which white balance setting should I use?

what white balance should I set my camera to?

… that’s a question that baffles photographers who are just starting out with digital photography.

You have a few options in setting the WB on your camera:

  • you could shoot in auto white balance (AWB), and hope your camera nails it.  And then you can also feel excited as each new generation of camera offers better AWB.
  • you could set your camera to one of the preset WB settings, such as Daylight, Cloudy or Incandescent.  And hope your camera’s preset is close to the correct WB.
  • you could do custom white balance readings and save it as you encounter and work in new situations. These custom white balance readings can be done with all kinds of white balance cards and discs.

These all work … usually. However, what we need to understand is that quite often, there is no ‘correct’ white balance setting.  What we are after is a pleasant white balance

Now, it can be said that it is easier to achieve a pleasant WB when we have a correct WB, and work it from there.  (This discussion doesn’t take into account the need for some photographers, such as commercial photographers and product photographers, to have very precise control over the color balance of the lights they are using.  For our discussion here, we’re considering general photography and on-location photography and such.)

My approach is a fairly simplistic one.  I mostly use the preset WB settings on my camera, guessing the approximate WB of the scenario I am shooting in.  Then in post-processing of the RAW file, I look at the image on a calibrated display, and adjust it to my liking.  Now, it does count to my advantage that we have a fairly wide latitude as to what our eye and brain accept as a good color balance.

About the need to shoot in RAW:
While some photographers might need the speed and efficiency of an unadjusted JPG – for example, event photographers who need to print images on location – for the vast majority of photography, we have a real need for the latitude that a RAW file offers.  Here’s the thing – there is simply no photographer on this Earth that is good enough to be able to set correct Exposure, Contrast, Saturation and White Balance for every possible scenario we’ll encounter on location.  Some settings such as Black Point, Local Contrast and such, aren’t even settings we can change in-camera.  All of this implies that we will very likely have to do some kind of post-processing of our files for better image quality.   And then we might as well just shoot in RAW and allow ourselves greater flexibility.

Enough of the lecture about RAW; let’s go back to the two images at the top:

I photographed Kristy and her fiance during a recent engagement photo session.  In setting up a shot, I had her sit on this metal barrier.  The light was the golden glow from the setting sun in the early evening. So part of the scene is lit by a very warm colored light, and part of the scene is in shade.  I only used the available light; no flash or additional lighting. How did I set my WB for these two photos?  I didn’t.  I just kept it to Daylight WB, and adjusted it to taste in post-processing of the RAW file.

In the first image, Kristy was looking towards the light, and hence her body is basking in that yellow light … which I then reduced to a more normal looking warm light in post-production.  The shaded areas behind her now go to that very cold looking blue color.

For the second image, the way her body is facing me, she is mostly shaded.  In correcting that side of her body to a pleasant WB, the rest of the scene is now jacked to very warm tones.

So, for this scenario, which is the correct white balance?  I’d say that neither is ‘correct’ in the sense that there has to be a correct WB.  Alternately, I could answer that the correct WB is the one that appeals to me for my subject, in each specific image . In other words, correct white balance is a pleasant white balance, adjusted to taste.   (As an aside, the first image was adjusted to 2700K, and the second to 5200K, in ACR / Lightroom.)

Finally, here are larger versions of those two images:

28 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Dominic Velasquez says

    Hi Mr. Neil,

    In my first days of shooting with my Nikon D90, I’ve been introduced to the option of choosing Kelvin settings for the WB. Ever since, I’ve been using this kind of setting. I couldn’t help but to wonder though, if this a good (or even better) way of tweaking the white balance, or am I missing something that WB presets could only give?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! :)

  2. 2 says

    I do use the Kelvin settings at times, and usually when I gel my flash for Tungsten.

    Using the Kelvin settings exclusively could work, but you still end up playing a guessing game anyway, unless you use a color temperature meter. So you’d most likely end up tweaking the files anyway.

    Neil vN

  3. 3Jeff says

    Thant must have been a great sunset.

    The second photo is wonderful as usual however I keep looking at the first.
    The fact that you got such a contrast with all natural light is amazing.
    Usually, a flash with a warming gel is what I usually need to get that golden/blue contrast, but to do it will all ambient, just wow. Great eye Neil.

    Aways enjoy your blog.

  4. 4Filipe M. says

    Great shots there, but there’s something that’s puzzling me about the first one… what source is casting the shadow directly behind her? Was there a reflecting building on the other side or something?

    Thanks!

  5. 5Neil vN says

    She is sitting close to the wall and that is causing the shading you see. The light that is bouncing in from all directions are partially blocked.

    Neil vN

  6. 6Ben says

    Hi Neil,

    Great Shots! I wonder about the second one. She seems to be backlit – how did you get that light on her legs and face? Is that really natural light? It looks like fill to me.

  7. 8Joel says

    Hi Neil,

    Thank you for always unselfishly sharing your knowledge with us. I just want to find out what you use to calibrate your computer?
    Thanks again.

  8. 9 says

    Thanks for this site Neil. I have been absent for awhile but I read it religiously now.
    And I too would like to hear a recommendation for a monitor calibration tool.

  9. 11Nicolas says

    Hi Neil,

    I like both photographs. What type of gel modifier would you use in order to match the flash color temperature with an outdoor scene in shade illuminated with blue sky? This summer I have faced this situation where I know that in order to photograph a subject in shade illuminated by a blue sky, I should use a color temperature around 8000 ?K. But I if need to use flash either to fill some shadows or as the main light source, I know that the flash color temperature does not match the ambient color temperate. Have you experimented with this types of conditions?

    Thank you very much.

    Nicolas

  10. 12Neil vN says

    Nicolas .. I haven’t ever gelled the flash colder to match the available light. I would just use flash as it is. I wonder if the difference between gelling for 8000K (which is very cold), and not gelling, would make a significant difference in comparison.

    Neil vN

  11. 13Dan says

    “…there is simply no photographer on this Earth that is good enough to be able to set correct Exposure, Contrast, Saturation and White Balance…”

    For this reason, I’ve been waiting for an excuse to put my hands on one of these:
    http://spyder.datacolor.com/portfolio-view/spydercube/

    I don’t know what software you’re using, but in Aperture, my particular tool of choice, I can use an eye dropper to pick up WB from the middling grey off the cube, and ‘highlight hot’n’cold areas’ to have some default settings to ‘stamp’ onto other images with similar conditions.

    For these modeling sessions where you’re using similar conditions with different poses, adding one more shot of the cube into a group of photos could really cut down on time spent eyeballing settings like these. It wouldn’t really work for conditions seen in wedding photography, but I could see where it would help: If you’re going on site before hand and only using cube photos as starting points for similar conditions (as I try to do), then there’s minutes more shaved off of post evaluation times.

    What do you think of that little gem?

  12. 14Neil vN says

    Dan .. it definitely makes sense to include a calibration chart or device in an initial shot. It would make post-processing easier. That certainly looks very nifty.

    In a shoot like this though, I like to keep the tempo and energy going, so I wonder if stopping every so often to take a test shot of a chart or device won’t break the flow of the shoot.

    I have the X-Rite color checker chart (passport), that I recently bought. I also have the (hitherto unused) ColorRight portrait disc. I just need to actually use these devices! : )

    Neil vN

  13. 15Nicolas says

    Neil,

    Thanks for your response. I would like to experiment if making the flash colder to match the ambient light will make a difference.

    Nicolas

  14. 16Pat Reynolds says

    I’m with you Neil – hate to break the flow of a shoot by introducing too many gadgets! If you get the exposure basically right and a good sharp focus, then you can do what ever you like in post-processing with the RAW files. You could end up ‘developing’ any number of pleasing images from just the one shot. Some people prefer their skin tones to appear warm, others do not – RAW processing & Photoshop give you the tools to please everyone’s tastes. Stacking differently processed layers in Photoshop and brushing back via layer masks gives you great control over background & foreground exposure and tone. It’s all part of the ‘art’ in today’s photography and great fun, if you have time to play!

  15. 17Jonathan says

    Neil-

    I’m new to flash. I was wondering if it was necessary to have the flash turned off to meter for the ambient light and then turn it on or if you just leave the speed light turned on all the time.

    Thanks

  16. 18Neil vN says

    Jonathan, I normally switch off the camera to meter for the ambient light when I use the camera’s built-in meter.

    Neil vN

  17. 19 says

    I bought this product which is useful in balancing the WB in post-production.

    It comes in a portable wallet size, which I’ve been keeping in my camera holster or pants pocket.

    As long as the lighting is consistent during your shoot and the WhiBal device exhibits no glare, you get a decent representation of middle-gray. You can do the calibration photo anytime, even after the session is done. This might be more difficult for sunrise or sunset shooting since the lighting will change over a shorter period of time.

  18. 20 says

    If you shoot RAW, getting WB right in camera is a non-issue; adjusting it in LR/Aperture/whatever is absolutely, 100% the same as using a camera preset.

    On my cameras, WB is set to “Auto”, and it never moves. I simply don’t see the point of setting it to anything else, when I’m going to edit the RAWs anyway.

  19. 21Neil vN says

    Mike, it is easier for me to judge accurate exposure on the back of my camera if the WB is approximately correct. If it is wildly off, it becomes more difficult to see at a quick glance if exposure is good.

    Also, for a faster workflow when working with a high volume of photos (eg, weddings), then it is easier if I don’t have to touch the WB at all.

    Neil vN

  20. 22 says

    I agree, Neil. Anything I can do to reduce the amount of PP work I need to do is welcome.

    That said, I find that AWB generally gets me in the ballpark (I shoot Canon, and the only time AWB gets fooled is by tungsten…though to be honest, I don’t shoot that much under strictly tungsten illumination), so that the adjustments to WB in post are generally just made “to taste”, as you describe above, rather than correcting a massive WB problem. In the same vein, if you have many shots taken in the same light, you can generally just set a single WB setting and then copy that over to many files without issue.

    Different strokes for different folks. I suppose the real take home message here is “Shoot RAW”, so you can at least have this discussion at all.

  21. 23Rick says

    “Mike, it is easier for me to judge accurate exposure on the back of my camera if the WB is approximately correct. If it is wildly off, it becomes more difficult to see at a quick glance if exposure is good.”

    Neil, I know this may be an article in itself, but how do YOU judge the exposure at a glance? Are you checking the histograms, and if so, what are you looking for in particular?

    Regards,
    Rick

  22. 24Neil vN says

    It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of exposure by looking at the back of the camera in bright light. So for me it is most often just a quick check that I’m on the right track with my exposure.

    The histogram has to be used with more careful consideration, in my opinion. In a photo like the backlit image, the histogram would be meaningless because of the blown highlights in the background.

    I do check the blinking highlights on the relevant part of my subject. If I get anything but the highlights around my subject, ie, the rim-lighting, blowing out with the blinking highlights, then I know I need to double check my exposure.

    It’s usually a combination of exposure metering techniques.

  23. 26Neil vN says

    Mat, her hair is blown out there, but it doesn’t bother me. I would’ve preferred it to be just rim lighting, but I can live with it like it is there. I’m more concerned about good light on her face. Also, your clients are very very unlikely to ever notice this … just Photographers do, In that sense, this image, for me, is successful despite what might be seen as technically a problem.

    Neil vN

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