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, depending on the time of day and type of light sources. The white balance settings on your DSLR camera help compensate for these variables and remove the color casts they cause.

Color Temperature

Light is measured in kelvins (K). Neutral light is produced at 5000K, which is the equivalent to the light on a bright, sunny day.

The color temperatures produced by other sources of light are as follows:

  • 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 and shade

Why Color Temperature Is Important

You can see the way color balance affects photographs in photos taken under light from incandescent light bulbs, for example. These bulbs give a warm, yellow to orange light that is pleasing to the eye but doesn't work well on camera.

Look at old family snapshots from the days of film, and you'll notice that most of them taken without a flash have an overall yellow hue. This is because most color films were balanced for daylight and, without special filters or printing, the images could not be adjusted to remove that yellow cast.

1970s photo of card game in kitchen
Paul Schultz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

In the age of digital photography, things have changed. Most digital cameras, even those on 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, cameras still have problems adjusting white balance properly. That's why understanding how to use the various white balance modes available on a DSLR is so important.

White Balance Modes

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

White balance menu on Nikon camera

Some of these modes are more advanced than others and might require extra study and practice. Others modes are the presets for common lighting conditions that 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.

Common presents include:

  • Auto White Balance (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 common 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 can be used to fine-tune the color balance when the cloudy setting doesn't get it quite right.
  • Flash (symbol: jagged arrow pointing down)—designed to add warmth when you use a flash.
  • Tungsten (symbol: household lightbulb with light rays)—can be used indoors under incandescent light when the AWB has not removed the yellow or orange cast completely.
  • Fluorescent (symbol: horizontal line resembling a fluorescent tube with light rays)—useful under fluorescent light when the AWB doesn't remove the blue or green cast completely.

Advanced White Balance Modes

  • Custom white balance (symbol: two triangles on their sides with a square in the middle)—allows you to set your 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. Professional photographers often use this method when perfect color is essential (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 finely tuned incremental changes.

How to Set a Custom White Balance

Setting the custom white balance is very easy; if you're a serious photographer, it's a practice well worth learning. After a while, the process becomes second nature, and the control over color is worth the effort.

Gray cards
MiNe / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

You'll need a white or gray card, which you can find online or at a camera store. These cards are perfectly neutral in color 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 very 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 the card comprises the whole image. If not, reshoot.

  5. Navigate to Custom White Balance in your 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 a photograph of your subject (remember to turn autofocus back on) and notice the change in color. If it is not to your liking, repeat these steps.

Final Tips for Using White Balance

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

Some subjects can cause a problem for AWB, though—in particular, settings with 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 photo with a strange color cast.

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