Photography – Setting the white balance


Master setting your camera’s white balance and you’ll unlock a way of shooting that’ll help recreate scenes as your eyes saw them. Simon Thomas explains…

Setting your camera’s white balance is one of those small, simple and important little options that few people bother with. It can make a huge difference to how your photos feel though. Yep how they feel! The colour or tint of an image has a huge impact on how we as viewers react to it. If your images have a bluish tint, they tend to feel cold, and even sad, whereas if they have a yellow tint, our brains interpret them as warmer and happier. OK, these are large generalisations but you get the idea.

The good news is that setting your white balance is simple and you can revert back to ‘auto’ whenever you want. The trickier part is understanding why and when to change the white balance setting. The colour of objects, people, the road ahead of you, even the landscape around you, is affected by the colour of the light bouncing off it or them. But, white is white… right?

To you and me it is, but that’s because when you and I look at something that’s white, our brains do the complicated stuff, compensate for the differing light conditions and correct accordingly. Therefore, on a dark, blue, overcast day, the lines in the road, our brains allow us to see as white, rather than a murky grey. Conversely, on a warm, pink summer’s evening, you still see and understand that the lines in the road are, yep, white.

However, your camera needs help to be able to understand and interpret the colours that you are seeing as the photographer. Sometimes, you simply need to tell your camera how to interpret the light conditions you’re shooting in, so that your camera can actually reproduce the colours, specifically black, whites and greys. This is where the white balance setting comes in.

Whether you make an artistic choice and want a particular photo to appear wonderfully warm, like a sunset, or whether you simply want to avoid your images being rendered by your camera with a strange green or blue tinge, then this is the time to play with your camera’s white balance. Remember, pressing this button will not make your camera explode.

Out of the box your camera’s white balance is set to ‘auto’, which means it reads and interprets the temperature (blue being cold and yellow being warm) of the scene and then applies (guesses) how the colour of your photo should best be presented.

A lot of the time, this will be fine, but if you’re shooting a sunset or a street scene under strong fluorescent tubes, or perhaps you’re in the Bolivian Altiplano at nearly 5,000m and the light is blue because of the altitude. Well then, actually telling your camera how to interpret the light is a great solution and will ensure that the colours of your photos look realistic and fantastic.

Some cameras have a quick access button on the back allowing you to access the WB setting easily. If not, go into your camera’s menu system and scroll through the option until you find ‘white balance’. For the most part, the options you’ll be presented with are auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, flash and custom. We’re going to forget custom at the moment and focus on the others.

From here, things get simple; If you’re shooting in bright weather, choose the sunny or daylight option from the WB menu. This will add a touch of warmth to your image and produce realistic colours in your scene. If the focus of what you’re shooting is in the shade, perhaps your parked bike, select ‘shade’ from the WB menu.

This will add a splash more yellow or warmth to your image, bearing in mind that shadows often have a blue tint, which can look odd. Choose ‘cloudy’ if you’re shooting in overcast or dull days, again this will add slightly more yellow and warmth to your photos and on some cameras a small amount of pink tone.

If your scene is lit by traditional household bulbs, then select ‘incandescent’ from the WB menu; choosing ‘fluorescent’ will help prevent that annoying greenish colour cast happening that often shows up when shooting in fluorescent light. The ‘flash’ setting adds a substantial amount of warmth to your photos to compensate for the bright blue light created by most camera flashes.

As the photographer, you can also use the WB creatively to help you better capture the colours of your shot. For example, in the featured shot of Lisa riding across the Bolivian Altiplano, I could have selected the daylight setting from the WB menu, but I actually chose shadow. ‘There are no shadows’ I hear you yell. Sure, you’re right, but at 4,800m the light is incredibly blue and cold, and I needed the camera to compensate for all the blue light and add some warmth to the scene, the sky and, importantly, the sandy-ash landscape Lisa’s riding into.

Again, as with most photography lessons, there are no hard and fast rules, only what works for you. So, go ahead, play with the white balance, the result will surprise you. And remember, if your camera has a ‘live view’ feature, this will actually show you the effect of your white balance choice before you take the photo. Have fun and make sure you share your results with us at