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Beginner’s Corner – What in the world is White Balance?

by Charlie MacPherson– 

If you’re just starting out in photography – or perhaps just getting more serious about improving your images – you’ll come across a lot of confusing term.  One of them is White Balance.

Get it right and your images look just as you would expect.  Get it wrong and you’ll wonder why the entire image has a bizarre color shift!

So let’s dig in.

Virtually all cameras from the most basic “point & shoot” to the most advanced DSLR has a white balance setting.  It can either be in the camera’s menu or might be accessible with a button on the camera body.  Normally, it’s labeled “WB”.

It’s there because in order for the camera to produce images that are the right color, it has to know what color the light is.

The color of light is expressed in degrees Kelvin.  That is the color of light given off when a theoretical “black body” is heated to that temperature, just like the elements of an electric stove or the filament of a tungsten light bulb.

Here are the normal settings and their K ratings along with an image to show you the effect of each setting.  This image was shot in daylight conditions with some overcast, so the correct setting was daylight, or 5200K.


Shade – 7000K



Flash or Cloudy – 6000K



Daylight – 5200K – this is how the bears looked in real life.



Fluorescent – *4000K


Tungsten - 3200K

Tungsten – 3200K

You can see that the white balance setting has a dramatic impact!  Here’s the important thing – if those bears had been illuminated by a tungsten light source and the camera was set to tungsten white balance they would appear perfectly natural, just as they do in the “daylight” photo.

The key is to set the camera’s white balance to match the color of the light that the subject is in.

* Fluorescent can vary wildly from 4000K because there are so many colors available.  Look at the Philips Lighting website and you’ll see a selection that includes Soft White at 3000K, Neutral at 3500K, Cool White at 4000K, Natural at 5000K and Daylight Deluxe at 6500K.   Most Nikons have a much better selection of fluorescent color temperatures that the Canons that I’ve owned, which generally have only one.

You’ll also see two other settings in most cameras:

Auto (AWB) – the camera look at the scene and through the magic of electronics, makes a decision and sets the white balance for you.

Custom WB – this is a bit more advanced.  The custom white balance is the most precise way of getting it right on the money.  You take a white or gray target and hold it in the light you’ll be shooting in – and photograph it.  You then navigate through your camera’s menu and tell the camera to use that image to set the white balance.

So, by now you’re asking “So, how should I set the white balance on my camera?”

Unless you want to set a custom white balance every time – and that’s probably not necessary unless your shooting something critical like weddings or products – there are two possibilities.  Manually set it to match the lighting conditions or let the camera do it automatically by setting it to “Auto White Balance” (AWB).

For the sake of simplicity, beginners might want to go with AWB.  It just removes one more variable from the list of things to remember and makes shooting that much easier.

When the camera picks the white balance, it’s important to realize that it isn’t going to choose only from the pre-programmed values described above.  It will set the precise value that it thinks is right.  So rather than selecting 5200K for daylight, it might well pick something like 5172K.

AWB will do a good job most of the time.  The only risk is that the camera makes a new decision for every shot and might come up with a slightly different setting on each shot.   So a series of images of the same thing might show a little color shift throughout the series.

You can see why that might be important in a wedding – you really want the bride’s dress to be white in every shot.  If you print the bride’s album and the dress is slightly different shades in each shot, you’ll have an unhappy bride – and there’s almost nothing worse than an unhappy bride!

So for those who are not beginners, I suggest that you set the white balance manually.  That’s what I do, just because I want to have that level of control.  White balance is just another setting in my checklist.

I hope that makes the murky waters of white balance a little more clear!

Follow Charlie at: The Amazing Image