Digital Photography: White Balance Essentials

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world — that is the myth of the atomic age — as in being able to remake ourselves.” – Gandhi

Today I am writing about “white balance”, an essential camera setting if you want accurate colors. White balance is a topic that intimidates many people just because they do not know what it means. It sounds as though it must be complicated. It is really not difficult.

Why is white balance so important? Your camera uses the white balance setting to determine the correct colors in your photo. If the white balance setting is not accurate, the colors in your image will not be accurate.  (Although the white balance can be corrected later with editing software, it is easier to get it correct at the time of capture.)

What is white balance? Few light sources provide pure white light. Blue sky gives a blue color cast to everything, particularly in shady areas. Most fluorescent lights give a greenish color cast. Tungsten bulbs give an orange cast. Flash lighting has its own color bias. Usually we are not aware of this because our brain filters out this extra information. We perceive something to be white that we expect should be white. Setting a white balance allows your camera to do a similar thing. The white balance setting allows your camera to counteract the color bias of the light source.

Can’t I just use auto white balance? Auto white balance allows your camera to guess what the light source is. It will often guess wrong. Then the colors in your image will also be wrong, unless you correct them with editing software.

White balance is easy to set. (I am referring here to “white balance setting”, not “white balance correction” which is something different). The white balance is so important that camera manufacturers make it easy to set. First, press the button or bar marked WB (for white balance) on the back of your camera. From the white balance ions, choose:

  • the sun for a subject in direct sunlight on with blue sky
  • the house with shade for a subject in shade with blue sky
  • the cloud for cloudy conditions
  • the light bulb for incandescent lighting
  • the light tube 1 for typical fluorescent lighting
  • the light tube 2 for “daylight” fluorescent lighting
  • the flash attachment or zigzag arrow is for flash lighting That’s all there is to it.
  • (The ramps under a plus sign are for custom white balance settings which most people do not use, but which are explained in the next paragraph.)
  • For most of the common image uses, that’s all there is to it.

After setting white balance on about 8 different occasions, most people find it so easy that they wonder why they did not do it sooner. One word of warning though. If you are not sure whether you will reset white balance at the beginning of your next shoot, set it back to auto white balance when you are done with this shoot. That way you will not accidentally have it set wrong next time.

If you use editing software regularly: The camera raw file format makes white balance adjustments easiest.  It is done in Camera Raw processing. If you do not like the results, you can always change it later (Camera raw changes do not change the original image data. Your processing changes can always be removed or replaced). If you shoot in the jpg file format, you can use editing software to remove the color cast, although it takes some guess-work on your part and the changes are permanent (So save the processed image with a different name so that your original will still be available to you).

For the perfectionist, custom white balance: Setting the white balance as described above provides  good enough color for most image uses, particularly if you plan to fine tune the white balance with editing software. However, lighting conditions are often complex.  For example, the blue color cast of a sunny sky varies with the time of day and angle of the sun. To accommodate this, you can use white balance bracketing (often hidden in the shooting menu) and choose the image that looks best. Many lighting conditions are more complex. Let’s say you are shooting a flower under a blue sky in the shade of a brown wall, next to a tree with green leaves. The color casts upon your flower are blue, brown and green. Accurately registering this with your camera requires setting a custom white balance. To do this, choose the “+” sign. Then (camera specifics vary a little here) take a photo of something that you want to be pure white. That’s all (with most cameras) that’s needed. (It’s a good idea to put a bright white card or paper in your camera bag for these situations.)

I hope this will be helpful to someone. I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions about this post and in reference to future blog topics.

I am available at to assist clients in transforming common nature photos into uncommon works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

©2012 J. Michael Harroun


21 comments on “Digital Photography: White Balance Essentials

  1. […] Digital Photography: White Balance Essentials ( […]

  2. yepirategunn says:

    A wonderful post – so helpful. I was just thinking how to improve pictures that somehow seem to be the wrong ”tinge”. Thank you – LOVELY!!!

  3. Thank you for visiting my blog. I’m glad you did, because now I discovered yours 🙂 Great pictures and useful tutorials! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • You are certainly welcome. Thank you for visiting and for your kind compliment.
      I’m glad to have found your site also. Thank you for your like and for following.
      If you have any photographic problems or suggestions for future posts, you are invited to let me know.

  4. j3ssi33ss3x says:

    Reblogged this on The Three G's.

    • Thank you for re-blogging my post on photographic white balance settings.
      If you have suggestions for future post topics, please let me know.

      • j3ssi33ss3x says:

        I have already used your suggestions during editing, now I will have to attempt setting for white balance on my DSLR. It is something I am paying attention to now.

      • That’s great. I’m glad that you are adding some new things to your technique.
        I know that it often seems intimidating at first.
        However, after doing something new on 8-10 different occasions, it usually becomes easy.
        If you run into difficulties, please let me know.

  5. Your post is quite helpful for young writers, i wish to become a successful photographer oneday and i really liked your post!

    Keep Posting such nice stuffs

  6. Patrizia M. says:

    Very interesting your blog, as well as great photos there are so many helpful tips. Too bad I do not speak English, but with the translation of google I will follow you and I’m sorry if you find errors in what I write, I’m using the online tradurrore

  7. Mike says:

    Thanks i will give it try. Always used auto before.

  8. Thank you for liking my blog. What stunning photography on your site – someone who practises what he preaches!

  9. nature789 says:

    J this is so awesome! I just found it on my camera and never new what it was. Thank you! Oh by the way beautiful photo 🙂 I was so excited I almost forgot lol

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