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Setting White Balance

Color accuracy is critical for the work I do. Although I have a lot of flexibility and control in my editing software, it all has to begin with what’s happening with the camera. If I nail the color when I make the image, I make considerably less work for myself. Get it wrong, and I have to spend way too much time trying to make it look right. Color accuracy begins with white balance.

The Auto WB myth

Auto White Balance (WB) is the default setting for all digital cameras. And though the word auto holds a lot of promise, the camera’s Auto WB isn’t the universal balm people would like to think it is. Though Auto WB does occasionally produce decent results, it isn’t the best if you want the highest color accuracy.

Why? Because Auto WB can be fooled. It works by evaluating the colors in a scene and tries to recognize what the light source is. If you’re shooting people wearing a variety of colors on a sunny day, it’ll likely produce an accurate white balance. But if the scene includes subjects or objects that have a strong blue or red color to them, this may lead the camera to believe that the light source is something other than what it is. It may not completely veer to a fluorescent or tungsten, but it may attempt to achieve some sort of “compromise” of color. Often, the result isn’t the best color that your camera could produce.

Though under direct sunlight the Auto WB may offer good general results, in the shade or on cloudy days, I often see images with a slight bluish tint. This tint becomes glaringly obvious when you shoot comparison shots of the scene using the Auto WB and the appropriate preset. Though you may be able to correct the white balance later in Photoshop, it takes only seconds to get it right in camera. How long does it take you to restore accurate color on your computer?

Auto WB isn’t all bad, of course. It may be beneficial when you’re shooting under mixed lighting (for example, tungsten and fluorescent). Instead of switching back and forth between settings, you may want to just hedge your bets with Auto WB and correct for the slight variations later. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s something to be prepared for.

Preset white balance

Often, the best choice is a preset white balance, which is set for a specific color temperature. Each preset on your camera is represented on your camera’s LCD with a symbol. These symbols vary from one camera manufacturer to the next, but they’re commonly a sun (direct sunlight), a cloud (cloudy), a house (shade), a tube (fluorescent), and a bulb (tungsten). With a fixed Kelvin value, the camera can’t be fooled by the different colors that may appear in the scene.

So, if you’re shooting scenes at the beach on a bright sunny day, you’ll choose the direct sunlight WB setting. If you move into the shade of a building to take a portrait, you set your camera to the shade WB setting to avoid the bluish color cast produced by that kind of light.

White balance presets are the best starting point for accurate color. You have to be aware of the lighting before you begin shooting, but you’ll easily and quickly develop this skill. Not only will it help you to get the most accurate color from your images, but it will provide you the knowledge you’ll need when you want to introduce those color casts to your images for creative effect.

I photograph people so often for my work that I’ve become very sensitive to how skin tones are rendered in my photographs, whether in the studio or on the street. The care with which I determine the type of light I’m shooting under with my white balance setting allows me to have a reasonable expectation that the colors I produce in the camera are as accurate a representation of what I experienced as possible. I don’t want to spend unnecessary time trying to fix bad color in software. It’s never as accurate or as good as when I get it right in camera.

Custom white balance

Sometimes you may want to create a custom white balance. For example, if you’re shooting a line of clothing or a new breed of roses for which precise color is important, a custom white balance setting will provide the best results.

You can achieve a custom white balance by taking a photograph of a white or gray surface within the lighting conditions under which you’ll be shooting. The camera then uses this file to establish a precise white balance setting, which you can use for the entirety of the shoot (assuming that the lighting doesn’t change). You may be able to save this setting as a permanent setting in your camera. This option is especially useful for studio photographers whose lighting remains constant.

When measuring a custom white balance off a white or gray card, place your camera in manual focus mode—it won’t be able to focus because of the lack of contrast and detail. Also, fill the frame with the card or surface to ensure that you get accurate results.

Tip

Several manufacturers sell white balance cards to aid you in setting a custom white balance. These cards can save you the time of trying to find a neutral surface. Alternatively, you can use an ExpoDisc, which is a filter that you temporarily place in front of the lens for determining white balance. For color-critical work, these tools can be convenient and effective.


Custom white balance is the best option when you’re photographing in a room with energy-efficient bulbs. There are currently no existing WB presets for these newer light sources. Auto WB may provide you a good overall result for snapshots, but if color is critical and you don’t have the ability to control the lighting otherwise, a custom WB is the best alternative.

Lighting at a performance is both challenging and unpredictable. Auto WB would result in images shifting in color in every way. Locking my white balance to a preset provided more consistency and a common point for refining color later.

Canon 20D | ISO 1600 | f/3.5 @ 1/90th

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