Light and Color: White Balance Made Easy

by Kerry Drager

Coast at Dawn - Sunlight WB
Coast at Dawn - Sunlight WB
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
The color of light is managed in your digital camera with the setting called white balance (WB). But things can get confusing with the many WB presets and custom settings, so it’s no wonder many digital photographers simply set WB on automatic and forget about fine-tuning. However, in its quest to “balance” things out, auto white balance (AWB) might strip the tones of an amber sunset or a pink sunrise. Or on a bluish day - with snow or fog - you may wish to retain the cool color cast (since cool suggests coldness), but AWB might warm up the light.

Isn’t it better if you make the decision yourself and take control of how your camera renders the colors of light?

Portrait in Overcast - Sunlight WB
Portrait in Overcast - Sunlight WB
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved

One WB setting for most scenes

Many photographers have found that they can get by with one setting most of the time and change WB only in specialty situations. Jim and I both set our camera on a daylight (sunlight) WB setting all day long, from dawn to dusk. We even use it at twilight, where the daylight setting captures the range of colors from the warm golden lighting of buildings to the bold blue of the sky. We feel that the sunlight/daylight setting most consistently reproduces the colors that entice us to take pictures in the first place.

Once in a while - say, in the shade of a sunny day - we might switch off our “default” sunlight setting and go with a warmer setting (shade or cloudy) to tone down the blue. Or, if we’re indoors working with available artificial light (no flash), we may switch to tungsten (incandescent). There are times when AWB has its place, too. It can be a valuable setting in situations with more than one light source, or if you’re quickly moving back and forth between indoors and outdoors.

Of course, if you shoot in raw, you have the ability to easily tweak the WB in the digital darkroom. But getting WB right in the field has a triple advantage:

    1. It compels you to pay attention to the colors and qualities of light (an important aspect of photography mastery).

    2. You can see what you are getting at the time (and, if necessary, switch to another setting).

    3. You’ll have one fewer task to do in postproduction.


Color Pattern - early morning - Sunlight WB
Color Pattern - early morning - Sunlight WB
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved

More thoughts on white balance

- You can shoot a scene in various ways and study what you’ve captured on the back of your camera. Also, many models have a Live View feature that lets you preview the white balance options by toggling through the WB settings and watching the scene as it goes warmer or cooler.

- Sometimes you’ll shoot a subject in which a precise color is crucial - as is often the case with commercial or studio shots. At other times, you simply can’t get the look you want: Perhaps a scene is illuminated by multiple light sources with varying colors. This is where a camera’s custom or preset manual white balance setting comes into play. Not all cameras perform in exactly the same way, so check your camera instruction booklet for the particulars.

- By recognizing the nuances of color and light, and how white balance settings affect your camera’s response to color, you can make more informed and creative decisions in the field, right at the time of shooting. Now, how cool - or hot - is that?


Hat & Serape in shade  - Sunlight WB
Hat & Serape in shade - Sunlight WB
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved

Want more?

This article is adapted from The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light, co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.



About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
Kerry Drager is a professional photographer, teacher and writer who is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light. He has taught many photography courses (online and in person), seminars and field workshops.

Be sure to check out Kerry's website - www.kerrydrager.com.

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also follow Kerry on Facebook, where he posts photos several times a week that include shooting tips and thoughts.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.