Photographic images look their best when the colors are balanced to match what our eyes see in the real world. The way to ensure this happens, is by setting white balance correctly for your scene at the time of exposure.
Is auto the best setting option?
Digital cameras come with a setting called “Auto White Balance (Auto WB / AWB)”. Using this setting seems like a simple solution, doesn’t it? Well, it really all depends on your camera and if it will make an estimate for the white balance setting for the current scene.
When using AWB, that estimate isn’t always the one that gives the most accurate color to match the original scene. The image may have an odd color cast, having the effect of making the image either too blue (cool color cast) or too yellow (warm color cast).
Setting white balance
Digital cameras do a reasonable job of getting the colors looking like the real thing for most scenes and it works best when the scene has some white or grey to help it along. Where it tends to go wrong is, when the scene is mostly filled with one color, such as the green found in a forest.
Estimating white balance can also be problematic when the scene has low contrast. Meaning the ratio of light tones to dark tones.
Improve the look of the colors in your images, by setting white balance to match the type of light illuminating your subject.
Take a look at the ambient lighting
What is illuminating your subject? Is it daylight, cloudy or is your subject situated in the shade? Maybe the indoor lighting is incandescent/tungsten or fluorescent? Each light source illuminates your subject with a different color temperature – from a cool blue to a warm yellow/orange tone – and you must adjust the setting to correct for the lighting conditions.
Digital cameras have white balance presets for most common lighting situations:
- For outdoors – daylight, cloudy, shade
- For artificial lights – tungsten (incandescent bulbs), florescent, flash
A more precise method is is also very inexpensive
That method involves using an 18% gray card/target. With the gray card you can snap an image of the card. Then use that image to set a custom white balance setting. This is done in every location. And may need to be redone if ambient light changes while shooting. Here is one option for a grey target (clicking the image shows you the item on Amazon) last I checked was around $7.00
The way our eyes see color is very different from the way our digital devices decode it. Add to that the fact that different devices interpret color in different ways. There is huge potential for your images to look wrong when you get them up on the screen. Fortunately, photographers can set the white balance manually to get color right.
Many modern digital cameras also allow you to set a specific numeric value for your white balance. This is a more advanced topic that will be covered in a future blog post.
Have fun taking photos in different lighting to practice taking your shots while setting white balance appropriately.