When to Avoid Auto White Balance

Auto WB isn't always the best tool for certain high-contrast photos

Photography

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The color temperature of light varies throughout the day. Adjusting a photo's white balance helps remove the color casts that different color temperatures produce. White balance depends on a white point, an area in a photo that should be white.

A camera's white balance setting adjusts the color balance for particular lighting so that what we know to be white actually appears white, without unwanted coloring. In turn, a properly set white balance helps other colors to display more accurately, too.

Most of the time, the auto white balance setting on your DSLR camera or advanced point-and-shoot camera will prove extremely accurate. Occasionally, though, your camera might need a little help.

White balance menu on Nikon camera

Typical Shooting Modes

Your camera likely comes with a variety of different modes to deal with common, more complex lighting situations. Using these settings lets you compensate for lighting without having to adjust the white balance manually each time. Typical settings are as follows.

AWB (Automatic White Balance)

In AWB mode, the camera takes a "best guess" option, usually choosing the brightest part of the image as the white point. This option is at its most accurate outside, with natural, ambient lighting.

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Daylight

This is the white balance option to use when the sun is at its brightest (around noon). It adds warm tones to the image to combat the very high color temperature.

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Cloudy

The cloudy mode is best under sunlight with intermittent cloud cover. Like daylight mode, it adds warm tones but it takes into account the slightly cooler nature of the light.

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Shade

The shade mode helps when your subject is shadowed on a sunny day, or when you're shooting on a cloudy, foggy, or dull day.

Tungsten

The tungsten setting compensates for the orange color cast that incandescent household bulbs emit.

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Fluorescent

Fluorescent and the more recent compact fluorescent light bulbs emit a green color cast. On a fluorescent white balance setting, the camera adds red tones to combat it.

White balance is set to: fluorescent
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Flash

The flash mode is for use with speedlights, flashguns, and some studio lighting.

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Kelvin

Some DSLRs have the Kelvin mode option, which allows you to set an exact color temperature setting.

Custom

The custom mode allows you to set the white balance yourself using a test photograph. Custom mode is especially useful with the energy-saving compact fluorescent and LED lighting that is becoming more common. Such bulbs come in various temperatures, from warm to cool; using a custom mode allows you to adjust to the specific lighting.

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The Special Challenge of Fluorescent Lighting

Fluorescent lighting used to be simple: It always emitted a green color cast. Older digital cameras, which typically have just one fluorescent setting, can handle a small number of fluorescent lights. Modern fluorescent lighting, however, gives off several different color casts, usually cool. Many newer DSLR cameras offer a second fluorescent option to cope with this stronger and more variable artificial light.

When and How to Use the Custom White Balance Setting

If you use an older camera; need the whites to be perfect white; or are shooting under CFL, LED, or a mixture of artificial and ambient light, the custom white balance option is the way to go. Here's how to use it.

  1. Obtain a gray card, which is just what it sounds like: a card that's 18 percent gray. In photographic terms, that's exactly midway between pure white and pure black.

    Gray cards
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  2. Under the lighting conditions in which you'll be shooting, take a test shot with the gray card filling the frame.

  3. Select custom in the white balance menu and select the photo of the gray card. The camera will use this photo to judge what should be white within images shot in that particular lighting. Because the photo is set to 18 percent gray, the whites and blacks in the image will always be accurate.