White Balance Modes & Auto White Balance

Now that you understand what white balance actually is and the differences between light temperatures, how do you get your camera to read the light properly? Today, most cameras are incredibly accurate with their automatic white balance modes. Many cameras will have preset white balance modes, that are basically just setting it to read light in different Kelvin temperatures. By shifting through these settings, you can see how your camera reads the light differently. These modes are made for common lighting conditions, so, the camera will adjust the color balance based on the average temperatures of the Kelvin scale. The goal of each is to neutralize the color temperature back to ‘daylight’ balance.

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Here are common white balance modes:

  • Auto white balance (AWB) has advanced greatly in reliability, and it should set the color temperature correctly in all but the most complicated lighting situations. It ​ works by evaluating the scene and deciding the most appropriate white point in it. The setting works reasonably well if the color temperature of the ambient light is between 3,000-7,000K. However, if there is an abundance of one color in the image, or if there is no actual white for the meter to use as a reference, the system can be fooled, resulting in an image with a color cast.
  • Daylight/Sunny is used in ‘normal’ lighting conditions, in bright sunshine. It will balance for a color temperature of around 5,200K, which is actually very slightly cooler than noon sunlight. However, it is very rare that you will actually be shooting at noon and so this setting will work best for the greatest part of the day.
  • Cloudy can be used on an overcast day to warm up the color tone but also at sunset or twilight. This sets a color temperature of around 6,000K. It is best used on days when the sun is behind the clouds, creating a very even and diffuse light.
  • Shade is similar to the ‘cloudy’ preset and either can be used to fine-tune the color balance if one does not get it quite right. Although we perceive shaded areas to be colder, the color temperature is actually higher (bluer), usually around 7,000K. This setting is most suited to areas of light shade rather than very heavy shadow.
  • Flash is also designed to add warmth to the colors when using a flash. For use with either a built-in flash or an external Speedlite. Flash is a very white light with a color temperature around 6,000K.
  • Tungsten can be used indoors under incandescent light when the auto white balance has not removed the yellow or orange cast completely. The first of the artificial lighting settings, this assumes a color temperature of around 3,200K and is suitable for most tungsten lamps that normally emit a yellow light.
  • Fluorescent is useful in businesses that use fluorescent light when the auto white balance does not remove the blue or green cast completely. The second artificial light setting is set for around 4000K, the approximate color temperature of fluorescent lights. The problem with fluorescent lights is that there are six types, each with a different color temperature. They also emit an interrupted spectrum with peaks over quite a wide range. To complicate things further, they also change over time, gradually altering the color temperature of light they emit.
  • PC-1, PC-2 and PC-3. These allow you to save the three white balance settings that you regularly use. This is useful if you do a lot of studio photography, for example, and always use the same lights. It enables you to save the color temperature of those lights, so you do not have to color balance each time. However, initially the settings need to be made on the camera via a computer using supplied software, at least in Canon cameras.

With all these options, it is possible to obtain a completely neutral tone in most shooting situations. However, is this always best? Consider a fairground where there is a diverse mix of light sources − tungsten giving a yellow glow, fluorescent adding some green, not to mention all the neon lights. If you were to balance all the light sources present, the result could end up looking very clinical and fail to convey the fun, warmth and atmosphere of the show. So, do not always assume neutral is best − be a little creative and see what happens.

Continue to lesson 46: Understanding picture profiles and in-camera color presets