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How To Use Your Camera's White Balance Mode

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Category: Digital Camera Operation

Beginner's Guide To White Balance Mode - Learn how to make the most of your digital camera's white balance mode to ensure accurate colour in all lighting situations.

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Article updated December 2011.

Words & Pictures Peter Bargh

Most of us enjoy shooting a sunrise or sunset, capturing the beautiful orange colours generated, but you probably haven't noticed that the colour of light also changes throughout the day too. This is because our eyes and brain adjust to the changes and make everything seem okay. Similarly when going indoors to an artificially lit room the colour changes, but, once again, our eyes adapt.

However, cameras, even though auto white balance now tends to perform well on most models, can record a colour cast. This may be orange at sunrise/sunset, which we accept, blue in the shade on a bright day, yellow under light from household lamps, green in offices lit with fluorescent lighting and so on.

White Balance (WB) mode

Before digital photography photographers had to fumble with colour correction filters when shooting inside under artificial light, or mess around with lighting gels and long exposures when using studio tungsten lighting. Using flash helped overcome these problems, but it still sometimes introduced a blue colour cast. However, with digital cameras their processing chip can detect the colour of light and automatically adjust to ensure whites come out white. This is called the white balance (WB) mode
But like autofocusing and autoexposure the auto white balance can be fooled. There are times when it will compensate necessarily, especially when you want a colour cast on purpose, for example, a sunset, the glow of candlelight or when coping the faded page of an ancient manuscript. Or when the subject is predominantly one colour. In these cases most cameras have a set of preset white balance settings. Some also a full manual option where you either key in the Kelvin value or point the camera at a white reference so it can adjust the whole scene based on the colour it sees.

You can change your camera's white balance options in its menu system. Take a look at your manual if you're unsure where the white balance options are.

 White balance
 White balance menu
The Samsung NX200's Menu where you can select the White Balance options.

Of course, you don't have to adjust your images. Some photographers like the unusual look not adjusting the white balance correctly gives them. Photographers who work in fashion for example, sometimes feature a blue tint on their photographs and adding blue to graveyard shots gives a spooky effect.

Lets look at the options most cameras have and what happens when you set these in daylight. This shot of the flower was taken on an overcast day and the various modes were selected one by one.

Using your camera's white balance mode Using your camera's white balance mode Using your camera's white balance mode
Auto Cloudy Daylight Sunny
Using your camera's white balance mode Using your camera's white balance mode Using your camera's white balance mode
Flash Fluorescent White Balance Preset
Using your camera's white balance mode Using your camera's white balance mode  
Shade Tungsten or Incandescent  

Auto should get the photograph correct, and on this overcast day the light was slightly blue so it's done a decent job, but what if you had set overcast manually? The camera's processing adjusts by adding yellow to counteract the blue. In this case by too much. The third shot, daylight sunny, has assumed the temperature is 5500K and has produced a really bright punchy white flower, but it's a little too bright for our liking. Flash would normally throw out a slightly cold light so the camera, in the flash white balance mode pops a bit of magenta in to reduce the blue. Fluorescent lighting produces a green hue and the necessary optical correction filter is a magenta, in the digital white balance world the purple colour is just too much.

Now for the reason why it's worth setting cameras up manually - the white balance preset. When selected, this mode asks you to point at white in the scene and press the shutter so it can read the colour value and compensate accordingly. Like the cloudy shot the colour is almost spot on, but the white is just that bit more brilliant in the manual option.

The shade preset has assumed the light is very blue and compensated with too much yellow and, lastly, the Tungsten option throws the equivalent of an 80A blue filter at the picture resulting in the horrible blue cast.

With digital cameras a slight colour cast can be corrected easily using the colour balance or hue adjustments, but it's better to have the shot correct in the first place so now you can use your white balance setting with a little more knowledge.



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Comments

jia10
jia10  5
13 Feb 2009 - 10:30 AM

Thank you for your article. I am, however, still a little confused by the distinction between AWB, WB presets (e.g. "cloudy" etc.) and manual Kelvin settings. For example, you say that there are times when AWB will compensate necessarily, when you particularly want a colour cast, say to reproduce the warm tones in a sunset. But my understanding of AWB is that it tries to render the final exposure to mimic what the scene might have looked like under midday sun. Therefore, setting the camera to AWB for a sunset would effectively boost the blue end of the spectrum and attenuate the red end of the spectrum, thereby reducing the warm colours you specifically want to catch?

My question is what would happen if the Kelvin setting was set to say 2000K when shooting a sunset? I expect that you would get something very similar to setting it to AWB, if the camera correctly measure the ambient light temperature as 'low' and adjust accordingly to expose for a light temperature nearer 5000-6500K. In this case, if you want to actually reproduce the warm tones in a sunset, you might be better off using the Daylight WB preset, so that the warm tones in the scene are retained and not attenuated by correction. Similarly, if you want to warm up a scene in daylight conditions, you might set the camera to the "Cloudy" WB preset, so that the few low colour temperatures in the scene are amplified?

This all seems rather counterintuitive to me. I appreciate that the camera is trying to reproduce scenes so that the colours we perceive are maintained in the photo, e.g. white on a cloudy day still appears white to our eyes, as our brains adapt for the existing contrast levels to maintain colour constancy. But then again, we do actually see the warm tones in a sunset, and skin tones do not appear that normal to us under sunset, but naturally warmer, and it seems that WB is always 'acting' against our actual perception in situations such as these?

Jose

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13 Feb 2009 - 1:38 PM

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jia10
jia10  5
13 Feb 2009 - 1:38 PM

Thank you for your article. I am, however, still a little confused by the distinction between AWB, WB presets (e.g. "cloudy" etc.) and manual Kelvin settings. For example, you say that there are times when AWB will compensate necessarily, when you particularly want a colour cast, say to reproduce the warm tones in a sunset. But my understanding of AWB is that it tries to render the final exposure to mimic what the scene might have looked like under midday sun. Therefore, setting the camera to AWB for a sunset would effectively boost the blue end of the spectrum and attenuate the red end of the spectrum, thereby reducing the warm colours you specifically want to catch?

My question is what would happen if the Kelvin setting was set to say 2000K when shooting a sunset? I expect that you would get something very similar to setting it to AWB, if the camera correctly measure the ambient light temperature as 'low' and adjust accordingly to expose for a light temperature nearer 5000-6500K. In this case, if you want to actually reproduce the warm tones in a sunset, you might be better off using the Daylight WB preset, so that the warm tones in the scene are retained and not attenuated by correction. Similarly, if you want to warm up a scene in daylight conditions, you might set the camera to the "Cloudy" WB preset, so that the few low colour temperatures in the scene are amplified?

This all seems rather counterintuitive to me. I appreciate that the camera is trying to reproduce scenes so that the colours we perceive are maintained in the photo, e.g. white on a cloudy day still appears white to our eyes, as our brains adapt for the existing contrast levels to maintain colour constancy. But then again, we do actually see the warm tones in a sunset, and skin tones do not appear that normal to us under sunset, but naturally warmer, and it seems that WB is always 'acting' against our actual perception in situations such as these?

Jose

Last Modified By jia10 at 13 Feb 2009 - 1:39 PM
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