White Balance

Setting White Balance

Question: I’ve heard conflicting recommendations on where to set the white balance on my digital camera. Some sources advise the use of automatic white balance; others say to use a different white-balance setting for each specific light source. What do you think? –N. ThomasPortland, Oregon

Answer: Auto-white balance (AWB) has usually given me excellent results, but what’s best for you is dependent on your workflow. If you’re photographing in the RAW image file format, it may or may not make any difference to you because you can choose any white balance you like in the RAW image converter. However, some photographers find AWB to be inconsistent in color and so prefer to set a preset or custom white balance to keep all shots consistent. In your RAW converter, you can use “as shot” (based on the white balance from the camera, either AWB or whatever you set) and you can select any of the other settings, even a color temperature setting, to visually fine-tune the white-balance color of your image.

But if you photograph in the JPEG image file format, the color balance you set on your camera will make a big difference in the image that you bring into your image-editing software. Be aware that white-balance settings like “cloudy” or “overcast” on some cameras (but not all) add a very warm tone to your image that will be hard to remove if it’s later not desired. This is one reason why different photographers give different recommendations.

You may also find that you always want to shoot sunrise and sunset conditions with a preset white balance. Often, the AWB will remove color from such a scene that we expect to see in a photograph.

One new image-conversion program, Adobe Lightroom, gives the photographer shooting JPEG almost the same initial editing capabilities as a RAW file and will allow the photographer to fine-tune the image prior to bringing it into the image-editing software. If you’re photographing images for a composite panorama, you’ll need to set a manual white balance, generally “daylight,” so that the color balance remains consistent throughout the set of images.

When shooting subjects that are gray, like this gray jay in the snow in Yellowstone, you need to produce clean images without a colorcast. I had the camera set to AWB and I fine-tuned the image later in Photoshop. The image was captured in RAW to give me all the advantages possible. A 500mm lens handheld and attached to a Canon EOS-1D Mark II was used.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.