White Balance; What it is and what it does. A blog entry for my mom...

May 21, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Understanding White Balance and what it means for your photography.

Before we even start,

DISCLAIMER: This is a very ‘light’ and ‘practical’ rundown on white balance/color/temperature lighting information.  There are literally books and books written on this subject.  We’re presenting this info for people who are not professional photographers, but would like to get some info from the pros about how to make their own photos at home better.

Therefore, we’re going to try…(keyword there TRY)…to make this as easy to understand for the “average Joe/Jane” out there instead of getting bogged down in color theory, the electromagneticradiographicspectrumthinggy, or anything else that would cause our own moms to become confused, when all she really wants to know is how to take better pictures!

We’re about to start talking about something that is akin to sorcery and magic in an esoteric sense.

Hold on to your hats.  Get something to drink.  Let us know if we lose you at any point!  We’ll be happy to try explain it again and again…It can be some complicated stuff…(Even for some “pro” photographers…)

White Balance simply put, is how your digital camera sees color and how it relates to the actual colors that your eye sees before/during/after you make a photograph using a digital camera.

We could get all technical and talk about wavelengths in the light spectrum and how those translate into temperature and all that…

You would begin to snore and then decide to go see what deals there are on lenses on Craigslist…(I wouldn’t blame you.)

Your camera has a number of presets to help it adjust for the situation that you’re shooting in.  First, you’ll want to consult your camera’s manual as to how to adjust your camera’s white balance.  It’s usually done by holding down a button that has “WB” marked, or going into a menu marked “White Balance”.

By doing this you can change the way the camera “sees color” or rather the tones it will add/subtract to the image automatically to make it look more ‘realistic’.

Let’s try and talk briefly about the “color” and temperature within photography.  Literally, millions of words have been written to describe color theory and if you want to understand more about that, then google is your friend.  I am however trying to not bore you to death and teach you a few “tricks of the trade” from the inside.  Therefore, I’m going to try and keep it simple.

Red/Yellow/Orange = Warm Tones.

Blue/Green/Grey = Cool Tones.

These light sources can be expressed in an actual temperature scale within the Kelvin scale of temperature.

What you really need to know is Daylight/Sunlight = 5600’ Kelvin.


Therefore, if you are shooting under fluorescent lights, try and find out if they are “daylight balanced” meaning the light they give off is equal to sunlight/daylight.  If so, don’t use your fluorescent white balance setting for a natural look, use the sunlight/daylight setting and you’ll be happy you did!

See, that was fairly scientific but hopefully we didn’t manage to lose anyone in it!

(If you want to really get crazy about the science of color... Here's a great wiki article to start with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_temperature

Now, moving on to the actual White Balance settings most commonly found on a variety of cameras.  If your camera doesn’t have one of these, don’t worry.  Some manufacturers include them and some done.  Then again at Ikon Photographs LLC, we generally shoot RAW format images where White Balance isn’t as much of an issue. (See the note at the end of the explanation of all the modes for the “why” behind this aspect.)


These common white balance settings generally are:

AWB  or AUTO WB– Auto White Balance (This lets the camera select the best option for what it “sees” or “senses”. The camera will then try to choose an average balanced setting between any variances in light sources.  Sometimes this works and other times it doesn’t.  That’s why it’s important to understand how white balance works, so that you don’t end up with a photograph of Godzilla and King Kong where Godzilla's face is all nice and orange/brown and King Kong's face is all grey and blue when they’re right next to each other in a photo.)

Daylight – (This generally is for outside with plenty of sun. The camera’s computer will add warm tones to the image.)

Cloudy – (This is generally for outside with not a lot of sun i.e. overcast or cloudy.  Again, the camera will try to warm things up.)

Shade – (When you’re in shaded light outside…Not direct sunlight and not cloudy.  The camera will add warm tones to compensate for the cool shades already in the image.)

Tungsten – Tungsten lights give off a warm tone naturally.  This is seen as being a bit orange.  To compensate, the camera will add cool/bluish tones to things. (When you are around old fashioned incandescent light bulbs, this is the light it gives off…In the coming years this will be less and less of a concern as we transition to compact fluorescent bulbs.)

Fluorescent – The camera will add warmer reddish tones to counter the bluish/green tones that the Fluorescent (When you are shooting around fluorescent lights.  Unless they are daylight balanced…-We’ll talk about that later…)

Flash – Flashes tend to give a cool blue/white light unless you have put a gel over them.  Therefore, the camera will add warmer orange/reddish tones to the image.  (When you are shooting with an on camera or off camera flash.)

Custom – (When you want to give your images a certain look, or when you might be trying to compensate for mixed lighting in an indoors or even outdoors situation).

Here’s something worth noting.  If you shoot in RAW format, white balance isn’t as much of a concern initially!  Why is that?  It is because in RAW format, your camera only records shutter, ISO, and aperture settings.  Everything can be set arbitrarily in post processing.  However, most “normal” i.e. non-professional shooters shoot in JPEG format.  Getting the white balance is even more important, because in JPEG, there is very little one can do after you make a photograph to edit/change the white balance.  Therefore, we want to get it right the first time!

So what is the difference?

The following images were shot in their "native" white balance location.  Then we proceeded to shoot an extra image, each with one of the white balance presets that the camera (in this instance a Nikon D700) in order to demonstrate exactly HOW the camera applies the corresponding tones and how much it can drastically alter the color scheme of your images.

Here's a photo of our intrepid explorer pal, (Let's call him Spaceman Spiff...We're big Calvin and Hobbes fans...) He's standing in a nice room lit by old school tungsten (incandescent) light.  We thus have our camera set to the "lightbulb/tungsten" setting.  If you notice, all the colors look nice and "normal" the tones appear pretty standard.

We then set the White Balance to the "sun" setting...and now Spaceman Spiff has the space blues. :( 

We then set our White Balance Mode to "fluorescent" which adds a lot of orange/yellow to the scene.

Setting our Spaceman Spiff Phasers to "FLASH" we see things get all bluish white to compensate for the white hot nature of a camera's flash.

With things set to the "Cloudy" white balance mode, we can see things really orange/red in an attempt to compensate for the lack of 'warm light' and the light being a bit grey/blue.  


Here we find Spaceman Spiff in the food and water bowl of a monsterous beast about to consume all in it's path.  Spiff is standing also in fluorescent light, and we thus have set our camera to the fluorescent setting thus making the light and colors look fairly "natural" for a most unnatural scene about to occur!

Here Spiff is under the setting of an incandescent bulb in the White Balance Mode.  You can see that the colors have changed drastically from what it is supposed to be.  The "original" coloration of the fluorescent light being a "bluish" with the applied "orange/red" have now rendered the scene with a greenish cast by using the incandescent setting.

Here Spiff is basking in the orange glow of a "Sunny" White Balance Mode.  You can see just how much orange/yellow the processor of the camera adds to the image to try to render it into a "sunlight" mode.

Here the white/blue coloration of the flash setting renders the color a little clear.  We can see that a more "natural" cast is almost rendered, but it's still off a bit.

Then comes the red of adding the "cloudy" setting to the camera's white balance processor.  

Sunny Side up for Spaceman Spiff! 

Incandescent Setting

Fluorescent Setting

Flash Setting

Cloudy Setting


Incandescent Setting

Fluorescent Setting

Flash Setting

Sunny Setting


Next time, we'll take all this white balance knowledge, and show you how to apply it to set your own custom white balance, or how to keep things from getting all funky looking in mixed lighting conditions! 

Thanks for reading and remember "Get the shot, no matter what!" 



David and Sabrina along with the rest of the IP gang! 


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