Understanding White Balance in Photography in 7 Minutes

Why do your images look too “warm” or “cool”? Chances are it's the white balance, and you need to understand what it is!

What is white balance in photography? Why does it matter? And how can I adjust camera white balance settings to improve images?

As an amateur photographer who’s been shooting for five years, I get these questions a lot from many beginner photographers.

White balance in photography, in fact, is an essential element of any good image that makes the image look natural and appealing in different types of light.

In this article, I will introduce you to what camera white balance is, explain the various white balance settings and how to use them, and give you practical tips to significantly improve images.

By the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll be able to comfortably select the proper white balance camera settings for every shooting situation.

What is White Balance in Photography?

White balance in photography is a camera setting of adjusting the white color to a proper white and achieving “accurate” or natural colors for the scene.

If we set camera white balance correctly, white objects will appear white, and images will get natural-looking colors without color cast. 

Why Does White Balance Matter? – White Looks Different in Different Lighting

You may wonder:

  • Why do I need to tell camera to adjust the color?
  • Aren’t whites?
  • Doesn’t the camera select the accurate colors for images already?

To answer these questions, we need to understand that whites and other colors can look unnatural in various lighting conditions. 

For example, white may look a little yellow under fluorescent lights and incandescent lights; but in the shade, white looks a little blue.

With human eye, we don’t notice unnatural colors in real-time. That’s because human eyes automatically adjust colors under various types of light. They see white as white, red as red, no matter what kind of lighting conditions – either under green or white light, in the day or at night.

Color Cast – How Digital Camera Sees Colors

Unlike human eyes, digital cameras can’t judge what is white under multiple light sources. They have a more “objective” way of seeing colors, and pictures look sometimes neutral, but sometimes too blue, sometimes too orange under certain lighting conditions. This is called “color cast.”

Color casts are a common problem in photography. Most of the light sources you’ll be using while shooting comes with different color casts.

white balance and color cast
snow mountain – a slightly blueish color cast

In the picture above, the snow looks blue, not white as it should be. With the bluish color cast, the picture looks unnatural and unpleasing to the viewer’s eyes. 

white balance photography
White balance – wrong and right.

Look at this picture you will see the toy to the left has a blue color, not yellow as it should be. But the toy to the right appears the original yellow color without any color cast. 

White Balance and Color Cast

As we discussed before, white balance is a digital camera tool to correct unwanted color cast so you have the most accurate possible colors. To be brief: 

White Balance = Color Adjustment

So how can you remove unnatural color casts? Simple. You correct color temperatures by adjusting white balance settings, either in-camera or post-processing software.

What is Color Temperature?

Color temperature is a fundamental concept to understanding the camera’s white balance in photography. It’s also an intimidating, confusing term for beginner and amateur photographers, because scientists, not photographers, invented the term color temperature. 

In simple language, color temperature is the color of the light source. Every type of light has its unique color, or ‘color temperature.’

Light = Color

For example, a candle emits orange light, and ambient light on an overcast day might look a little blue. The midday sun’s rays have a blue tint, while tungsten lights produce yellow or red light.

How Color Temperature Is Measured?

Color temperature is measured in a number known as kelvin or “K” for short.

Color Temperature = Kelvin (K)

Low Kelvin numbers refer to “warm” colors, more reddish or yellowish tones, and high Kelvin numbers refer to “cold” colors, more bluish tones.

Examples are matches that have a hot color temperature. Incandescent light bulbs have warm color temperatures. Sunsets and sunrises have slightly less warm color temperatures. Tungsten light bulbs have less warm color temperatures.

On the other hand, white fluorescent lights have a little bit of cold color temperatures. Natural light on a cloudy day has much colder color temperatures, and shady lights have relatively very cold color temperatures.

White Light = 5500 Kelvin 

‘Warm ‘lights like red and orange have color temperatures around 3000K or lower, while ‘cool ‘lights like blue and white are 5500K or above. In a nutshell,

the Warmer the Light, the Lower the Number
 the Cooler the Light, the Higher the Number

Color Temperature Chart

The following chart gives you a few different light sources and their rough color temperature values.

How Does Changing White Balance Affect Your Pictures?

As the name suggests, white balance (WB) is the process of “balancing” the color “white” or color temperatures in your image. If it’s set incorrectly, it can either make the picture look too warm, or too cool. 

To bring the color temperature back to neutral, white balance adds opposite color temperature to the picture. 

For example, if you want your picture to look cooler, you’ll have to choose a warmer color temperature and vice versa so your camera can compensate with the opposite color temperature. 

How to Set Color Temperature / White Balance on Your Camera?

You can easily adjust the white balance settings on most DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

There are four methods to set the white balance in-camera. These include:

  1. Auto White Balance Mode
  2. Semi-Automatic White Balance Modes
  3. Set Custom White Balance With White Paper/Grey Card
  4. manual white balance with Kelvin Mode

Where to Set White Balance on Your Camera

Your camera has a WB button or a WB setting (somewhere in the camera menus) to change between different white balance presets. These presets vary depending on the manufacturer and camera model.

For example, the Sony a7iii has eleven white balance settings on the camera menus, including

  • eight semi-automatic modes (daylight, cloudy, shade, tungsten, etc.)
  • one automatic mode (AWB)
  • two manual white balance modes: custom white balance and kelvin mode (k).

Automatic White Balance

1. Auto White Balance Mode

Auto white balance mode is the default setting of digital cameras because it’s the most convenient mode for photographers. 

As a beginner, if you have no idea about what white balance is and how to use it, you can simply leave this setting as “auto” in your camera, which will help you avoid making mistakes. 

In auto white balance mode (AWB), the camera analyzes the colors in the scene you’re trying to photograph, looks for the brightest spot and makes that spot white again; then based on the white color, the camera decides what color temperature settings for the scene you’re photographing. 

Auto White Balance and Natural Light

The camera’s auto white balance works pretty well most of the time, especially when photographing with natural light across the entire scene.

Auto White Balance and Mixed Lighting

Auto white balance is not accurate in mixed lighting situations. This is because light sources are complicated under fluorescent lights, incandescent light, or other scenes with multiple light sources.

In auto white balance mode, camera can’t determine how many light sources are there, where these light sources are located. Instead, auto white balance just calculates an average color temperature for the scene, then uses it as the white balance. 

A good example of mixed lighting, is when you are inside the interior of a coffee shop, you have natural light from open windows combined with soft, warm incandescent light from a ceiling. 

The best solution to get the most accurate white balance settings in mixed lighting situations is to use semi-automatic white balance.

2. Semi-Automatic White Balance Modes (Using White Balance Presets)

white balance presets

Using Semi-Automatic white balance modes gives you more control under various types of light.

Typical white balance presets for most DSLR and mirrorless cameras include

  • tungsten
  • fluorescent
  • daylight
  • cloudy
  • and shade

When to Use Tungsten (3200 K) White Balance 

Use Tungsten (3200 K) under incandescent bulbs when shooting indoors, such as in a photo studio. Tungsten is hot in color temperature, so cooling the colors down will counteract this setting. Or you will get a very blue image.

When to Use Fluorescent (4000 K) White Balance

Use Fluorescent (4000 K) when under fluorescent lights. These lights are relatively common while shooting indoors.

Fluorescent lights turn your subject green or blueish, so this setting brings your image back a natural look.

There are many different types of fluorescent bulbs; some cameras, such as the Sony Alpha series, provide four selections for this setting.

When to Use Flash (5500 K) White Balance

This setting is primarily used for artificial light such as studio work.

When using on-camera flash, most cameras automatically switch to flash white balance.

This setting picks the correct white balance when there is inadequate lighting available.

When to Use Daylight (5600 K) White Balance

Daylight (5600 K) is ideal for bright days while shooting outdoors.

For example, when photographing landscape photography, Daylight (5600 K) is a good start for a mountain landscape mid-morning with the sun shining on the subject. This setting will add a bit of a warmer effect to your images.

When to Use Cloudy (6000 K) White Balance

This setting is ideal for cloudy days. But it’s also quite effective while shooting in a shady area.

In terms of types of photography, this preset is ideal for landscape photography and outdoor photography.

This preset warms up the subject and surroundings and yields warmer images than sunlight.

When to Use Shade (7000 K) White Balance

Use Shade (7000 K) white balance for shades and sunsets. Shade produces cooler color temperatures or bluer images than clouds- so this setting will add even more warmth than cloudy.

3. Set Custom White Balance With White Paper/Grey Card

Set Custom White Balance With White Paper/Grey Card

When your scene has mixed lighting with different color temperatures, setting a custom white balance with a white paper/gray card is the best way to obtain the correct colors.

It is also the most popular choice by professional photographers. It involves three steps:

Step 1: Photograph Something White Or Mid-Gray

First, take a photo of something white or mid-gray in the same light illuminating your intended subject.

You can choose anything from a white square to a piece of paper.

Some photographers use a white balance card (also known as a “gray card” or “18% gray card”) for the same reason.

It needs to fill, or mostly fill, the frame, then press the shutter button like you would take a picture.

It is done to tell your camera to analyze the lighting conditions in your scene, avoiding mixed lighting mistakes.

Step 2: Choose the Custom White Balance Settings

Once you’ve taken a sample photo, press the WB button on your camera’s body, turn the dial then choose Custom White Balance mode when the icon is displayed.

Step 3: Tell Your Camera To Use The Reference Image You Just Took

Press the “SET” button, directing your camera to use the reference image you took in step one.

Then the camera will scan the color temperature of the reference image and store this information, adjusting the white balance based on the image you selected.

Your camera will activate the white balance derived from this reference image for all future photos under the same lighting conditions until you change the white balance modes or choose a different reference image.

Keep in mind that each time your light conditions change, you will need to adjust the white balance by repeating the above process.

4. Manual White Balance Settings with Kevin

Kelvin white balance setting is an easy but powerful method for your camera. It’s also a fully manual white balance settings. I use this method very often, mostly when shooting outdoors.

How Do You Change the Kelvin on A Camera?

Follow these six simple steps you will get a proper white balance:

  1. Select the White Balance Menu in your menu system.
  2. Scroll through the White Balance menu until you see the “K” icon. Choose it by pressing the OK button.
  3. Use the scroll wheel to set the Kelvin color temperature to 5000K as the starting point.
  4. Take a picture at 5000K, then preview your image using the viewfinder on your camera.
  5. If the image you just took is too yellow, turn the color temperature down below 5000K, and you’re going to be adding blue to your image. If it’s too blue, turn the color temperature up above 5000K, you’re going to be adding yellow.
  6. Repeat step #5 until you get a correct white balance.

If you can’t remember the exact Kelvin values, and if your images are too yellow, just turn the temperature down. If they are too blue, turn the temperature up. Eventually, you’ll find a setting to suit your needs/the actual lighting conditions.

For instance, if you’re shooting sunset, make it more yellow and golden, and adjust Kelvin’s value to match your scene. If you’re shooting in a very yellowish-lit tungsten location, simply bring it down to around 3300K.

One helpful tip is to turn “Live View” on and set the Kelvin value up or down. That way, you can see what the image will look like at the selected value in real time.

Which Color Temperature/ White Balance Mode Do You Choose?

Choosing a color temperature/white balance mode is very subjective, and everyone has his personal preference.

Color temperature varies from warm for a cozy atmosphere to cool for a clean and modern look. Some photographers favor cooler tones as part of their editing style. Others enjoy warmer tones for aesthetic purposes. There is no ‘best’ color temperature/white balance mode in photography. 

It’s a good idea to experiment with different color temperatures to give you a look and feel you want, and choose the color temperature/white balance mode that works best for you. 

For example, when you stroll around at sunset, a color temperature of 2000 Kelvin is a good starting point for the reddish light of the sunset.

When you are at office, you may use a color temperature of 4000 Kelvin for the fluorescent light over your desk.

For the ambient light on a foggy and overcast day, you can set a color temperature of 7000 Kelvin. 

Having said that, you can simply follow these guidelines to choose proper color temperatures:

1. Beginners/you’re Just Getting Started – Always Shoot on Auto White Balance Mode.

Camera’s auto white balance setting does a good job in most lighting conditions, especially in natural(single) light.

As a beginner, you can easily get frustrated with your gear and camera settings such as ISO, aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, etc. 

Using the Auto White Balance setting is perfectly safe for you. Once you’re at a more advanced level, then move to Semi-Automatic white balance modes. 

2. More Advanced Level/hobbyist – Shoot on Semi-Automatic white balance modes.

As a hobbyist, you hone your skills all day and night. You want to know how to operate the camera well and what’s needed to be a more accurate or more natural color preference for good shots.

Shooting on preset is the right direction for you. If you want to become better, mastering white balance will make a difference.

3. Professional Photographers – Choose Custom White Balance Mode, Manual White Balance with Kelvin Mode, or Shoot in Raw.

You already know you need to change this preset for specific lighting situations, such as tungsten.

Your camera can struggle to deal with more complicated lighting situations, such as the two extremes of the Kelvin (color temperature) scale – in very warm candlelight or tungsten lighting or very cool cloud lighting or shade lighting.

Do you want more yellow? Warmer? Colder? Thankfully, post-processing software allows you to change the white balance easily if you shoot raw (A RAW file is simply a digital image file with minimal procession and uncompression).

For these reasons, custom white balance mode, Kelvin white balance mode, and shooting RAW have become the most popular choices by professional photographers.

JPEG/TIFF Shooter, RAW Shooter, When to Adjust White Balance?

JPEG mode is the default setting for many digital cameras.

If you’re just starting in photography, shooting JPEGs instead of RAW is the best way to understand your camera better.

If you already have some technical knowledge of your camera and editing, and want to delve into processing, it’s better to shoot RAW.

1. For JPEG/TIFF Shooter – Adjust White Balance in Camera

Getting the in-camera white balancing correct for JPEG/TIFF shooters. Adjusting the white balance later can be quite damaging to the image, and you might never be able to get the colors correct in post-processing software.

2. For RAW Shooter – Adjust White Balance in Post-Processing Software

White balance alone doesn’t matter when shooting RAW. You can simply ignore the white balance settings in-camera when shooting RAW since you can fully control the white balance afterward while processing images in the RAW processing software.

White Balance Adjustment In Post-Processing Software

Suppose you have a good understanding of photo editing and don’t want to worry about setting the white balance in your camera.

You can simply ignore the white balance settings by always using an auto white balance.

As long as you shoot RAW, you can fully control white balance afterward in post-processing software.

Since changing the white balance of JPEG and TIFF image files can be challenging, ensure you’re shooting RAW and forget about JPEG files if you want to change the white balance in post-processing.

1. Set White Balance In Lightroom

There are three ways to adjust the white balance in Lightroom.

1. Use Eyedropper Tool (known in Lightroom Classic as The White Balance Selector)

The fastest and easiest way to get proper white balance is to use the eyedropper tool.

Follow these steps to set the white balance with the eyedropper tool:

  1. Select eyedropper, and run the cursor over the image.
  2. Click on any neutral point on the image – pure white, pure black, or any neutral gray in between which to sample.
  3. View how the tool will show you what your photo will look like at the navigator in the top left of the window.
  4. Once you find a tone that you’re happy with, click here to set it as the target neutral and let Lightroom take care of the rest.
  5. Within seconds, it will activate the white balance settings.

2. Use the White Balance Presets

Open the dropdown menu just above the white balance sliders; you will find the options including shot, auto, daylight, cloudy, etc.

  1. Choose the white balance preset from the dropdown list — there are Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Custom white balance, and Auto modes.
  2. Move the temperature slider to the right to make the image more YELLOW and to the left to make the image more BLUE.
  3. Use the Tint slider to adjust the right balance of purple/green. Move the tint slider to the right to add more PURPLE. Move the tint slider to the left to add more GREEN. (Tint is when you mix the color with white and lighten that color.)

3. Use the Auto White Balance Tool

If an image has no obvious neutral points, the auto option as a starting point is good for you.

Camera’s auto white balance does an excellent job of getting accurate color balance, but it’s not perfect. Just ignore this auto option if you’re trying to develop your style.

2. Set White Balance In Photoshop

Set White Balance In photoshop

There are three ways to correct the white balance in Photoshop. These include:

  1.  Eyedropper tool
  2. Color balance adjustment layer
  3. Adobe Camera RAW

1. Eyedropper Tool

For beginners, the eyedropper tool is the easiest way to correct white balance in Photoshop. It is a similar way to the one I often use in Lightroom.

  1. Convert your image layer into a smart object.
  2. Go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter. You’ll find the eyedropper under the “White Balance” card.
  3. Click on it and then choose any neutral area in the image that is supposed to be gray or white.
  4. Once you find a tone that suits your needs, click it to set it as the target neutral. It will remove the unnatural colors in the image.

2. Color Balance Adjustment Layer

In addition to the eyedropper tool, the color balance adjustment layer is an easy tool to change the white balance in Photoshop.

  1. In the Adjustments panel, click the Color Balance () icon.
  2. Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. Click OK in the New Layer dialog box.
  3. In the Layers panel, click Create new fill or adjustment layer () icon. Choose Color Balance from the context menu options.
  4. You can also start with Image > Adjustments > Color Balance

This type of adjustment layer lets you change the balance of the primary colors (red, green, and blue) in the image. original image.

Color balance adjustment layer works best when correcting colors that appear too warm or too cool, or creating a specific mood or atmosphere in the image.

3. Adobe Camera RAW

Another easy method to adjust the White Balance in Photoshop is by using Adobe Camera RAW. This tool is found by going to Filter -> Camera RAW Filter…

To adjust the white balance quickly, select the White Balance tool under the Basic panel in Edit in the toolbar of the “Camera Raw” dialog box. Then click an area in the picture with your pointer that you want to be neutral-colored (white or gray). After that, Adobe Camera RAW automatically corrects the picture’s white balance.

3. Set White Balance In Snapseed

Set White Balance In Snapseed

Snapseed is a free yet easy-to-use professional iPhone/Android photo editing app.

Its powerful editing tool lets you quickly change the white balance of your image, even if you’re a complete beginner.

  1. Open your image in Snapseed and click on “Tools.”

  1. Select the “White Balance” icon.

  1. Adjust the color balance of your image. There are two options to choose from Temperature and Tint. Temperature makes the colors in your image cooler (bluer) or warmer (more yellow/orange). Tint adds a green or purple color tint to your image. You can view these options by touching the image.

  1. swipe left/right to increase/decrease the effect of temperature and tint until you’re happy with the image’s look or feel.

  1. Auto adjust option: You can also click on this option to adjust the temperature and tint automatically.

  1. When you’ve finished the adjustment, tap the checkmark to apply your setting.

White Balance In-Camera vs. Post-Processing, Which is Better?

Setting white balance either in-camera or in post-processing is a personal choice.

For beginner photographers, the amount of information about photography/post-processing online can be overwhelming. You’ve got a lot on your plate, from

  • composition
  • exposure
  • and lighting to camera gear
  • and learning how to use it

Using automatic features like auto white balance or white balance presets in the camera while shooting is best for you. Just don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

On the other hand, if you have a strong understanding of your camera and a passion for the art of photography, and you also want to learn more about processing, then setting white balance in post-processing is a more accurate solution for you.

The only exception is if you have hundreds of images that need to adjust white balance, it’s better to set the proper white balance in-camera before shooting since adjusting white balance in post-processing afterward can be time-consuming.

White Balance in Photography FAQ

Q: Can white balance affect exposure?

A: No. The exposure and the white balance are two independent parameters of a picture. They have nothing to do with each other.

A wrong exposure will not modify the colors of a picture. For a good picture, both have to be correct. 

Q: What would you set white balance when shooting pre-sunrise or post-sunset?

A: Pre-sunrise: be sure to arrive early enough to set up and be ready when the light is right. If you’re shooting 30 minutes before sunrise – better to turn the auto white balance off and use either shade or cloudy presets to bring out the warm tones.

Post sunset: set the color temperature of sunset somewhere around 2500K.

Setting your camera’s white balance preset to daylight will bring out your image’s warm yellow and orange tones.

Cloudy and shade presets could work but to a lesser extent.

Q: What if I want to retain the warmth of a lamp or tungsten?

Should I white balance the correct Kelvin then make it warm/oranger in the post, or should I do that in-camera by putting in the ‘wrong’ white balance, making the lamp light seem warm like the human eye is seeing it? Thanks!

A: Different white balance presets convey different moods.

Your best bet in a situation like this is to shoot the image RAW and correct it in post-processing software if it works for you.

Q: If I shoot multiple scenes during a cloudy day outside when clouds may let the sunshine cover it after some time do you need to recalibrate WB each time I shoot, or should I keep a fixed WB?

A: The light can change minute-to-minute during a cloudy day.

Setting a Kelvin white balance is an easy way in this situation.

For details of this method, you can check #4: Set Kelvin White Balance Manually Without White Paper/Grey Card in the article.

Q: If I have a candle and want to get the white balance for it.

On my GH5, I use the automatic white balance.

I hold it over a white point and click OK. Then I get the problem you showed.

If the light is like 2700K, should I manually set the White Balance to 2700 to get the orange tones in my picture? It is the thing that confuses me a lot.

A: If you want to keep the orange light in your candle image, set the white balance somewhere around 4500-5000k to retain the warmth of the picture.

Q: If you photograph a person at the beach at sunset/sunrise and use an off-camera flash, what Kelvin would you roughly set at?

A: Every sunset is different, and tastes vary.

Generally speaking, setting your camera’s white balance preset to daylight will bring out the warm yellow and orange tones in your image.

You also need to take some test shots. With patience, you’ll get the photo you want!

Q: How do you fix raw photos taken with a mixture of lighting sources? I was at an event with tungsten, LED, and maybe fluorescent lighting.

A: Correcting mixed light is not easy because if you correct for one source, the areas of the image illuminated by the other source will be off.

Fortunately, most mixed-light photos can be fixed in post-production and are often more accessible than on location.

Your best bet is to shoot the image RAW and edit your image in Lightroom for a better look.

Conclusion

I hope that the information above provides you with a clearer picture of white balance and how to use it effectively for the best possible shots.

Selecting what type of white balance mode is very subjective, and everyone has a personal preference.

It’s best to practice working in different white balance modes if you still feel unsure about what kind of white balance to use.

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