate the discussion about exposure and white balance. Exposure has nothing whatsoever to do with white balance. And white balance has nothing whatsoever to do with exposure. I hope this helps.)

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