5 Easy Methods to get Perfect White Balance

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We see white as white under all lighting conditions, but the Camera cannot! White balance is a way to tell the camera about what is white.

It sounds very unreasonable at first to think that Camera cannot to see white as white. What seems obvious to us is definitely not obvious to Camera. But that’s the way it is. In fact, getting the right white balance is the most difficult thing for the cameras, especially in the smartphones probably in entry level point-and-shoot too.

DSLR cameras are becoming much better day by day in guessing what should be the proper white balance in a given scene. Yes, they guess and they are far from perfect.

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Just by following one of the 5 easy methods that I describe here, you will be off to getting the perfect white balance.

Before we jump into the methods,  let us first understand what is White Balance.

What is White Balance?

White balance is an algorithm in the Camera which tries to understand the current lighting situation and judge the possible light source, and then compensates to remove any possible color casts.

How accurate the judgement is, depends very much on how efficient the algorithm is. The truth is, it will not be perfect always. It is necessary for us to understand and help camera to compensate when necessary. Or do required correction in the post processing stage.

Why is White Balance Needed?

Color of an subject/object is affected due to different lighting conditions like daylight (sunny), cloudy light, fluorescent light, tungsten light, etc.

The color temperature of a light source is measured in Kelvin (K). Ideally the camera has to understand the color temperature of the light source in the particular scene and apply required color correction so that white appears as white. There will be noticeable color cast if the proper white balance is not chosen.

The color temperatures over 5,400K are called the warmer colors (looks orange), while lower color temperatures (2,700–3,500 K) are called the cooler colors (looks blue).

If the correct white balance setting is used for the light source, then the color correction works perfectly making the photograph look exactly same as what our eyes saw. If not, there will be a color cast.

The table below summarizes the effect of choosing a wrong white balance setting.

Actual Light Source

Wrong White Balance Setting

 Resulting Color Cast

Daylight (approx. 5400K)

Tungsten, Fluorescent

Blue Cast

Daylight (approx. 5400K)

Cloudy, Shade

Orange Cast

Cloudy (approx. 6500K)

Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight

Blue Cast

Cloudy (approx. 6500K)

Shade

Orange Cast

Fluorescent (approx. 3000K to 4200K)

Daylight, Cloudy, Shade

Orange Cast

Fluorescent (approx. 3000K to 4200K)

Tungsten

Blue Cast

Tungsten (2700K to 3300K)

Fluorescent, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade

Orange Cast

To make thing very simple, just remember this.

If the actual color temperature of the scene is X Kelvin, choosing white balance setting below X will have a blue cast and choosing white balance setting above X will have an orange cast.

Here’s another easy way to remember this:

(WB Temperature setting = Actual Light Source Temperature) = No Cast

(WB Temperature setting < Actual Light Source Temperature) = Blue Cast

(WB Temperature setting > Actual Light Source Temperature )= Orange Cast

For example, consider a daylight scene with 5400K. If the camera sets a white balance considerably less than 5400K then the photograph will have blue cast. Why? because camera thinks that the scene is having warmer colors and tries to bring it to cooler side making the photograph look blue!

On the other hand, if the camera sets a white balance considerably above 5400K then the photograph will have orange cast.

Let us look at the images to understand the color cast effects due to wrong White Balance setting so that we can appreciate why getting a perfect white balance is very important. Agree?

White Balance Settings. Great Egret image showing the effect of having wrong white balance settings

Great Egret images showing how a photograph looks with different white balance settings. By looking at the photograph you should be able to say which photographs has a blue cast and which ones have a orange cast. And of course, the properly balanced image too :)

 Now that we understand how bad a photograph might look like, let us have a look at what options we have. You can use any one of these to get the perfect White Balance.

Method 1: Select Auto White Balance and Correct it in the Post

This is the most convenient and easiest way to achieve perfect white balance. However, this requires you to shoot in RAW mode. If you shoot in JPEG only, then check out other methods, since you cannot change the white balance later.

This is all you have to do, to get it right, if you are shooting in RAW:

  • Select Auto White Balance
  • Take the photograph
  • Correct it in the Post Processing

Only issue with this technique is, if you do not post process the images on the same day, you might not remember what was the required white balance setting. Leading to a wrong white balance or a color cast at the end!

If you are are like me, a bit lazy about post processing, then probably avoid it However, my memory is quite strong 🙂

 Method 2: Choose the Standard White Balance Setting in the Field

Every camera comes with standard white balance settings like Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Tungsten/Incandescent, Flash, Shade and Custom.

Since the white balance issue is only with the camera, not with you, you can choose the right setting based on the lighting. Just dial in the right setting based on the lighting and you are all set!

 Good thing about this is, you can shoot in JPEG too, since you do not have to do any changes later.

However, here is the problem:

Suppose, you are shooting JPEG and set white balance to daylight and took few good photographs. Everything is going fine. Now, suddenly you see some great opportunity to photograph something unique and without much thought you took several photographs. You see that all your photographs a blue or orange cast due to wrong white balance. You cannot take more photographs since the opportunity is last. You ruined once-in-a-lifetime event because of one simple mistake.

Method 3: Choose the White Balance in the Field using Live View

Another way to get the correct white balance in the field is to switch to live view mode and see how the photograph looks like. The live view mode shows the white balance effect right on the LCD monitor so that you know if there is any color cast.

Try it now…yes right now. Follow these steps.

  1. Compose a scene
  2. Switch to live view mode
  3. Change the White Balance to standard settings like Daylight, Cloudy, etc and see the effect on the LCD monitor LIVE
  4. Press the shutter button, when you think the white balance is right. You got the shot what you were looking for!

The problem is that the live view is not cheap. It drains the battery in no time. Also, it is probably useless for bird or wildlife photography as you need to see the action in the viewfinder as you take burst shots.

Method 4: Choose the Custom White Balance in the Field

You can go one step further and select the custom white balance to get the perfect white balance. Custom white balance setting shows several numbers in Kelvin scale like 3000K, 4000K etc, which you can select to get the precise white balance.

All that you have to do is, select custom white balance and change the Kelvin number. Use the live view mode to see the effect right on the LCD monitor. This is like tuning the white balance much precisely as oppose to using the standard setting given by the manufacturer.

This is probably very useful when you have mixed lighting conditions. Like incandescent and fluorescent together or sunlight and shade together, etc.

Method 5: Choose the Custom White Balance using white object

Last but definitely not the least, is to show the camera what is white. Sounds crazy? Not really.

All that you have to do is, find an object in the scene which is white, like a white wall, white bird, white card, white car, etc. Use the custom white balance setting to lock the Kelvin temperature of that white subject/object (please check the camera manual for details).

Once you lock on the white balance setting for the white subject/object in the scene, Camera uses it for all other photographs.

This setting is generally used for studio settings where conditions are under control. For outdoor shooting, it can be time consuming, though not impossible.  Also, you have to remember to set it back to auto or standard setting.

 Do not get confused with 18% grey card that is most widely used by cinematographers/videographers. 18% grey card is very close to the true reflectance of human face. Since cinematography is mostly about human beings, it is of utmost importance for them to get the face perfectly exposed as opposed to anything else in the scene.

Conclusion

Choosing auto white balance and shooting in RAW mode is the most feasible solution, in my opinion. I use it regularly. Depending on the situation, I use any one of the other 4 methods.

When you are using anything other than auto mode, always be very conscious of the white balance setting. You need to remember to change it.

Whatever method you are using, don’t forget to review the photograph in LCD monitor and probably correct the white balance right in the field.

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Let me know which method do you use? I would love to hear about any other method you are using. It might be helpful for other readers too.

If something is not clear, do let me know in your comments. I will try to address it.

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16 Responses to 5 Easy Methods to get Perfect White Balance

  1. Carlski January 5, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    I never shoot in anything else than RAW just because I want to have the maximum possibility to correct things in post processing. Then I don’t have so worry so much about the current light or scene, I just shoot and correct things afterwards. And since cameras today have such a great dynamic range, far greater than what can be displayed on paper or on screen, there is always detail available in the highlights and shadows 🙂

    • Prathap January 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

      Dear Carlski,
      Perfect! Shooting in RAW is much more fun and more creative I must say. Will throw some light on this in an article.
      Great dynamic range, details in highlights and shadows is definitely making our life much simpler. Need to cover these topics too 🙂 thanks for bringing it up!

  2. Rajesh January 19, 2014 at 3:00 am #

    This is very good information, thanks for sharing.
    I love shooting with Custom (K) white balance and in RAW format. This gives me complete control over image during post processing.

    • Prathap January 20, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

      That’s very interesting to know Rajesh. Shooting with custom White balance + RAW format definitely is worth it. But I wonder how do you manage for bird photography? Choosing custom WB is probably not very ideal sometimes. What is your opinion?

  3. vaishak January 19, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Hai
    I’m vaishak from kerala i interesting in wildest photographi but my family situation is very poor any help for mE contact with my E-mail id…

  4. DiamondBeezer November 10, 2014 at 4:29 am #

    Hi
    Good article. The biggest issue I have, and you mention, is remembering to change the White Balance setting back to Auto after a session with it set differently. I’ve sets of blue or orange photos from the next session to illustrate this!

    I usually shoot RAW, but have also ruined jpgs in this way.

    • Prathap November 14, 2014 at 3:02 am #

      Thank you for mentioning it again DiamondBeezer. I am sure lot of us have gone through this phase of “learning from our own mistakes”. I hope others can learn from us 🙂

  5. dr pk sahu November 17, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Thank u for sharing such a useful information.

    • Prathap December 3, 2014 at 12:18 am #

      My pleasure! Dr Pk Sahu

  6. Driesd November 19, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    What about using a WB-FI WHITE BALANCE FILTER ,COMMENTS PLEASE

    • Prathap December 3, 2014 at 12:17 am #

      Hi Driesd, Sorry about the delayed response. I am not sure on the WB Filter. Would it be possible to give some more details please?

  7. Ron June 12, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Hi Prathap I am relearning from your articles what I had been taught and forgotten until now. I am now shooting in Jpeg/RAW and will see how I go. I usually set my WB in the field but having RAW I can tweak it if necessary. Further comments later Regards to all Ron from Australia.

  8. Carlos Rodrigues July 2, 2015 at 2:48 am #

    Very good explained. I take my shots in RAW and when is possible, adjust white balance at some of the camera presets. When is not possible, I set it to auto and make the necessary adjustments at post processing images. This is the way that worked better so far for me.

  9. Rajib Roychowdhury July 5, 2015 at 6:58 am #

    Very useful tutorial for WB corrections. But you have specified that “Color temperatures over 5,000K are called cooler colors (looks blue), while lower color temperatures (2,700–3,500 K) are called warmer colors (looks orange)”. But, I have seen in Canon provided Post-Processing software to correct the WB, they mentioned lower Kelvins for the BLUEISH CAST (cooler tone, below 5000K) and higher Kelvins for the ORANGE CAST (warmer tone, over 5400K). So, I am little bit confused for it. Kindly clarify this so that it’ll be helpful to me.
    Thanks and Regards

    • Prathap July 6, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      Hi Rajib,
      Thanks a lot for pointing it out. It’s definitely my mistake. My bad!
      Here’s the updated line “The color temperatures over 5,400K are called the warmer colors (looks orange), while the lower color temperatures (2,700–3,500 K) are called the cooler colors (looks blue).”
      The table explaining about how a color cast appears is a perfect way to remember. Also, I have added another easy method to remember about the color cast. Do check it out.
      I hope this clarifies your doubt. Thanks again!
      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  10. Vijay June 1, 2018 at 9:31 am #

    Hi Prathap,

    Please help with white balance method for low light landscape photography during “Twilight”, Blue hour and also Golden hour.

    (1)White Balance in the Field using Live View
    (2) Custom White Balance in the Field
    (3) Custom white balance using white object (since very low light)

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