Digital Photography Tip: An Introduction to White Balance – Part II

March 15, 2013

Digital Photography Tip: An Introduction to White Balance – Part II

In our Part I post, we described what white balance is. But again, quickly, white balance is the system in your camera that ensures that colors, and especially whites, are rendered correctly in your images.

But now that we know what it is, how exactly do we use the camera’s white balance settings? How do we know which preset to use? That’s what we’ll talk about in this post.

Most cameras feature a number of different white balance setting to choose from. The tricky part comes in picking the right one.

The three photos below were taken at different white balance settings. The white balance settings are, from top to bottom: incandescent, fluorescent bulb and shade.

white balance


The good news is that the automatic white balance setting (AWB) does a good job of getting the colors in your photos correct most of the time. AWB is usually the default setting, but if it isn’t on your camera, switch it there. It will serve you well in many situations.

But, like all automatic setting, AWB can be fooled. That’s why camera manufactures have also provided you with some preset options. The number of presets available varies from camera to camera. Here are some of the common ones. But keep in mind, as you are reading these descriptions and the intended purpose of each mode that it’s up to you. There are no rules here, so experiment and play and see what looks good to you.

Automatic: In automatic white balance (AWB), the camera chooses the best white balance for the scene in the viewfinder. It does a good job most of the time, but isn’t foolproof.

Incandescent/Tungsten: This mode is usually denoted with a small light bulb. This mode is for use when shooting indoors under light from a standard household light bulb.

Fluorescent: This mode is usually represented by a small rectangular fluorescent tube. This mode is for use when shooting in the lighting from fluorescent tubes and bulbs. Since fluorescent light is ‘cool’, this mode adds orange or magenta to the scene to warm up your shots.

Sun/Daylight: This setting is denoted by a small sun. This setting is intended for shooting outdoors in the open sunlight where the sun is your primary light source.

Cloudy: This mode is represented as a small bunch of clouds and is for use when you are shooting under a cloudy sky, when your light source is the sun, but it’s being diffused through clouds. BTW, I also like using this mode in direct sunlight because it casts a warmer color than the Sun/Daylight mode.

Shade: This mode is usually represented by an icon that shows a house casting a shadow. This mode is for use when you are shooting in a shaded area, where the sunlight is not direct. Indirect sunlight tends to be very cool and blue, so this mode warms up your shots.

Okay, so now we can see how the different presets are supposed to be used. And, that’s great, but sometimes it can be fun to set the white balance wrong and see what happens. Using the white balance setting creatively allows you to selectively add warmth or coolness to an scene. It’s up to you.

But, what if you just get it wrong? What if you or the camera mess it up and your image ends up with a distinct blue or orange cast? Well, the good news is that you can usually fix that in image editing software. We’ll talk about that mode in our Part III post…

For Further Reading…

What is White Balance?

Choosing the Best White Balance

Color by Kelvin: A Better Approach to White Balance

How To Get The Perfect White Balance Every Time

Photos Too Blue? Your White Balance Might Be To Blame

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