white balance settings – my approach

With film based cameras, you would’ve had to change film and filters in an attempt to correct for color casts during the moment of taking the photograph.

But with digital cameras, life is so much easier with built-in white balance settings. Yet, deciding on the correct white balance to use with a digital camera, seems to strike fear in the hearts of many new photographers …

In short, this is how I handle White Balance settings on my cameras …

1) My cameras are set to the closest appropriate WB setting, whether Daylight, Cloudy, etc.
2) I shoot in RAW.
3) With a RAW work-flow, it is no effort afterward to change the WB setting on multiple images.
4) A calibrated monitor gives me a neutral reference point.

There – it is as simple as that.
I try to get it as close as possible, but without stressing it.
Then I finesse it in post-processing.

Now the details …

Firstly, there is no single white balance setting that will cover every situation.

To anyone who is searching for a magical short-cut .. a single white balance setting that will give great results no matter what lighting conditions prevail .. please read that again.

Specific white balance settings are often recommended on the internet forums- and these may work very well under some lighting conditions but there simply isn’t a cure-all. Anyone who slavishly use a specific WB setting for every situation, will soon enough run into the limitations of not adjusting your camera’s white balance setting to match the lighting conditions.

Sticking to only one white balance setting is self-defeating.
The different white balance settings are there for a reason – lighting conditions change.

Even though the WB can be changed at will if you shoot in the RAW format, it makes for an easier post-processing workflow to get the WB correct during the actual time of taking the photograph.

Getting it right in camera … or at least as close as possible

Even though it is easy enough to correct WB in a good RAW workflow, it is still faster if I don’t have to adjust the WB of the images I shot. Therefore I still try to get a pleasant White Balance, but without stressing if I can’t accurately nail it during the shoot.

This brings me to two other points:
I most often strive for a pleasing WB, as opposed to a correct WB.
But, it is easier to get to a pleasing WB, if I have a correct WB to start with.

WB options on D-SLRs :
There are essentially 4 different ways to set your WB on your D-SLR:

1. Auto WB
2. default WB settings : Incandescent, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent.
3. specific Kelvin settings
4. WB Preset

1. Auto white balance
I normally stay away from Auto White Balance – it isn’t always consistent.
With overcast light, it tends towards too blue, and tungsten is usually rendered too warm.

Auto White Balance can only ‘guess’ at what is put in front of it.
An example: If you were to photograph an autumn scene with a lot of reds & orange & yellows, then the auto white balance will try and reduce the warm tones to some kind of average balance .. and you will lose all the lovely autumn tones.

Even though I shoot in RAW, and changing the WB for any image is a simple matter, shooting with Auto WB does make my raw work-flow a touch slower. The reason for this is that the speed of a solid raw work-flow depends on editing multiple images at the same time. If you use Auto WB, then the WB could appear different – and this would make it less easy to see which images need to be edited together.

If you keep to a consistent white balance, then it is a much simpler task to correct for a series of photographs by the same amount, since any WB error would then be consistent.

2. default white balance settings
In my opinion, the current DSLRs have default white balance settings which are very good. In most situations they come pretty close to giving a neutral white balance. I do however, fine-tune my default white balance settings depending on the situation. The default White Balance settings can be fine-tuned by turning the front dial while pressing the WB button. (See your manual for specifics.)

The Incandescent WB immediately gives good results, but since Incandescent / Tungsten light varies a lot in actual Kelvin settings, I often get better results by changing to 2800 Kelvin (or thereabouts.) I try a test shot or two to check on my LCD which White Balance setting looks the best.

This WB setting is a very good compromise. However, it won’t give the best results with every venue that uses fluorescent lights, since fluorescent lights give widely differing color casts. You’d do well to check your LCD to see if you need to adjust the Fluorescent setting slightly warmer or colder.

Also take note that if you use a shutter speed higher than around 1/60th, you’re likely to get different color casts with repeated shots. This is due to the rate at which fluorescent lights flicker.

Daylight / Sunlight
This gives good neutral tones under most sunlit conditions. If you do need the photographs to look warmer on your Nikon D-SLR, fine-tune this WB by dialing in -1 or -2. (Daylight-2 is the same as the default Flash WB, according to the D100 manual.) If you need your photos to appear warmer with your Canon D-SLR, dial in more Amber with the WB shift option.

This setting gives a really good WB when I use my Speedlights in a direct way. However, I most often use my flash in a bounce position and then the light picks up different color casts, depending on the surface I bounced the flash off. Since walls and ceilings are most often a warm tone, using Flash WB makes the image far too warm.

However, when I use my Quantum or other studio strobes, there is a slight red cast if the WB was set to Flash. I then use the WB setting, (and further fine-tune the WB in my raw processing.) The reason is that these strobes are already color balanced to give a flash output closer to daylight.

When I do use Cloudy WB, I use Cloudy-1 on my Nikon D-SLRs as my default, since I like the extra bit of warmth when shooting under overcast conditions. With my Canon D-SLRs, I dial in more Amber, usually +1 Amber.

3. specific Kelvin setting
As mentioned previously, since since Incandescent / Tungsten light varies a lot in actual color temperature, I often get better results by changing to 2800 Kelvin (or thereabouts.)

4. WB Presets
Preset White Balance gives the photographer the opportunity to set proper white balance under difficult lighting conditions .. such as where there is a mix of different light sources like fluorescent together with tungsten.

Setting the Preset WB is a simple enough task. Check your manual for specifics.

However, I don’t use the Preset WB function. The reason for this is that since I most often use bounce flash, I frequently get a color cast. For me, it is simpler correcting this in my raw work flow, than driving myself crazy on a shoot trying to continually get a correct WB at the time.

14 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1james toal says

    Thank you for the comment regarding fluorescent lighting and using a shutter speed of 1/60 or slower. I do weddings in churches where there is fluorescent in the seated section, tungsten floods over the stage and natural light fron the windows. Yes, I shoot RAW but because I use a shutter speed of around 1/100, the colors are all over the place. I’ll take 3 or 4 bursts of the same scene and all 4 are different. your advice will be used this Saturday, and as usual, i’m sure your advice will be stellar. thank you for this tremendous recource. James Toal, CT

  2. 3 says

    Hi there Rob.

    No, I don’t have an Expo Disc. It would make sense for me under a static scenario, such as studio photography. But in most of my work, I am moving around a lot, and bouncing flash behind me or to the side of me.

    In doing this, the light picks up all kinds of different color .. which sounds like an Expodisc would actually be an ideal solution to the WB problem. However, as I move around, the flash light is bouncing off different areas all the time – different parts of the walls and ceiling, and of different objects. Therefore the WB changes often.

    So instead of driving myself nuts taking custom WB readings, I just adjust the WB afterward as part of my general raw work-flow.

    Much simpler, imho.

    Neil vN

  3. 4David J says

    Hi Neil
    My question is where do you place the eyedropper, when you are trying to located the best area of a photograph, for a good wB. Is it placed on the whites or on a neutral area? Also how is a neutral grey area found in raw.

  4. 5 says

    David ..

    As a wedding photographer I’m quite lucky in nearly always having a white (or close to white) surface in any sequence of images, where I can click on the white to get closer to a pleasant WB.

    Other than that, I quite often just look at the image on my calibrated monitor. I know .. not very scientific, and there is a large margin for error in getting a correct WB this way .. but quite often I am after a pleasant WB more than a very specific correct WB. (Our eyes are accepting of quite a wide range of tones as being acceptable.)

    Neil vN

  5. 8Veerachai says

    Neil, thanks for your knowledge sharing here. It improves my photo knowledge a lot. it is better than reading from photography books. I like to learn from experienced photographer who can give you proved practical photography techniques.

    I would like to share my experience of white balance adjustment setting. If you use Canon 5D mark 2 camera, you can use live view function, push WB button to select K mode and change K parameter until you get the color you want. The camera will show you the color of live view picture on your LCD while you are changing K parameter.

  6. 9Carlos A says

    For Canon shooters.

    The flash WB setting on Canon is a bit different that what appears to be for Nikon, is balanced for studio flash units (~6000K) rather than speedlites (5400K). Therefore it produces warmer tones when used with the latter.

    For direct flash, daylight WB setting on Canon bodies will produce a neutral WB results.

  7. 10 says

    Neil you mention that when you use your speedlites bouncing off walls you don’t use the Flash WB setting and adjust later in post processing. In this situation what WB setting would you dial into your camera?

  8. 11Bogdan says

    James, Auto WB has been improved quite a bit since Neil had posted this originally. RAW workflow also. I only change WB to a pre-defined setting (or custom balance) for conditions that warrant gel use or studio shots (which lately I haven’t done too many…)
    Just my two cents…

  9. 12 says

    James .. it depends on whether I have my flash gelled or not. Then I would have 3700K or there-abouts dialed in.

    For indoor flash photography, where I bounce my flash and don’t use a gel, I usually work with either Daylight or Cloudy WB … whatever gives me the best look on the camera’s preview.

    Ultimately, since you’re shooting in RAW, this decision has no real consequence.

    Neil vN

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