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So what exactly is white balance and why is it so important to digital photography?
The rudimentary answer is that light (the foundation of photography) has variable color temperatures at different times of the day. Your eyes are much better at processing color than a digital camera. Thus a white object will always appear white to you, despite the conditions. White balance is the process that the camera uses to remove color casts produced by these different color temperatures and helps your camera emulate whaty our eyes do naturally when dealing with white.
The Auto White Balance (AWB) setting helps your camera “guess” the best option or choose the one closest to what your eyes might see. Many times AWB works better when you are outdoors dealing with natural lighting, than with more complex lighting situations.
To understand when AWB works well and is applicable, it is also important you understand the different White Balance presets your camera offers. They include; Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent. Added to these are Flash, Kelvin and Custom White Balance. Of note, the Custom White Balance Mode is used when you have especially challenging lighting conditions and need to lock in your whites based on those conditions. It is an under-used option that gives great results, so check your manual and experiment with it sometime.
The Auto White Balance setting assesses your scene and chooses the brightest part of your image as the white point, which unfortunately can vary from one shot to the next. Over the years though, significant improvements have been made to AWB systems and the results are getting better. Even with these developments, it is difficult for Auto White Balance to correct certain kinds of lighting (e.g. artificial or combination lighting setups). Another instance where it’s not recommended to use AWB is when doing panoramic shots, as you run the risk of varying light on your stitched image.
The opposite problem exists as well – when AWB corrects color casts you do not want it to, such as when you are shooting a sunset or any scene where the color of the light is essential to the image. Some of the White Balance presets listed above, are set in-camera to provide some level of correction to typical lighting scenarios. Here you tell the camera the right setting for the occasion and take more control over your final image.
If you shoot in RAW, you are probably aware that RAW files retain all the color data captured by your camera. This retention allows you to change or choose a different White Balance setting while post-processing your RAW files. Some argue that even with this handy feature, AWB does not give you the best colors.
Another perspective of setting White Balance in camera ensures that in the processing stage, your color rendition is consistent across all your shots (e.g. when shooting a wedding). Also of note, AWB can give you different results within the same scene. So you can go from one set of colors in a wide-angle shot to a different set of colors when you zoom in. Both of these are examples of losing the harmony when you are working on a series of images.
You may use AWB because it is easier to let the camera figure out the white balance based on the scene in front of you. However, as stated before, it is useful when you know how and when to use it. Setting white balance is not as daunting as it sounds though and when the conditions are not variable, you only need to set your white balance once (for those conditions).
So, if you are outdoors on a sunny day, set your white balance to Daylight or Sunny. If it is cloudy, choose the Cloudy white balance and similarly if you are in shade, choose Shade. These are very straightforward to remember based on the easy naming convention. When indoors, for incandescent lights, choose Tungsten (or Incandescent) and when shooting an area with fluorescent lights, choose Fluorescent. This is called setting your white balance to match your shooting conditions.
You can also set your white balance to modify your existing conditions. Once you start experimenting with white balance and understand how it affects your images, use it to get creative or make your image look either warmer or cooler.
Auto White Balance is a handy setting to have when you are unsure of what white balance would work for your scene. If you shoot in RAW, you can easily change your White Balance after the fact to find the best option.
If you want more control of your results, choose one of the camera white balance presets, already tailored for specific conditions, or create your own (custom white balance). Setting your white balance eliminates that extra post-processing step of fixing it from scene to scene and gives you more consistent results.
What is your go-to white balance and are you a fan of using AWB? Tell me in the comments below.