White Balance Blues

If you had asked me a few years ago if I could tell the difference between a photo shot with Auto white balance and one with a specific setting, I would have laughed and said, “No way.” Auto white balance may have its problems, but I didn’t think it was that distinctive to immediately show up in a photograph.

I would have been wrong. While I can’t pick out Auto white balance every time it’s used, I see it frequently in the hundreds of students I work with in classes on the web and around the country—too frequently for it to be a coincidence.

Auto white balance typically gives colors that are neither as good as they should be, nor consistent from frame to frame.

Disadvantages Of Auto White Balance

Here’s the problem: Auto white balance typically gives colors that are neither as good as they should be, nor consistent from frame to frame. Auto white balance is designed to constantly change and adapt to different conditions.

The AWB image of this stream in Sedona, Arizona, definitely looks okay. But it’s not nearly as inviting a photo as the warmer image shot with Cloudy white balance. The rocks and white water of the AWB shot have a blue cast, plus this added blue dilutes the green of the trees in the background.

For example, it doesn’t know the difference between a change in light and a change in your zoom’s focal length. You can go from a wide-angle shot with one set of colors to a telephoto shot that changes the colors. This can be annoying when you have a series of pictures that are supposed to go together, such as your latest trip to a foreign city. Your subjects may have inconsistent color even though nothing changed except that you took a different picture.

The other problem is compromised color. It’s common for Auto white balance to leave a slight blue colorcast to the overall image, especially on cloudy days. This makes grays and other neutral tones bluish, makes the image look cooler than it should be and degrades the saturation of other colors. If you’re shooting sunrise or sunset, you’ll never get the best images from those subjects with Auto white balance.

What About RAW?

At this point, some people are thinking, “I shoot RAW, so this doesn’t matter. I can change the white balance whenever I want to in the computer.” Unfortunately, Auto white balance isn’t so simple.

If you really wanted a cold-looking scene, then the AWB shot of these mountains near Mammoth, California, would be fine. But most people prefer the warmer shot done with Cloudy white balance.

It often doesn’t affect the scene so much that it’s immediately obvious. The image may look “okay.” You may think that the picture is fine. You then live with an image that doesn’t have the best color and doesn’t show off your subject or your photography at its best. I’m not really interested in “okay” results. I want better for my subjects and my photography.

Regardless, if you’re shooting Auto white balance, you’re always needing an extra step in your workflow, namely adjusting white balance. I rarely adjust white balance because I set my camera specifically for the conditions—that locks it in and means one less thing to think about and deal with in the computer.

Taking Control Of White Balance

Setting white balance isn’t hard to do. We all had to learn to choose ƒ-stops, shutter speed and ISO. That’s part of the craft of photography. Setting white balance is also a part of the craft of digital photography.

Radishes in the shade at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. This comparison is dramatic. The reds and greens of the radishes are seriously contaminated with blue in the AWB shot.

You only need to set white balance once for the conditions. You don’t have to keep changing it unless there’s a big change in the conditions. I do pay attention to the review image that comes up on my LCD after the shot. This is a reminder to see if white balance looks correct. This is why I always change my camera’s review time from its usually way-too-short default to about 8 seconds. Press the shutter lightly, and the review turns off at anytime.

There are basically two ways to use your camera’s preset white balance options:

1. Set the white balance to match the conditions. If the sun is out, set white balance to Daylight or Sunny. If it’s cloudy, choose Cloudy. If you’re in the shade, choose Shade. If you’re indoors with incandescent lights, set white balance to Tungsten. If you’re indoors with fluorescents, choose Fluorescent.

2. Set the white balance to modify the conditions. Slide and print films typically made colors a little warmer than what they were in real life (Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” was based on that idea). Many photographers like to warm up images slightly because of this tradition from film, so you may find that sunrise and sunset look best with Cloudy white balance, or that daytime scenes look better with Cloudy white balance.

You won’t get good color if you set your white balance on something that’s not in the same light as your subject.

I have to caution you on the latter. Some cameras simply don’t give the best color when Cloudy is used for sunny days. You have to try it out. You also may find that using the Electronic Flash setting will just give a slight bit of warmth to sunny days, which can enhance your results, too.

You also can use a specific white balance to make the image look cooler. This can be an interesting option if the conditions are right. A photographer friend of mine loves to shoot with the Tungsten setting when he’s shooting during the day. He underexposes slightly to create a unique, cold look.

I’ll use Kelvin and custom white balance settings for certain conditions. Sometimes conditions don’t match any preset white balance setting on your camera. I’ve found that when shooting in the shade high in the mountains, for example, no setting will get rid of the blue. But I can quickly dial in a Kelvin setting to warm up the scene.

The duller carrots photo was shot with AWB; the warmer photo with brighter colors was shot with Shade white balance. Notice how much duller the AWB colors are. Yet if you only saw the AWB photo, you might think the image was “okay.”

If your camera has a Live View setting for the LCD, using the Kelvin setting is easy. Simply look at the LCD as you change the setting and watch as your s
cene gets cooler or warmer until it looks good. In fact, you can use Live View for any change of white balance just to confirm that the colors are appropriate for your needs and the subject.

Using Custom White Balance

With custom white balance, you can lock in a white balance setting based on the exact conditions you’re shooting. Every camera does this a little differently, so you’ll need to check your manual to see how to do it with yours. Basically, a custom setting uses a neutral tone, such as a sheet of white paper or a gray card, to allow the camera to make that neutral tone truly neutral.

Custom white balance helps when you have especially challenging lighting conditions, but be sure you’re checking the white balance of the light that’s hitting your subject. You won’t get good color if you set your white balance on something that’s not in the same light as your subject.

An exception to the rule is that I occasionally use Auto white balance when I’m shooting indoors under varied light sources or when I’m moving between indoor and outdoor conditions as I follow a subject. But mostly, I want better results than Auto white balance consistently will give, so my inclination is
to get in the habit of setting a specific white balance.

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