Take Better Pictures – Lesson 4 – White Balance

Colour Temperature of Light

White Balance is one of the more complicated digital camera settings to understand.

Simply put, white balance is a measure of the colour temperature of light.

Okay, so maybe that doesn't sound simple! Colour has temperature?!

Why yes, it does. I won't get into the scientific part of this, but the chart demonstrates the colour of light and the corresponding temperature.

So which setting should you use?

For best results, you want to match your WB setting with the temperature of the light.

My advice: Keep things simple, especially if you're shooting outdoors.

If you know approximately what type of light is falling on your subject, use one of your camera pre-sets that is closest to that type of light.

Some common presets are:

  • Daylight (or sunny)
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Florescent
  • Tungsten (or Incandescent)
  • Flash

Use the pre-sets

  • If you are outside and it's bright and sunny, use the Daylight WB setting.
  • If it is overcast, try the Cloudy WB setting.
  • If you don't have a clue, then a good place to start is by using the Auto White Balance setting (AWB), keeping in mind you may have to tweak your colour a bit in an image editing program, to get it looking perfect. 

You can also use a Custom white balance, and I do this when I'm shooting in the studio and exact colour is more critical. I also use custom WB in my YouTube videos. I have a video at the end of this lesson all about Custom WB.

Photographic colour wheel

Warm and Cool

You've probably heard of warm colours and cool colours if you went to art school, do graphic design or even choose paint colours for your own house. Or, perhaps you just know it intuitively. Some people have that built-in sense. The colour wheel here shows the RGB (red, green, blue) and CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) relationships.

Opposite colours on the wheel neutralize each other:

  • red – cyan
  • green – magenta
  • blue – yellow

If your photo has a green cast in it, you can neutralize it by adding magenta. If your photo is too yellow, you can add blue, and so on. You would usually do this adjustment in the photo editing stage.

The camera doesn't know what type of light you are shooting under. 

If you use the Auto white balance (AWB) setting, the camera reads what colours are in the scene and it will try to correct (i.e. neutralize) any large coloured areas of your photo. This can sometimes cause your photo to look a bit off-colour.

For example, if you take a photo of a child sitting on green grass (or green blanket), the AWB may add a bunch of magenta to the colour balance to off-set all the green it senses. Since it affects the whole photo, this will also result in the skin tone changing to more magenta as well. So your child's face may look a bit pinker than usual.

Another situation where Auto can kill your colour is sunsets. What do you think will happen to the colour in your photo when you point your camera at a lovely golden warm sunset while using the Auto WB setting? That's right. It will cool off the colours in your photo and neutralize all that beautiful warmth that drew you to the scene in the first place. For more info, check out this blog post I wrote.

So, to retain the warmth in your sunrise and sunset photos, use the Daylight WB setting. This will force more yellow into your photo.

Your homework

I suggest you do some tests using your various white balance pre-sets, as well as AWB so you can see what happens to the colour of your photos when using different white balance settings.

Example White Balance Tests

The first photo uses Auto WB. It looks okay. But the second one is using Cloudy WB and it is a better match to the lighting conditions, giving better skin tones. The baby's skin was cool in the first one.

Auto White Balance (AWB)

Cloudy White Balance

White Balance Mis-Match

Tungsten White Balance

If you completely mismatch the white balance with the light falling on the subject, strange things may happen.

This last photo is set to Tungsten WB which turns the photo a cool bluish colour in daylight conditions. It's really apparent in the skin tone of our baby.

If you shoot RAW files

If you shoot raw files, your white balance setting doesn't have to be critical.  You can choose your white balance in the editing process and fine tune it using a White Balance grey card.

What about Florescent and LED lights?

It used to be that florescent tubes were always a bit greenish. When I was shooting film I had a magenta filter in my camera bag to neutralize the green if I was shooting daylight film under florescent light.

Nowadays, there are so many varieties of florescent CFL bulbs on the market it is hard to know what the exact temperature is. I'm sure you've heard of warm white, cool white and so on. 

Same goes for LED lights. 

LEDs come in warm and cool tones. But the colour temperature on the package is not always exact. In theory, you can also set your white balance on your camera to exactly match the light, in degrees Kelvin. However, unless you have a colour temperature meter, that still might not be exact. 

So when shooting under florescent or LED lights, you might want to start out with the Auto WB setting, or better yet, set up a Custom WB setting.

Instructions for that are in your camera manual. Or you can watch this video I made about setting up Custom WB.

Further Reading and YouTube videos

Lumix G9 AWB

Auto White Balance settings for Lumix G9 users.

Blog post: https://www.imagemaven.com/lumix-g9-white-balance/

YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIst1ImweuY&t=9s 

White Balance and RAW files

How to get perfect white balance when shooting raw files.


Does your snow turn blue?