Get better color in your photos

The sky turned orange before the storm hit. It was freaky. Wanted to take a picture but my iPhone didn’t pick up the color!

This quote came from Twitter, but it talks about a problem that many people have when taking digital photographs – you don’t get the color of the scene as you saw it.

Understand white balance and get better color!

Most people keep their cameras and their camera phones set on Auto White Balance (AWB), which works okay most of the time. AWB measures the light reflected from your subject. But to get the best color you need to set your white balance to capture the color temperature of the light falling on the subject.

If you set your camera on AWB, most cameras want to make the color neutral

If there is predominant amount of one color, such as orange, like in a sunset or wild storm, then the camera thinks, “Whoa, too much orange, we need to neutralize that.” The camera doesn’t know what type of light you are shooting in, it just sees orange. So when AWB is active, it tries to correct that “bad” color, and the result is that the orange gets neutralized, and lost.

Here are a couple of examples

Auto WB neutralizes much of the warmth in this photo

Using Daylight WB keeps the warm colors

Common white balance settings on digital cameras

  • daylight – sunny
  • daylight – cloudy
  • shade
  • flash
  • fluorescent
  • tungsten – incandescent

How do you get better color?

To keep a sunset looking warm, use the Daylight white balance setting. And as a general rule, choose the white balance setting that best matches the light in your scene. If you are using a camera phone, you may not be able to change the WB. In that case you may be stuck with what you get. There are some iPhone apps out there now to help adjust the color. This is one I found recently called Camera+. Right now it’s only 99 cents!

Try this exercise

  1. Take a solid brightly coloured towel or blanket. Something bright green or bright pink
  2. Place it in the daylight. Perhaps outside in the sun or inside near a window. Make sure the cloth is evenly lit. No shadows!
  3. Fill your whole viewing frame with the coloured area.
  4. Photograph it using the auto white balance setting and using proper exposure.
  5. Now photograph it using daylight white balance.
  6. You can shoot in the shade too, just be sure to use the shade WB setting.

Look at the photos on your computer, preferably with a color calibrated monitor, and you should see the difference. The one shot under daylight should match better than the one using auto white balance.

You can have fun with White Balance

Take things a step further and try out different white balance settings on your regular photos. Check out these examples:

Daylight WB – Normal colour

Tungsten WB – bluish colour

Florescent WB – pinkish colour

So you can see from the examples that adjusting the white balance can produce some interesting and unusual effects! Experiment so you can learn what happens to the color when you shift the white balance. It’s actually quite fun!

Beyond the Basics: Setting up Custom White Balance

You can also do in-camera custom white balance setups. Here’s a video to help you with that.


Adjusting white balance is part of your creative process

There are tools to help you get perfect neutral white balance, and I use those when shooting corporate projects, or use them as starting points. Don’t feel your white balance needs to be perfectly neutral all of the time. Understand it so you can use it to express mood and emotion in your photography.

AND some new cameras do a fantastic job in AWB. I’ve had great results with my Lumix GH3 camera! So don’t give up on AWB in all situations. Especially outdoors.


By the way if you shoot raw files it doesn’t matter what white balance your camera is set on. You can adjust the WB in post processing like I did with the image above. You can also customize your WB easier if you shoot raw files. You might also want to check out this video tutorial on custom white balance.

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