Many people leave their camera set to its automatic white balance setting and while it will often give a decent result, there are many occasions when a different setting will produce a better image. Our guide to white balance explains all you need to know.

White Balance explained: What is white balance?

Different light sources emit light of different colours but our brains do a great job of interpreting the information gathered by our eyes so that we don’t see a strong colour cast. Digital cameras, however, need to be told the type of light being used before they can make colours look right. This information, which enables the camera to make whites look white, is called the white balance.

White Balance explained: What is automatic white balance?

A camera’s automatic white balance system attempts to replicate the work done by our brains with the colour information from our eyes and to keep colours looking as they should. It does this by analysing the colours in an image, particularly the brighter areas, and trying to make the highlights white.

Modern automatic white balance (AWB) systems are very good, but they don’t get everything right. When the sunlight is very warm during sunset, for example, they tend to produce a more neutral image than we see. Conversely, in shaded conditions the AWB setting can result in images that look cool.

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White Balance explained: which white balance to use?

If you take a look at the white balance options available on your camera you’ll find settings such as ‘Daylight’, ‘Cloudy’, Shade’, ‘Fluorescent’ and ‘Incandescent’. Using one of these calibrates the camera to produce natural looking colours (and white whites) in the titular lighting conditions.

The Daylight or Sunny white balance setting is a good choice of setting for images taken in natural lighting conditions. In many instances this setting works well in shaded and cloudy conditions, better than the specific Shade and Cloudy white balance settings which tend to produce excessively warm images that have a orange cast.

White Balance explained: How is white balance measured?

White balance is measured in Kelvin (K), a temperature measurement often referred to as a colour temperature. This stems from the fact that a blackbody emits light it’s heated and the light changes from warm orange/amber tones to blue as the temperature increases. When the blackbody is around 5000-6500K it emits light with a similar colour to daylight.

The ‘Daylight’, ‘Cloudy’, Shade’, ‘Fluorescent’ and ‘Incandescent’ settings are actually preset Kelvin values. Most cameras also let you set specific Kelvin values so you can adjust the appearance of images to the conditions and/or your preference.

White Balance explained: How do you set manual white balance?

The way that you set manual white balance differs a little from camera to camera but the basic principle is the same. The first step is to set the camera to the manual white balance setting mode, then you need to photograph a white or neutral grey subject (such as a photographer’s grey card) in same light as your subject. Next you usually need to confirm that you want the white balance setting to the value the camera has calculated. From this point on the camera will use the white balance that you set whenever it’s in Manual white balance mode. If the lighting conditions change, you need to set the manual white balance again.

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White Balance explained: When do you use manual white balance?

You can use a manual white balance setting for any situation you like, but every time the lighting changes, you need to reset it.

Manual white balance control is very useful for any occasion when a preset value doesn’t give you the result you want. It can be very useful in mixed lighting conditions but you need to take care to ensure that the white balance target is in the same light as the most important part of the scene.

White Balance explained: why shoot raw files?

Raw files contain much more colour data than jpegs and this means that they make a better choice for post capture white balance adjustment. Raw file editors like Adobe Camera Raw allow you to make an automatic adjustments to white balance or select preset values. It’s also possible to adjust the white balance along a Kelvin scale running from blue to yellow as well as use a tint scale running from green to magenta.