white balance settings

 White balance  settings – Should you use the Auto setting? By Wendy Atkins   One thing that it is critical to get right in photography is the colour of the […]

 White balance  settings – Should you use the Auto setting?

By Wendy Atkins


One thing that it is critical to get right in photography is the colour of the light i.e. white balance.  If you are shooting jpgs it is important that you correctly set your white balance before shooting as there is little chance to change it afterwards.  If you are shooting in RAW there are many more options in post productions to adjust the colour of the light.  Either way, it is always better to start with choosing the most apt white balance at the time of shooting.


Why do we have to choose a white balance and what is wrong with just relying on the Auto setting?  Throughout the day the colour temperature of light changes based on where the sun is relative to the earth and how far the light has to travel.  For example in the morning sun light travels about 40km through the atmosphere, the air is relatively clean the light yields as a purple / mauve colour.  At midday there is less distance for the light to travel, about 5km, and it is a white colour.  In the afternoon it travels 40km through smog conditions and yields as a yellow hue.


If you hold a piece of white paper up in the three different times of the day our eye will adjust and at each stage will yield the colour of the paper as being white; take a photo though and the camera will yield the white paper as either purple / mauve (am) or yellow / orange (pm) unless you adjust the white balance on camera.


You can also use auto but how correct is auto?


Here is a test comparing the different options, the results were quite amazing. The difference in colour temperature and tint between:

1.  The camera setting for white balance (for example daylight, cloudy, shade etc.)

2.   Changing it in postproduction to appropriate white balance (using for example the RAW image editor)

3.   Using a grey card to find the exact colour as determined by the White Balance Tool (eyedropper) in post production software such as Lightroom or Photoshop, is quite marked.  Here are some examples:


These two photos were taken in complete shade.

white balance settings


The auto version has a much colder feel to the photo by way of using a lower colour temperature.


Here is another example, this one taken in a room lit by fluorescent lights (inside a shop).

The three white balance settings were:

1.  Setting on the camera “Auto” white Balance

2.  Choosing the “Fluorescent” setting on the camera

3.  Correcting the colour using the grey card and the eyedropper tool in post production.


white balance settings 2

Again the difference in output is quite distinct.  The auto camera setting is quite wrong giving stronger browns and a deeper red, the fluorescent setting, in this case, did a reasonable job and is very similar to the custom setting using the eyedropper.


So…getting this stuff right in camera obviously saves us a lot of time and yields much better results.  Taking the lazy option of keeping the camera set to Auto white balance is not going to do your art any favours.


Obviously you can’t always use a grey card but when you have the time to set up a shot it is worth the effort to have a reference shot including the card so that you can get an accurate result.





About Christian Tudor

professional photographer, main editor at Academy of Photography and