Cheat sheet: White balance presets

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White balance is one of those settings that you can leave the camera to figure out on its own, and never really worry about it. And indeed, that's what many photographers end up doing.

If you never change it and you're happy with the kind of results you get, you may wonder why you even need to adjust it at all. It pays to understand what options you have at your disposal, however, particularly if you ever shoot under artificial lighting.

First, before we examine what options you have, let's quickly run over what white balance is.

What is white balance?

Let's say you're standing outside on an overcast day, and you're looking at an object you consider to be white. Now you take that object inside and it still looks white to you, despite the fact that you may be viewing it under a completely different kind of lighting, such as tungsten.

The human visual system adapts to these changes automatically so that it maintains something called colour constancy. It's not something you realise is happening – but it happens all the time.

What's changed between the two conditions is the light, and with it colour temperature of the scene as a whole. An overcast day is a good example of a reasonably neutral light, whereas the kind of light you get from a tungsten bulb is a warmer yellowy orange.

Your camera's Auto white balance system notices these changes and constantly adjusts itself to produce the right results, but sometimes it get its wrong. Some situations are harder than others to judge, be it because of what's in the scene itself or the type of lighting present, or both.

Some artificial lights, particularly fluorescent sources, are very different in nature to others, and there are many different varieties within these categories. Many Auto white balance systems struggle to get things right here, and this can lead to strange colour casts.

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In such situations, setting your camera to a preset such as Fluorescent can help. Here, you're telling the camera exactly what it's dealing with so that it doesn't need to judge the scene for itself and risk getting it wrong.

Your camera will also have presets for natural light, such as Daylight or Cloudy. Although an accurate Auto setting might mean you may not feel you need to use these, if you're shooting for a prolonged period of time in one environment, setting the camera to one of these options can be a good idea as it will help to keep things consistent from shot to shot.

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Most cameras also typically offer a handful of extra settings. 'K' lets you instruct the camera on the conditions, not by the type of lighting you're using but numerically, over a scale known as the Kelvin scale. This is how colour temperature is measured and it lets you make very small adjustments for precision. 

This is no different in principle to the above options. In fact, all the preset settings such as Cloudy or Tungsten are nothing more than a setting somewhere along this scale.

Another 'Custom' option might let you capture an image of a neutral target and use that as your preset. This is great as it means your camera gets the most accurate idea possible of what a neutral target should look like in the specific conditions in which you find yourself. Just remember to stop using this setting if your conditions change, as you might see some strange results!

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