How Auto White Balance Can Hinder Your Photography

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How Auto White Balance Can Hinder Your Photography

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You’ve likely heard that auto settings like auto exposure and autofocus aren’t fail-proof. They’re strong features, no doubt, and most photographers take advantage of them at least some, if not all, of the time. But the key to success with auto-anything is to make it work for you; that is, to understand its limitations, and know when it’s not going to give you the best results.

If you’ve been a photographer for very long, you’ve likely run into the situation in which a very bright scene, a snowy landscape, for example, caused your camera’s auto exposure to significantly underexpose the shot, giving you murky gray snow instead of brilliant white. Likewise, a shot that was naturally dark, like a portrait of a black cat, might have been recorded too light, also resulting in unwanted gray or brown.

In both of these cases, the auto exposure was tricked by the scene’s overall light or dark tone, and attempted to compensate for this problem by doing exactly what it’s designed to do: choose an exposure that will average out the tones in the scene. For many photographs, auto exposure does a fine job of selecting a correct exposure, for scenes when average is correct. The trouble is when a situation is not average. In those cases, it’s up to you, the photographer, to make the necessary adjustments.

Auto White Balance

Fluorescent WB preset

The exact same thing happens with your camera’s Auto White Balance, only in this case, the issue is not with light intensity, but with color.

The Color of Light

Not all light is the same; different types of light have different colors built-in to them. Daylight is basically white, while light from a sunrise or sunset has a red, orange, or pink cast to it (caused by the light being bent through deeper layers of atmosphere). Shade is usually a bit blue, as is snow, as both of these situations are receiving reflected blue light from the sky. Standard incandescent (tungsten) lightbulbs give off a strong yellow cast, while fluorescent lights, long the bane of photographers, can be anywhere from blue, to purple, to green.

Your camera needs to know the color of the light so that it can accurately record the rest of the colors in the scene. With film, this White Balance” is built into the product (i.e., Daylight film and Tungsten film), but with digital cameras, we have the ability to change the White Balance on the fly. If you shoot a room illuminated only by tungsten light with your camera’s Daylight White Balance setting, the resulting photo will show incorrect colors that are skewed towards yellow (try it and see for yourself). You could also shoot an outdoor natural-light photo with the tungsten setting and get some simply awful blue images. But when these situations are shot with the correct White Balance selected, the colors in the photos should be spot-on accurate.

The Auto White Balance Blues

Your camera likely offers a handful of White Balance choices, settings like: Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Flash, Tungsten, and Fluorescent. There is also, surprise, an Auto choice.

Many beginning photographers tend to set their White Balance selection to Auto and leave it there. This mistake can be the cause of quite a few photographic problems. Like your auto exposure, Auto White Balance is pretty good. Especially when dealing with artificial light sources, the results of Auto can be very satisfactory. The trouble arises when a color cast is desirable, or when shooting a subject that is mostly one color.

Auto WB neutralized the colors in the sky

Auto WB neutralized the colors in the sky

sunset-white-balance-02

Daylight WB preset

sunset-white-balance-06

Shade WB Preset

A great example is a classic sunrise or sunset scene. In this case, there can be quite a lot of red or orange light illuminating the scene. If you choose Auto White Balance for this shot, the camera will evaluate the scene and think, “Hey, something’s wrong! There’s a lot of red here! Better back off on the reds.” The problem is, you do NOT want your camera to correct for those colors. In this case, having a lot of red in the scene is correct according to the subject and your intention. Auto White Balance will probably deliver a sunset that has a much more bluish feel, not as dramatic, and not what the scene actually looked like.

Another way Auto White Balance can be fooled is with objects that are mostly one color. A good example is flower photography. Suppose you’re photographing a large pink flower that fills the frame almost entirely. Auto White Balance will look at this shot and think, “Whoa, too much pink! Gotta back off on that.” Auto White Balance has no way of knowing if subject is truly that color, or if it’s the lighting. The only thing it can do is try to deliver what it perceives to be an average color balance for the image. In this case, the flower in the photo won’t appear the correct, vibrant pink that it was.

Auto White Balance can even cause slight inaccuracies to everyday outdoor photos, often resulting in shots with just a bit too much purple than they should have (the result of Auto trying to over-compensate for green vegetation).

Use Presets!

So what’s the solution? Use those White Balance presets! Many photographers, including me, use the Daylight setting a great deal of the time, to help ensure accurate colors during all times of the day and in many weather conditions. The Shade and Flash presets can also be quite useful. If you’re shooting JPEG files, selecting the correct White Balance at the time of shooting is critical. But even if you shoot RAW files and have the (very useful) ability to adjust your White Balance in post-production, choosing the correct White Balance preset at the time of shooting can start your images off right, and save you plenty of time, and who doesn’t like that?

Do you have any other stories or examples where Auto White Balance did you wrong? Please share in the comment below.

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Daniel Johnson is a professional animal, rural life, and food photographer with Fox Hill Photo, and the author of several animal and photography books. His dog, horse, and rural life images appear regularly in books, magazines, and calendars. For those ready to take the next step in their photography, Dan offers online photography mentoring and critiquing. To learn more or to view Dan’s photography, visit his website.

  • I find that auto hits the mark more than 90% of the time, or close to it. Even with a preset, I would often tweak it in post.

    But the best reason to use auto wb (for me) is: I forget to change it back each time.

  • Ashley Jackson

    I often use custom white balance and it works well. I recently bought a set of cards for white balance, one white, one grey and one black – I have absolutely no idea what to use the black one for! Anyone know?

  • Daniel Johnson

    White balance cards can work well in a controlled situation where you, your subject, and your camera settings are stationary, and where your lighting is consistent. If anything changes, you need to take a new reading. For situations with even a little movement/unpredictability, I prefer presets.

  • Daniel Johnson

    The black and white cards are used for setting black and white points during post processing (i.e., Photoshop levels)

  • J Public

    Thanks for the article, Daniel, but is there any point in changing it if you use RAW? I find that when processing I tend to set the WB in batches anyway, and once you find the right setting for a batch you can change it in seconds. I think I would have to do the same even if I set the WB properly, because the “right” level sometimes changes frequently as you move about (weather, subject, etc.)

  • Daniel Johnson

    I think there are advantages to using presets even with RAW. One is that is that it can save you time on the computer later. I like to get everything correct in camera if possible, including white balance, because that’s one less chore I have to do on the computer. Of course, there are lots of capture/post techniques and you should go with what works for you. For a great deal of outdoor shooting, Daylight works very well for me, often requiring no tweaking in post, while Auto often leans towards being too purple, as I indicated in the article.

  • Hi Daniel I hate to sound dense — I am a beginner food photographer. In the preset did you mean using the Daylight setting or the Cloudy setting?

  • Tim Lowe

    Totally unimportant when shooting RAW (and if you don’t, go sit in the corner). If you are a stickler for accurate color, use an Xrite Color Checker. Save profiles for common lighting conditions and shoot a test frame in uncommon ones. Adjustments after the fact are always possible and totally a matter of taste. Garish and over-saturated colors are a dead giveaway that you are a noob.

  • Lee

    Shoot RAW, not an issue. Even if it does save time in PP (albeit about 20 seconds per shot). Only when you are accomplished enough to never require RAW would you really entertain using them, unless you don’t want to ever process your images. I know a lot of semi-pro/pro’s that don’t use RAW, but they don’t need to because their images are that good in jpeg format. Personally though, I think shooting raw and processing gives you a lot more insight in white balancing and lighting.

  • Michael

    That’s why shooting in RAW is the perfect option. I always shoot in RAW and post-process my images in LR. If I shoot indoor with modified flash, I always use my Pocket Digital Calibration Target first where I have one mid-grey, one black and one white sectors. Next I use this image as a custom white balance. In LR I just set WB from the mid-grey sector and synchronize the result with all my images taken in the same lightening environment. That’s it, all the colors are always natural the way they were in real life.

  • Gary Scott

    Like everyone else says, just shoot RAW. It takes me less time to select the correct colour balance and apply it to all the images in a set than it does to figure out what it should be when shooting, and Auto White Balance does a pretty good job when I save both JPG and RAW.

  • Daniel Johnson

    For many natural light situations, I find the Daylight preset to be a very good choice.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Gary. As an experiment, I think you should try paying more attention to your white balance during the shoot. I feel that getting your white balance correct in-camera (RAW or not) makes you a “thoughtful” photographer. Not “thoughtful” as in nice, but meaning that you’re paying attention to all your settings and really making the camera do what you want it to. Just because we can adjust the white balance of a RAW file in post doesn’t necessarily mean we should ignore it during the shoot. Remember, too, that many beginner photographers with phones or point-and-shoots don’t have the RAW option, and are more prone to the issues I outlined in the article.

  • Daniel Johnson

    I feel that getting your white balance correct in-camera (RAW or not) makes you a “thoughtful” photographer. Not “thoughtful” as in nice, but meaning that you’re paying attention to all your settings and really making the camera do what you want it to. Just because we can adjust the white balance of a RAW file in post doesn’t necessarily mean we should ignore it during the shoot.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Remember, many beginner photographers with phones or point-and-shoots don’t have the RAW option, and are more prone to the issues I outlined in the article.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Michael, I too shoot RAW and process with Lightroom. A couple of thoughts…first, this piece was partly aimed at a beginner audience (who might not shoot RAW, let alone use targets). For my advanced photographers, I encourage them to get things as right as possible in the camera, white balance included. I’m not against using custom white balances (especially in studio settings), but doing so tends to make you think more and more about “correcting in post” rather “how can I get this correct now.” Not that fixing in post is necessarily a bad thing, but I tend to lean towards techniques that require the least computer time.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Also, regarding the target…remember that there may be times when you don’t necessary WANT a “correct” WB!

  • Thank you Daniel — I’m one of those that have been using the AWB 🙁 I will start using the Daylight setting. When would you use the Cloudy? Since most of my shots are of food I would like the colors to be as rich as possible before making adjustments in post processing.

  • Michael

    Hi Daniel! I totally agree with you using the camera to set up everything as much as possible. I do that when I have the only defined light source like shooting outside. It could be either daylight, shade, cloudy, however, when you are indoor and the light sources are multiple and you want to use your off camera modified flash, it’s very difficult or practically impossible to guess accurately the settings using just your camera. Have you ever tried to shoot in the restaurants being at your relative or friend event celebrations? The only option is AWB which could be inaccurate and required always to be adjusted in LR. So using the grey card target is the most efficient and accurate option. By the way, I am sure you know that all the images taken in RAW must be post-processed anyway as it’s not just the conversion into JPEGs but because of a sensor design (I am talking about the Anti-Aliasing filter) each image should benefit with add on sharpening. Thanks!

  • Gary Scott

    Good points Daniel. When shooting for fun, for commercial or for other purposes that you can take time with this is great, but when shooting a wedding or event, sometimes it is nice to have one less thing to worry about.while running around making sure my ISO and aperture are correct and that my shutter is not too slow. I’m thinking those using phones might not even have the options for proper custom colour correction, and if they do, probably don’t use it. They would be more interested in the crazy instagram effects. I don’t mean to say you are wrong at all, just that there are bigger things to worry about and shooting RAW helps to smooth this one out.

  • Becky Pearman

    I shoot equine endurance mostly in the woods early in the AM. I’ve been doing these events for over twenty years and I’ve always had to manipulate the white balance (since going digital ten years ago).
    The green of the woods in low light always turns out bluish and funky in auto. Since I print on site I shoot jpeg mainly, and using custom white balance settings speeds up my work flow. I do have to say though, that I just got a 7d Mark II and love the auto white balance in it if I am out in open lighting. It can choose better than me every time!
    The first image was shot last weekend with my 7d Mark II in auto white balance and the second one was shot with my original 7d in the cloudy setting.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Marisa, tell me a little more about your setup for food photography. Do you just natural light from a window, or do you use a flash as well? What direction does the window face (north, south, etc…). Lastly, do you shoot RAW files or JPEGS?

    I also do food photography 🙂 http://www.foxhillphoto.com/GalleryMain.asp?GalleryID=112505&AKey=FH924KRY

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Becky, doesn’t look like your images attached properly. That sounds like a tough situation to shoot in! I also do a lot of equine photography, and in addition to your WB issues, I imagine that low light (early morning in the woods) combined with action is a challenge for you as well. But it’s true that good gear can help you defeat tough situations. Glad your new camera is working out.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Absolutely–during important shoots it’s always nice to have the piece of mind that you’ll be able to adjust the RAW white balance in post.

  • Hi Daniel — thank you for your interest. I need all the help I can get. In the cooler months I shoot indoors – we have windows facing East and South in the dining room. I try to set up there but I’m getting light in all directions. In the summer months I set up outside on the patio but that can be a challenge too. We are in Indiana some of the year and I bought a Lowell EGO table top light to use. I haven’t used it yet. I shoot in RAW and JPEGS but I haven’t utilized the RAW because I still don’t have all the fundamentals of LR and PS down. I am trying to learn to use these instead of *ahem* PicMonkey. My camera has a fixed zoom lens – Panasonic Leica DMC-LX5. I do use a tripod and a cable for my shutter. I’m still not getting the photos that I want!! Anyway, I took a peek at your food photos – they are awesome.

  • Becky Pearman

    Here they are again

  • Nancy Kirkpatrick

    Great discussion! I’ve been shooting RAW for some time now, but my mentor shoots in jpeg and K frequently or changes her WB to fit the light. She CAN shoot in jpeg and her edit time is spent deciding which image to use for the bride. I’ve been considering getting off A outdoors and you’ve given me the reasons. For my light box, where I do most of my flower photog, I use 6500K to match my lights’ output. I shoot a lot in high key or a use a black background and my colors are true. I LOVE it when my image pops up on the screen and I have to do NOTHING to it. When I first took up photography 10 years ago, the only people to consult were film photographers and they all told me to use the WB presets. So I did. I shot jpeg then. I had a few mistakes where I forgot to change the WB to the situation. But it only made me more deliberate the next time. I’m going back to that now that I’ve read your article. Image attached was taken in my light box using WB K6500 and the colors are exact. The only edit I did is bump up the contrast slightly.

  • Nancy Kirkpatrick

    My mentor is a 30-year wedding pro. She is always booked and has her pick of weddings to shoot – or not. She uses presets, K and jpeg. She can do this because she knows her camera, knows her light. Another good reason for getting everything off auto. Her mind set is that if she is going to take people’s money and call herself a pro, she’d better know what’s going to turn up on the computer screen before she ever sees it. It only took me one wedding with her as a trainee to notice that she pays full attention to the people at the event, not her camera. Her camera has become 2nd nature. Another reason to make the effort and not the excuses? She gets the big bucks consistently.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Glad you found the article helpful, Nancy. However, I wouldn’t recommend you give up shooting RAW (not sure if that’s what you were indicating in your post). There are plenty of reasons why–more bit depth, more possible adjustments, highlight recovery, etc…–that you give up with jpegs. True, RAW images require some processing, but you can still get them very close in-camera.

    I shot (and still sometimes shoot) transparency film (mostly Provia) for years before digital…still love the pop and brilliance of seeing a great slide on the light table.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Becky, I really like the second image–what a spectacular location!

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Nancy. Remember, too, that auto- features are there to assist us, despite their occasional shortcomings. The key is knowing when and how they fail, and when and how they can be useful to you. When photographing outdoors, I almost always rely on the “semi-auto” assistance of Aperture Priority to get me the correct exposure FAST in a dynamic situation (in the studio, I go manual). And like I said in the article, Auto white balance can be good for general indoor or mixed lighting. Don’t be afraid to take a mixed approach to Auto- features, using them sometimes, overriding them others.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Hi Nancy. Remember, too, that auto- features are there to assist us, despite their occasional shortcomings. The key is knowing when and how they fail, and when and how they can be useful to you. When photographing outdoors, I almost always rely on the “semi-auto” assistance of Aperture Priority to get me the correct exposure FAST in a dynamic situation (in the studio, I go manual). And like I said in the article, Auto white balance can be good for general indoor or mixed lighting. Don’t be afraid to take a mixed approach to Auto- features, using them sometimes, overriding them others.

  • Daniel Johnson

    The reason I asked about the directions the windows face is that it can affect the color of the light. North-facing windows (assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere?) tend to bring in very soft but slightly-bluish light, since this is essentially shade. Because of the softness, they are valuable to food photographers. Windows facing the south (towards the sun) can be trickier for food because, while the light may be warmer, it can also be more harsh. (This situation is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.) Try this: shoot the same food subject in different windows, at different times, and using different white balance presets (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, etc…), and then see how the different settings affect your images. And, if you’re using Lightroom, go ahead and try processing some RAW photos, and watch how the TEMP/TINT sliders give you complete control over the white balance.

  • Daniel Johnson

    One other thing–do you own a reflector board? I find them invaluable for natural light food photography!

  • Nancy Kirkpatrick

    True about RAW. And processing mine is pretty quick in Lightroom. I may shoot a few jpegs for comparison since it’s been awhile. But I have a feeling I’ll stick with RAW since it has done well for me. Thanks again for the tips.

  • Thank you Daniel — I certainly appreciate any advice I can get. I will do as you ask. I’m thinking of using some North windows in one of the rooms but it is painted blue and I find it gives off a cold look — I don’t know how it’ll photograph. I will experiment.

  • Yes — I have foam core boards — black and white.

  • Becky Pearman

    That was in Santo Domingo Chile in October 2015 at the World Young Rider’s endurance championships

  • Becky Pearman

    That was in Santo Domingo Chile in October 2015 at the World Young Rider’s endurance championships

  • Donna J

    Thanks for a very good article Daniel, you explained white balance beautifully.

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