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Color Balance Settings on Your Camera

by Roger N. Clark

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What color setting should you use on your camera? Many beginning photographers select auto white balance. Auto white balance can work well in some situations, but not in all. If you record raw, the white balance does not matter, EXCEPT checking the histogram and LCD for the best exposure. If you use auto white balance on scenes that are largely one color, like sunsets, the auto white balance will make the sunset very dull. And the auto white balance will change the histogram, and thus the potential exposure which would affect people recording only jpegs. But even if recording raw, having the white balance close to the final intended image allows one to evaluate exposure better than if auto white balance is used.

Here are some examples of auto white balance versus the correct or other white balances and the effects on the final image. If you record only jpegs, set the white balance for the conditions in which you are images. For example, on cloudy days, set the white balance to the cloudy symbol on your digital camera.

If you make mosaics using multiple images, it is very important to keep the white balance the same for each image, and that will not happen with auto white balance.

Here are some examples where auto white balance fails.

Figure 1a (left), and Figure 1b (right). Sunrise with auto white balance (left) and cloudy white balance (right). Visually, the scene looked like the image on the right. The auto white balance tried to create some blue in the image that was dominantly read.

Figure 1c (left), and Figure 1d (right). Sunrise with daylight white balance (left) and shade white balance (right). The daylight is close the to visual scene, but a little muted, while shade white balance saturated the reds too much. (Some of the differences are lost in the conversion to sRGB for the web.)

Figure 1e (left), and Figure 1f (right). Sunrise with fluorescent white balance (left) and tungsten white balance (right). Neither white balance correctly represents the scene.

Figure 2a (top) and Figure 2b (bottom). Close up of a baboon. The image on top used auto white balance and created specs of blue in the hair, as well as an overall dull yellow cast to the hair and blue cast to the nose. The image below the auto white balance shows the correct colors.

Figure 3a (top) and Figure 3b (bottom). Mother and cub lion playing. The top image was made with auto white balance and shows a blue cast. The green in the background looks bluish and the cub's feet look bluish. The image below (3b) shows the correct color balance made with a cloudy setting. The white fur looks white, the grass looks green.

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First Published June 5, 2011
Last updated June 5, 2011.