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White Balance

So what is white balance and why won’t auto white balance do

We all have a white balance setting on our DSLR cameras, but many people ignore them, perhaps because they don’t understand what white balance is or have not spotted how important it is in some situations.

In the same way as you can leave the camera to work out exposure, and focus, you can let it work out white balance, and like in the case of exposure and focus, it makes a reasonable job of it much of the time. If however we are going to use our DSLR as a heavy point and shoot camera, then we cannot expect to get the quality of results that others can achieve.

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There are those, including some professional photographers who suggest auto white balance is all that you want, but its also these people who tend to say things like ‘digital cameras can't photograph purple’ or purple doesn’t exist in reality, or that digital cameras are unable to render colours the way you remember it being.  Others whose experience is primarily wildlife photography or landscape, may have become used to the images they get and feel they look right, in their style as you might say. Some may say its all an illusion and as light changes there are no right colours. Some also restrict taking photographs to a couple of hours after sunrise and a couple of ours before sunset as that is the light they like. They may not have realised they can get exactly the same light colour at any time of day.

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Others of us, however want to be able to photograph bluebells and see them in the photographs, photograph a purple Iris and it to print purple and to be able to see sunsets and other lighting conditions printed as they appeared when taken.

Using RAW file format we can make many selections after the event and most of the white balance settings can be selected later, so even if you have taken photographs with the wrong white balance setting or with it on auto you still have an opportunity to correct it. If you photograph in jpgs then you have a computed picture and these changes later are not so easy to make.

Auto white balance, mixes the colours in the image and then tries to make it a neutral mix, so counteracting any strong cast. Unfortunately if you happen to have a large amount of any colour it counteracts this as well. Take a photo of a red rose close and it comes out pinkish, a yellow one a straw colour and sunsets are largely cancelled out as are sheets of bluebells through the woods.

Auto white balance is acceptable for general shots, scenic, landscapes and quite a lot of wildlife.

There are those that will say they visit a place, take photographs and by the time they get home they have forgot exactly what colours buildings and the like were, so auto white balance is fine. Equally there are those that will want everything at all times to be completely accurate, but for most its often a mixture, some scenes we are happy to have auto white balance colour, while where we see strong or dominant colours or the shot requires that colours are accurate then we can get this.

To be able to get what you want when you want it, is not difficult or complex, and in order to allow you to achieve this we have the following articles:

To see perfect colours on your screen you need to have a colour managed and fully profiled screen.

If you can't see perfect colours in the images above then consider calibrating your screen.

Screens as they come are often higher contrast and darker, being set to be ideal for office and word processing applications.


By: Keith Park  Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: white_bal_why Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 08/2010

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