What is white balance? When to change the WB settings on your camera

White balance
(Image credit: Future)

The name ‘White Balance’ is rather confusing but it’s much easier when you think of it in terms of colour temperature. For example, blue light is perceived as cool and warm light as hot. The temperature of natural light isn’t constant, and of course, some artificial light can look warm and others cold. 

Handy kit: lighting

While you will be aware of different light temperatures, it’s also true that the human eye and brain is able to compensate for these changes so we see things more normally. However, a camera isn’t quite as sophisticated and that means that when you take a photo, it’s possible you will get a colour cast that is wrong for the scene.   

White balance presets

Colour temperature is measured in Kelvin, and our cameras have fixed Preset temperatures, known as White Balance Settings. Typically, you’ll have White Balance (WB) Presets such as Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Auto. Auto WB is the setting that’s most like the human brain because it does its best to neutralise unwanted colour casts. That said, Auto WB isn’t always perfect and sometimes you don’t always want to correct a colour bias anyway. 

When it comes to selecting White Balance there are several things that are useful to remember. If you shoot JPEG then getting your White Balance right in-camera is vital, because you have less leeway when it comes to changing it in processing. However, if you shoot raw, then White Balance can be easily altered in any raw conversion, so getting it wrong is less of an issue, but it’s good practice to get it right at the time of shooting.

(Image credit: Future)

Auto white balance

For normal, everyday photography you can use Auto WB. It’s good at correcting colour issues caused by artificial indoor lighting and it’s just one less thing you have to think about. 

But Auto WB isn’t going to get everything right. For example, when shooting a beautiful sunrise or sunset with lots of warm colours in the sky, Auto WB might actually remove the atmosphere and vibrance that is attractive. 

By shooting raw you can restore the correct white balance, but it’s better to keep it in the first place by setting an appropriate White Balance Preset such as Daylight, Cloudy or Shade. 

Daylight WB is the best preset to use in most typical natural lighting situations, as it will generally give you a natural looking colour temperature but be prepared to try other settings too, especially indoors. 

It’s also possible to set a custom white balance manually but most photographers choose not to go to this length, preferring to rely on Presets. A quick way of working out which preset to use is simply to scroll through the different options while viewing the results either through an Electronic Viewfinder or using Live View. This way you can easily judge by eye which White Balance setting looks the most natural.

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Jon Adams

Jon started out as a film-maker, working as a cameraman and video editor before becoming a writer/director. He made corporate & broadcast programmes in the UK and Middle East, and also composed music, writing for TV, radio and cinema. Jon worked as a photographer and journalist alongside this, and took his video skills into magazine publishing, where he edited the Digital Photo magazine for over 15 years. He is an expert in photo editing, video making and camera techniques.