When to Avoid Auto White Balance

How to Use the Right White Balance for Different Lighting Situations

Photography
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Light has different color temperatures throughout the day. This is especially important to know when shooting photographs.

Within photography, white balance is the process of removing the color casts that different color temperatures produce. The human eye is much better at processing color, and we can always see what should be white in an image.

Most of the time, the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting on your DSLR camera or advanced point and shoot camera will prove extremely accurate.

Occasionally, though, your camera can become confused, needing a little help. This is why your camera comes with a variety of different modes to help combat more complex lighting situations. They are as follows.

AWB

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

Daylight

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

Cloudy

The cloudy mode is for use when the sun is still out, with intermittent cloud cover. It still adds warm tones, but it takes into account the slightly cooler nature of the light.

Shade

You'll want to use the shade mode when your subject is in shadows on a sunny day, or when you encounter a cloudy, foggy, or dull day.

Tungsten

You should use the tungsten setting with normal household bulbs, which emit an orange color cast.

Fluorescent

When you encounter traditional fluorescent strip lights, you'll want to use the fluorescent mode. Fluorescent lights emit a green color cast. The camera adds red tones to combat this.

Flash

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

Kelvin

Some DSLRs have the Kelvin mode option, which allows the photographer to set the exact color temperature setting that he or she wants.

Custom

The custom mode allows photographers to set the white balance themselves, using a test photograph.

All of these options can be useful, but the ones I feel you really need to learn about are the tungsten, fluorescent, and custom settings.

Let's start with tungsten. If you're photographing indoors, and the only light source is coming from a large number of household bulbs, you're better off setting your white balance into the tungsten mode to help the camera get things right. Otherwise, you run the risk of a rather nasty orange cast on your images!

Fluorescent lighting used to be simple, as it always emitted a green color cast. Older digital cameras, with just one fluorescent setting, will be able to adequately handle a small number of fluorescent strip lights. But, if you're in a building with more modern lighting, the fluorescent strips will be giving off several different color casts, normally blue and green. If you have a newer DSLR, you'll notice that manufacturers have started adding a second fluorescent option to cope with stronger artificial light.

So, the two fluorescent settings are must-haves for this very strong color cast.

But what if you have an older model, and it can't cope with the strong color cast? Or what if you're shooting in a situation which has a mixture of artificial and ambient light? And what if any whites in your image really need to be perfect white? (For instance, if you're shooting in a studio environment with a white background, you certainly don't want a murky gray to be captured instead!)

In these situations, the Custom White Balance option is the way to go. Custom allows the photographer to instruct the camera on what to capture.

To use the custom setting, you'll need to invest in a "gray card." These simple bits of card are gray-colored and balanced to 18% gray, which -- in photographic terms -- is exactly midway between pure white and pure black. Under the lighting conditions that will be used for the image, the photographer takes a shot with the gray card filling the frame. Then upon selecting custom in the white balance menu, the camera will ask the photographer to chose a shot to be used. Just select the photo of the gray card, and the camera will use this photo to judge what should be white within the image. Because the photo is set to 18% gray, the whites and blacks in the image will always be accurate.