WHITE BALANCE: WHAT IT IS AND HOW DO I USE IT?
At my Photography Essentials Workshop we often find that when people start taking photos in the practical session, they have no trouble getting the aperture and shutter speed right…but their colours come out all wrong. It only takes a moment to see that their White Balance setting is wrong. Why did they choose that setting? “I don’t know, someone else told me I should use that,” or “I just fiddled around with everything when I bought the camera…didn’t even know I had done it!”
So what is White Balance, why is it important to get it right, and what is the best setting to use?
The light we see comes in different colours depending on the circumstances. Midday daylight can be very white, while early morning and late afternoon sunlight can be much warmer in tone. Light in the forest can be quite blue/green. Flourescent light is very green, and old-fashioned tungsten light bulbs produce a reddish/yellow light.
Yet if we were to follow a person dressed in white around for a whole day, their white clothes would continue to appear white regardless of the light source. Our eyes and brains are very good at adjusting for different types of light so we see the same essential colour balance in most situations.
White Balance on a camera is designed to mimic this effect. Your camera applies a coloured digital ‘filter’ to a photo depending on the white balance chosen. So in the forest where the light is quite blue/green in tone, the camera applies an orange filter to counteract the light source and restore the balance…hence the term ‘White Balance.’
It’s a good idea in theory, but most photographers agree it doesn’t always work so well in practice. If I set my White Balance to ‘shade’ when in the shade, my photos are often too orange. If I set it to ‘Daylight’ when out in the open, my photos often come out too yellow. There is no Sunset’ white balance setting, but if I am set to ‘Daylight’ at sunset my photos often come out too blue.
Not to mention the fact that this approach to White Balance, even if it worked perfectly, would require me to change the setting every time I went from indoors to outdoors, or from sunlight into shadow. It’s a nuisance we can all do without.
So here is the good news. There is one more setting in your White Balance range, and it’s called AWB – Auto White Balance. This is where the camera takes the situation into account and adjusts the colour balance itself without requiring you to choose a setting. And you know what…it does a pretty good job 99% of the time.
For me, White Balance is a ‘set and forget’ setting on the camera. I encourage my students to set their camera to AWB and leave it there. One less thing to thing about!
Oh and one final point. If you shoot in RAW your White Balance is fully adjustable when you are processing the photo on the computer later. So even after you take the photo in AWB, you still have the option to fine-tune your colours as you edit.