How to Use the White Balance Modes on DSLRs

Control the color of your pics

Woman taking a coastline photo with DSLA camera
One way to be safe when using a camera in areas with unstable terrain is to use a tripod, so that you aren't moving around with your attention on the viewfinder or display screen. Arctic-Images / Getty Images

Light has different color temperatures and it changes throughout the day and among artificial light sources. Understanding white balance and how to work with it on a DSLR camera is crucial to removing the color casts and creating great color images.

Without a camera, we do not typically notice the change in color temperature. The human eye is much better at processing color and our brain can adjust to realize what should be white in a scene. A camera, on the other hand, needs help.

Color Temperature

As mentioned above, different times of day and light sources create different color temperatures. Light is measured in kelvins and neutral light is produced at 5000K (kelvins), the equivalent to a bright, sunny day.

The following list is a guide to the color temperatures produced by different sources of light.

  • 1000-2000K — Candlelight
  • 2500-3500K — Tungsten Light (normal incandescent household bulb)
  • 3000-4000K — Sunrise / Sunset (clear skies)
  • 4000-5000K — Fluorescent Light
  • 5000-5500K — Electronic Flash
  • 5000-6500K — Daylight (clear skies with the sun overhead)
  • 6500-8000K — Overcast Skies (moderate)
  • 9000-10000K — Heavily Overcast Skies or Shade

Why Color Temperature Is Important

One of the best examples of color balance and its effect on photographs can be seen in a home that uses the older incandescent light bulbs. These bulbs give a warm, yellow to orange light that is pleasing to the eye but did not work well with a color film.

Look at old family snapshots from the days of film and you will notice that most of those that did not use a flash have a yellow hue overlaying the entire image. This is because most color films were balanced for daylight and, without special filters or special printing, the images could not be adjusted to remove that yellow cast.

In the age of digital photography, things have changed. Most digital cameras, even our phones, have a built-in auto color balance mode. It attempts to adjust and compensate for the various color temperatures in an image to bring the entire tone back to a neutral setting that is similar to what the human eye sees.

The camera corrects color temperature by measuring the white areas (the neutral tones) of the image. For instance, if a white object has a yellow tone from tungsten light, the camera will adjust the color temperature to make it a truer white by adding more to the blue channels.

As great as technology is, the camera still has problems adjusting white balance properly and that is why it is important to understand how to use the various white balance modes available on a DSLR.

White Balance Modes

It is standard for DSLR cameras to include a variety of white balance modes that will allow you to adjust the color balance as needed. The symbols used for each are relatively standard and universal among all DSLRs (check your camera manual to familiarize yourself with the symbols).

Some of these modes are more advanced than others and may require extra study and practice. Others modes are the presets for common lighting conditions that will adjust the color balance based on the average temperatures given in the chart above. The goal of each is to neutralize the color temperature back to 'daylight' balance.

Preset White Balance Modes

  • Auto White Balance (symbol - AWB) — has advanced greatly in reliability, and it should set the color temperature correctly in all but the most complicated lighting situations.​
  • Daylight/Sunny (symbol - a sun with light rays) used in 'normal' lighting conditions and is equivalent to what most color films have used.
  • Cloudy (symbol - clouds) — can be used on an overcast day to warm up the color tone.
  • Shade (symbol - house with diagonal lines stretching to the ground) — similar to the 'cloudy' preset and either can be used to fine-tune the color balance if one does not get it quite right.
  • Flash (symbol - jagged arrow pointing down) — also designed to add warmth to the colors when using a flash.
  • Tungsten (symbol - household lightbulb with light rays) — can be used indoors under incandescent light when the auto white balance has not removed the yellow or orange cast completely.
  • Fluorescent (symbol - horizontal line resembling a fluorescent tube with light rays) useful in businesses that use fluorescent light when the auto white balance does not remove the blue or green cast completely.

    Advanced White Balance Modes

    • Custom White Balance (symbol - two triangles on their side with a square in the middle) — allows users to set their own white balance using a gray card (which has a reading of 18% gray, the midpoint between true black and true white) or white card. This is often used by professional photographers in a studio environment when it is absolutely vital to have a perfect color (more on this below).
    • Kelvin (symbol - K in a rectangle) — allows you to set the color temperature at will, giving a very precise result. It is useful when you know the color temperature of the light source and allows for fine-tuned incremental changes.

    How to Set a Custom White Balance

    Setting the custom white balance is very easy and is a practice that serious photographers should be in the habit of doing. After a while, the process becomes second nature and the control over color is worth the effort involved.

    You will need a white or gray card, which can be purchased at most camera stores. These are designed to be perfectly neutral and give you the most accurate color balance reading. In the absence of a white card, choose the brightest piece of white paper you can find and make any fine-tuned adjustments with the Kelvin setting.

    To set custom white balance:

    1. Set the camera to AWB.

    2. Place the white or gray card in front of the subject so it has the exact light falling on it as the subject does.

    3. Switch to manual focus (correct focus is not necessary) and get really close so that the card fills the entire image area (anything else will throw off the reading).

    4. Take a photograph. Make sure the exposure is good and that the card fills the whole image. If it is not correct, reshoot.

    5. Navigate to Custom White Balance in the camera's menu and choose the correct card picture. The camera will ask if this is the image it should use to set custom white balance: select 'yes' or 'ok.'

    6. Back on top of the camera, change the white balance mode to Custom White Balance.

    7. Take another photograph of your subject (remember to turn the autofocus back on) and notice the change in color. If it is not to your liking, repeat all of these steps again.

    Final Tips for Using White Balance

    As stated above, you can rely on AWB most of the time. This is particularly true when using an external light source (such as a flashgun), as the neutral light emitted by it will usually cancel out any color casts.

    Some subjects can cause a problem for AWB, in particular, photos that have a natural abundance of warm or cool tones. The camera can misinterpret these subjects as casting a color over an image and the AWB will try to adjust accordingly. For instance, with a subject that has an overabundance of warmth (red or yellow tones), the camera may cast a bluish tinge over the image in an attempt to balance this out. Of course, all this does is leave your camera with a funny color cast!

    Mixed lighting (a combination of artificial and natural light, for instance) can also be confusing for AWB in cameras. In general, it is best to manually set the white balance for the ambient lighting, which will give everything lit by the ambient light a warm tone. Warm tones tend to be more attractive to the eye than the very cold and sterile cool tones.