Light and Color: White Balance Made Easy

by Kerry Drager

Cayucos Pier at Dawn
© Kerry Drager
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The color of light is managed in your digital camera with the setting called white balance (WB). But things can get confusing with the many WB presets and custom settings, so it’s no wonder many digital photographers simply set WB on automatic and forget about fine-tuning. However, in its quest to “balance” things out, auto white balance (AWB) might strip the tones of an amber sunset or a pink sunrise. Or on a bluish day - with snow or fog - you may wish to retain the cool color cast (since cool suggests coldness), but AWB might warm up the light.

Isn’t it better if you make the decision yourself and take control of how your camera renders the colors of light?

Fun Portrait
© Kerry Drager
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One WB setting for most scenes

Many photographers have found that they can get by with one setting most of the time and change WB only in specialty situations. Jim and I both set our camera on a daylight (sunlight) WB setting all day long, from dawn to dusk. We even use it at twilight, where the daylight setting captures the range of colors from the warm golden lighting of buildings to the bold blue of the sky. We feel that the sunlight/daylight setting most consistently reproduces the colors that entice us to take pictures in the first place.

Once in a while - say, in the shade of a sunny day - we might switch off our “default” sunlight setting and go with a warmer setting (shade or cloudy) to tone down the blue. Or, if we’re indoors working with available artificial light (no flash), we may switch to tungsten (incandescent). There are times when AWB has its place, too. It can be a valuable setting in situations with more than one light source, or if you’re quickly moving back and forth between indoors and outdoors.

Of course, if you shoot in raw, you have the ability to easily tweak the WB in the digital darkroom. But getting WB right in the field has a triple advantage:

Coastal Color Pattern
© Kerry Drager
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More thoughts on white balance

- You can shoot a scene in various ways and study what you’ve captured on the back of your camera. Also, many models have a Live View feature that lets you preview the white balance options by toggling through the WB settings and watching the scene as it goes warmer or cooler.

- Sometimes you’ll shoot a subject in which a precise color is crucial - as is often the case with commercial or studio shots. At other times, you simply can’t get the look you want: Perhaps a scene is illuminated by multiple light sources with varying colors. This is where a camera’s custom or preset manual white balance setting comes into play. Not all cameras perform in exactly the same way, so check your camera instruction booklet for the particulars.

- By recognizing the nuances of color and light, and how white balance settings affect your camera’s response to color, you can make more informed and creative decisions in the field, right at the time of shooting. Now, how cool - or hot - is that?

Hat & Serape
© Kerry Drager
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Want more?

This article is adapted from The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light, co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.

About Author Kerry Drager

Author: Kerry  Drager

To learn more about photography, explore the photography classes offered here at BetterPhoto.