Sometimes auto white balance is just a frenemy posing as a time-saving setting. We’ll tell you why.
Photographers are a picky bunch. We will tweak settings, move here and there and wait for the light to be juuuuusssst right before we take an image. We want to shoot in manual and choose focus points so we control the final look of the image. But many of us also relinquish control to our cameras by using auto white balance. Sometimes, auto white balance works perfectly. But sometimes good ol’ AWB is nothing but a trouble maker and definitely not your BFF.
Today, we will break down auto white balance, talk about why it falls short and hinders your image and discuss some alternatives so you can take back control and get a more accurate white balance.
What is white balance?
First things first. Before we can argue about auto white balance, we need to understand what white balance is and why its important.
Different types of light have different temperatures, and thus give off a different color. For example, light from an open window is often cooler, or more blue, than light from an incandescent bulb. Lights in a high school gym can run toward green or even pink, depending on the style of bulb used. Street lamps give off an orange hue.
Our eyes do a pretty good job of adjusting for this color so most of the time we don’t even notice. But the color of the light affects how our subjects look on camera.
White balance is how photographers attempt to correct or remove that color cast from different types of light in a scene. Basically, when an image is correctly white-balanced, white is true white, or a neutral white, because the color cast from your light source has been eliminated.
What is auto white balance?
Auto-white balance (AWB) is a setting in your camera that tells the camera to choose the white balance based on how it reads the light and color in a scene. The camera reads the tones in your scene and chooses the brightest part of your image as the white point. Then it applies the “correct” white balance to your image.
Sometimes auto white balance works great. The camera reads and records the scene correctly and applies a pleasing and accurate white balance. Many photographers I know put their camera in auto white balance mode and never think about it again.
But sometimes that friend can turn on you, causing more mischief in your images than one of those silly Christmas elves.
Good color versus accurate color
It’s worth noting that good color and accurate color aren’t always the same thing. Your idea of what looks good color-wise in your images might not be accurate color at all. Light and airy photographers like their skin tones more creamy and greens a little more minty. Dark and moody photographers usually have more orange in their skin tones and showcase deeper, darker greens. Those are artistic choices and well-within your rights as a photographer. But even if you aren’t a stickler for true-to-life color, you can benefit from understanding how your camera white balances images to improve consistency from image to image and save time in post-production.
When is the auto white balance not your BFF? 5 times when AWB may betray you
There are times when using auto white balance just doesn’t work, as we will talk about below.
The light changes even if your scene hasn’t
This might sound obvious but it’s something I used to overlook when I first started shooting events. If your subject emits light that changes in color or temperature, it will affect auto white balance. If there are lights in your scene that change in color or temperature, that will affect your auto white balance.
Let’s look at an example. These images were shot in auto-white balance at our local carnival, taken just seconds apart. The light in the sky hasn’t changed, the light from the other booths hasn’t changed and I didn’t change position. But because the ride changed colors, auto white balance set different levels in each image, giving me three different guesses at what it thought the white balance should be.
You’ll have similar issues if you are in a room with uplighting or other colored light that changes. Auto white balance may set a different white balance each time you fire the shutter, even though the rest of the scene hasn’t.
The brightest tone in your scene isn’t white
The camera assumes the brightest tone in your scene is white, then adjusts itself to make that tone a neutral white. But what happens if the brightest spot in your scene isn’t white? Auto white balance misses the mark. A great example of this is a colorful sunset where the clouds are picking up the beautiful pink and orange tones of the sun. Auto white balance sees those clouds and tries to make them white instead of their true color. The result is a flat, drab scene. Not what you were going for at all!
Your scene is monochromatic
If your scene is dominated by a single color, the auto white balance on your camera freaks out a little. It overcompensates for that dominant color and tries to neutralize it. If you’re shooting a bouquet of all pink flowers, for example, your camera says “oh this can’t be right. It’s too pink! I must fix it!” In auto white balance, the camera might add green to the image to neutralize the pink and the image is less than desirable. Or accurate.
Your scene has lots of green vegetation
I find that if I’m shooting in an area with lots of greenery, my auto white balance tries too hard to fix it. My images always come back with more magenta than is accurate on skin tones. In the image below, my camera’s auto white balance added too much magenta into my scene. The second image shows what the scene looked after setting a custom white balance (more on that in a minute!)
You’re shooting a panorama
If you plan to take a series of pictures and then stitch them together in a panorama, AWB might foil your plans. As your scene changes, the camera can interpret light color differently and apply a different white balance each time you fire the shutter. So you’ll have to adjust the white balance of each in post-production to stitch them together seamlessly.
Your subjects change frequently
You might shoot in the same light for an entire session. But if your subjects (and hence the colors in your scene) change frequently, it can cause auto white balance to make different adjustments from image to image. For example, if I’m shooting a basketball game in a gym, the lighting doesn’t change. But auto white balance can make different adjustments when my subject is the team with the blue uniform than it does when my subject is a player with a white uniform. And those might both have a different auto white balance result than an image where I have players from both teams in the frame. The result is an entire game where the white balance fluctuates slightly from image to image.
You are shooting flash
Your camera’s auto white balance reads the light in the scene and adjusts the white balance accordingly. But flash adds light to the scene after your camera makes those automatic color adjustments. Your camera doesn’t get the chance to analyze the flash’s light color, it’s only adjusting for the existing ambient light. So the result is a wonky white balance. Yes, that’s an official photography term. Wonky.
Setting white balance in-camera versus fixing in post-production
“Well none of this matters, you might think. “I shoot RAW, so I can just fix white balance in post-production.”
That’s true. You can fix white balance in post-production. If that’s working for you right now then stick with it! But maybe you’re like me and setting white balance leaves you frustrated and unsure and thinking “there has to be a better way!” There is. By knowing how to use the full power of your camera, you can set a more accurate white balance before you shoot instead of waiting to fix in post. Getting your white balance correct in the camera has a few important advantages.
First, you can ensure the camera is recording images as they appear in real life, instead of guessing at how it should have been in post-production. I find this is especially true when shooting landscapes or skin tones. Have you ever sat at your monitor and stressed skin tones? Setting the correct white balance in-camera helps eliminate that problem. You can feel confident in post-production that your skin tones are true to life.
Second, if you shoot in JPEG for any reason, white balance is much harder to correct in post-production. And the reasons you are shooting JPEG (quicker turnaround, less post-production editing) might be negated by having to mess with fixing the white balance in camera.
Your eyes, your monitor and your editing environment can affect how you perceive the color in the final image. If your monitor isn’t calibrated correctly, for example, you might add more warmth to skin tones than is really needed based on how the monitor is rendering skin tones. The lighting in your editing environment can change how you perceive the image, causing you to add or subtract colors in post-production when you don’t need to.
And finally, setting a correct white balance in camera simply saves time. There’s no need to tweak settings or hem and haw over the white balance in Lightroom or Photoshop if you know they are correct coming into your scene.
Setting white balance in camera
So if the auto white balance isn’t the right choice, how can you set a more accurate white balance in-camera?
Most cameras offer white balance presets designed to match the most common light temperatures. Besides auto white balance, there’s settings like Tungsten, Florescent, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade and Flash.
Some cameras break down artificial light even further. My Nikon D750 and D500s offer different settings for sodium-vapor lamps, warm-white fluorescent, cool-white fluorescent and high temp mercury vapor among others.
To set a white balance in camera, go into your white balance menu and select the preset that most closely matches your scene. Take a few shots and compare the results there to see if your white balance is rendering accurately. If the results aren’t what you like, try another preset.
Another in-camera white balance option is shooting in Kelvin. Kelvin is the scale used to measure color temperature. If you’re “shooting in Kelvin,” you are telling the camera what temperature of light you are shooting in and to adjust the white balance accordingly. This white balance setting is easy to use and gives you really accurate results if you understand and memorize the Kelvin scale.
I find Kelvin can be particularly helpful if you are shooting multiple camera bodies and want all the color in all the images to match in the end. Set all your cameras to the same Kelvin temperature and your white balance in post-production stay consistent from image to image.
Below is an example of when I used the Kelvin scale to set my white balance. The first image was on auto white balance and was flat ugly and not at all accurate. After switching to Kelvin and adjusting my color temperature, I was able to record the colors of a beautiful Wyoming morning accurately.
Custom white balance
For the ultimate white balance control, you can set a custom white balance using a tool like an Expo Disc, a gray card, a white balance card or even a white piece of paper!
The exact steps differ slightly by camera make and model, so you’ll need to consult your camera’s manual for step-by-step instructions. But essentially, put your neutral item like a gray card into your scene. Make sure it’s in the same light as your subject and fill the frame with only that object. Then take a picture. In your camera’s white balance menu, use that image to create a custom white balance. The camera records that image and adjusts the white balance accordingly.
This is my preferred method because I believe it’s the most accurate. I eliminate the need for second-guessing myself in post-production or “fixing” white balance based on how I think the color looked.
I also love the custom white balance option because I can store those settings and use them later. No need to carry a gray card and record a custom white balance again if I’m shooting in the same lighting conditions. If you shoot in the same location with the same lighting conditions, set your custom white balance once and store it in your camera for next time. I have settings for the different gyms and venues I shoot in regularly stored in my camera. I simply call them up and I’m ready to shoot!
Custom WB in post-production
For people who need absolutely perfect color rendition, a color-checker system might be the best bet. Product photographers, for example, need to make sure their product is the right shade of blue when shooting an advertisement for the company. Most high-end product photographers I know use a color checking system. They shoot a color checker card in their scene, then use that image in post-production to load the correct color profiles into Lightroom or Photoshop using special third-party software. This is the ultimate in rendering accurate color.
Camera presets aren’t always the same as Lightroom presets
Like your camera, Lightroom and other editing programs offer similar white balance presets. But your in-camera presets and your Lightroom presets will render white balance differently. An image taken with your camera’s daylight white balance may look different than if you chose the Lightroom daylight setting. Their auto white balance functions also give very different results.
Below are two images for comparison. The first was using auto white balance in camera, the second was using the auto white balance preset in Lightroom. The two are quite different. The in-camera AWB was closer to how I saw the scene, but still not perfect.
The right balance for you
Like many things in photography, there is no right or wrong way to white balance your images. It’s all about finding a method that works for you, improves your consistency and speeds up your workflow. If your camera’s auto white balance works for you, keep on keepin’ on my friend.
But if you are using auto white balance and it’s leaving you seeing green, there are other ways to color correct your images. Try a camera preset, shooting in Kelvin or set a custom white balance using a gray card or Expo Disc. You might just find you have a new photography BFF that helps take your images to the next level.