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Auto White Balance: Should You Really Use It for Photography?

Should you use auto white balance?

For photographers, white balance can be one of the trickiest concepts to master. And even once you understand the basics, deciding on the right white balance setting is overwhelming. Your camera likely boasts an array of options, including white balance presets (e.g., Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten) and manual Kelvin values.

But your camera likely offers another setting: Auto White Balance, or AWB.

Auto White Balance certainly sounds appealing – consistent with its name, once you set your camera to its AWB setting, it’ll automatically choose a white balance for the scene – but how good is AWB, really? Should you trust it when shooting in the field, or should you work with a different setting instead, even if it takes more effort?

That’s what I aim to answer in this article. Below, I explain what Auto White Balance is; I also explore its benefits and limitations, and I lay out my recommendations for when you might want to use AWB – and when you should probably avoid it.

Let’s dive right in!

A quick overview of white balance

Auto White Balance in photography

Before I get too deep in my discussion of Auto White Balance, I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page about white balance more generally.

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 – whereas a white object in different types of light will not always look white to your camera, resulting in unnatural color casts.

Auto White Balance
Objects look different depending on the lighting! Certain types of light produce warm color casts, while others produce cooler color casts. White balancing is all about handling these color casts to keep your photos looking natural.

(These color casts generally exist along a blue-yellow spectrum in nature, though artificial lights can also create green and purple casts.)

Now, white balance is the process that the camera uses to remove these problematic color casts. When you set your camera to a white balance setting, you’re ensuring that it effectively counteracts unnatural temperatures and tints – so that your images more closely reflect what you see with your eyes.

What is Auto White Balance (AWB)?

Auto White Balance (AWB) is a camera setting that tells your camera to “guess” the best white balance option. In other words, when you set your camera to AWB, it analyzes the scene and tries to pick a white balance that’ll make your photos look natural.

(This is analogous to your camera’s automatic exposure settings, where your camera tries to determine the ideal aperture, shutter speed, and ISO values to create a tonally detailed image.)

In my experience, Auto White Balance can work, but it’s often much more effective when you’re outdoors dealing with natural lighting, and it tends to struggle when you’re dealing with complex lighting situations.

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
Auto White Balance sometimes gives close results to what you see with your eyes. I used AWB to balance the color casts in this scene; does the image look natural to you?
Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
Here, I’ve applied the Daylight White Balance preset to the same image. Carefully compare the two files, paying special attention to the gray areas in the foreground. Can you see how the result is warmer (i.e., it’s more yellow/orange)?

How does AWB work?

To understand when you should use Auto White Balance, you must have a basic knowledge of the different white balance presets your camera offers. These can vary depending on the camera brand, but they generally include Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent. Added to these are Flash, Kelvin, and Custom White Balance.

Note: The Custom White Balance mode should be used when you have especially challenging lighting conditions and need to nail the white balance perfectly. It lets you point your camera at a neutral portion of the image, then creates a custom white balance effect that counteracts any color cast in the scene. It is an underused option that gives great results, so check your manual and experiment with it sometime.

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
I used my camera’s AWB setting to capture this image of Delicate Arch in Utah.
Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
Then I edited the image by applying a custom white balance effect.

Now, the Auto White Balance setting assesses your scene and chooses the brightest part of your image as the white point. Then it balances out the scene to ensure that this selected white point looks completely neutral.

Unfortunately, the white point your camera chooses can vary from one shot to the next, which can result in image sequences featuring very different color casts. For this reason, it’s a bad idea to use Auto White Balance when shooting panoramas; if your camera changes the white balance in the middle of your panorama series, the results will look very strange!

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
I photographed this panorama using a Custom WB. If you use AWB to capture a panorama, the white balance can vary from shot to shot.

Auto White Balance comes with another issue: Your camera can lock onto an area of the shot that’s not meant to be neutral (e.g., a yellow wall), and then try to balance it. When this happens, instead of neutralizing the color casts, your camera will create some of its own!

Here’s the good news: While Auto White Balance isn’t perfect, significant improvements have been made to AWB systems, and the results are getting better. Still, it’s difficult for Auto White Balance to handle certain kinds of lighting (e.g., artificial or combination lighting setups).

It’s also worth mentioning that you can sometimes run into a different problem, where AWB removes color casts you wanted to keep. This can happen when you’re shooting a sunset, or any scene where the color of the light is essential to the image.

RAW Power

If you shoot in RAW, you are probably aware that RAW files retain all the color data captured by your camera. This retention comes with a huge benefit: It allows you to change or choose a different white balance setting while post-processing your RAW files.

For this reason, many photographers argue that, as long as you shoot in RAW, you can use Auto White Balance without issue. (Though others argue that even when shooting in RAW, AWB does not give you the best colors.)

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
Shot with Daylight WB (camera) vs processed Daylight WB (Photoshop). The two results aren’t the same!

Even if we grant that RAW files can be effectively white balanced during post-processing, I still don’t think you should use it all the time.

Setting the white balance in-camera ensures that color rendition is consistent across all your shots (e.g. when shooting a wedding), and it makes post-processing a lot easier, especially if you have a lot of files to edit.

Also, AWB can give you different results even when photographing the same scene. If you’re using a zoom lens, you might end up with one set of colors in your wide-angle shot – and then, when you zoom for a telephoto close-up, you end up with a different set of colors. Sure, you can correct everything when post-processing the files, but it’s often easier to just get the white balance right from the start.

Take control of your camera’s white balance settings!

You may want to use Auto White Balance because it is easier to let the camera figure out the right settings based on the scene in front of you. However, as I explained above, this isn’t always the best approach. Sometimes, you can save yourself a lot of frustration later on by nailing the white balance in the field. (And if you’re ever shooting JPEGs, you definitely want to make sure you get the white balance right; they don’t offer the same flexibility as RAWs.)

Fortunately, setting white balance is not as daunting as it sounds. And when the lighting conditions are unchanging, you only need to set your white balance once (for those conditions). Here are a few quick recommendations:

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. Similarly if you are in shade, choose Shade. These are very easy to remember based on their names!

When indoors, choose Tungsten (or Incandescent) for incandescent lights. And when shooting an area with fluorescent lights, choose Fluorescent.

This is simply 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, you can use it to get creative and make your shots look warmer or cooler.

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
Here, I deliberately adjusted the white balance to make the image look cooler.

As long as you shoot in RAW, you can always make adjustments in Lightroom, Capture One, or another editor. But knowing how to work with your camera’s various white balance settings in conjunction with post-processing tools will make you a more effective photographer!

Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?
You can use RAW and white balance tools to take control of the appearance of your results.

Should you use Auto White Balance?

The short answer is: Yes, sometimes.

The longer answer is that Auto White Balance is a handy setting when you are unsure of the white balance that 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. AWB can also be useful when you’re photographing in rapidly changing lighting conditions, or if you simply don’t mind carefully adjusting the white balance when post-processing your photos.

However, if you want more control of your results, choose one of the camera white balance presets, already tailored for specific conditions, or use Custom White Balance to customize the setting for your specific scene. Setting your white balance in the field will eliminate that extra post-processing step of fixing it from scene to scene and give you more consistent results.

What is your go-to white balance? Are you a fan of using AWB? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Nisha Ramroop
Nisha Ramroop

is an I.T. chick and Project Manager with a passion for photography, currently living in the beautiful Trinidad & Tobago. She’s a published writer and photographer who spends most of her free time traveling and exploring. See more of her work at Nikophotography.

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