White balance (WB)

An interesting and very useful setting which digital cameras offer is the so-called White Balance (usually marked as WB in the camera menu). As we know, the intensity of the sources of light is different in the different segments of the light spectrum. The incandescent lightbulb emits mainly in the red and infrared part of the spectrum, which is also the spectrum composition at sunset and sunrise, while at noon we have predominantly ultraviolet radiation. Films used in analogue cameras usually have sensitivity designed for daylight and they correctly reproduce colours under such light conditions. If you shoot with film under incandescent light, the resulting photos will have a strong yellow and red cast. There are special films designed for incandescent light and if we want to have correct colour rendition under such conditions, we should buy this type of film.

One of the major advantages of digital photography is the opportunity to change camera settings depending on the type and colour temperature of the light source. This setting is called white balance and in amateur cameras it offers several pre-set values – daylight, cloudy, Tungsten light and fluorescent light, flash and auto mode. On most occasions we would normally use the automatic mode, which will be effective 90% of the time. Sometimes, especially in the case of incandescent light, it is advisable to use the respective mode for this type of light, as the automatic setting does not always perform well under such conditions. On the expensive side of the camera range we have manual settings and cameras usually offer full manual setting of the white balance where colour temperature can be set to anywhere between 2500 and 9000K. Daylight corresponds to approximately 5500K, electric light to 3000K and deep shade during daytime at 7000K. We should make use of these settings when we have a more complex light source and when we want greater precision, for example when working under controlled light in a studio.. 

Below you can see an example of how different a picture taken under mixed light conditions can look. We have two light sources – artificial light from the candles in the foreground and natural daylight in the background. In the photo on the left the white balance was manually set to match the upper segment of the bride’s dress. It is truly white, but still illuminated by the warm light of the candles. This is why the daylight seeping from behind has a distinctive blue cast. On the right the white balance was set to match the daylight, but this led to a warm yellow and red hue in the foreground. It is hard to say which is right and which is wrong in this case. I would say it is a matter of personal preference. When your camera has an option for manual white balance setting, you need to place a white sheet of paper in front of the lens and by pressing the right button indicate to the software that you would like all other colours to be set accordingly based on the white colour of the sheet. Another option is placing a special white cap for white balance on the lens. If you shoot in RAW format, you can later adjust the colour temperature to your liking.


White balance set at 3200K using the upper part of the dress as reference. The daylight in the background adds a bluish hue.
White balance 6500K You can feel the warm light of the candles, but the foreground and the dress have a yellowish hue.

White balance is the right colour setting in the camera itself. But what exactly is ‘right’? Do we mean right based on our human perceptions or right based on some technical characteristics? The example below was shot in RAW format. The picture on the left has deliberately incorrect white balance enhancing the beautiful warm feel of the sunset.

White balance 8000K – we deliberately ‘warm up’ the sunset to highlight its magical enchantment.
White balance 4500K – the white blossoms on the tree are truly white, but the picture looks sterile.

In the next two examples from a portrait session, I experimented with white balance in the shooting process. The sunset illuminated the model’s face. I shot with a white balance of 7000K and 4000K. At higher color temperatures the warmth of the sun is felt, but at lower temperatures there is a strong color contrast of warm / cold colors, as described in the chapter “Color and color harmony”

Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8 , WB – 7000K
Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8 , WB – 4000K

This interesting function can sometimes be used to create unusual colour combinations and effects. For example, by setting the white balance to ‘electric light’ and shooting during the day, you will have photos with a bluish hue, recreating the feel of early morning.

11 a.m Daylight, white balance 6000K. The photo has normal colours
Same photo, but with the white balance set at 3000K. You have the feeling of early morning and cold.

Maybe you are asking yourself why we still see real colours at any time during the day and under any type of incandescent light. This is due to the fact that our brain processes the information it receives from the eyes and its white balance is much more perfect than any digital camera software.

In the case of this night photography, it was impossible to set the correct white balance. The source of light illuminating the faces of the people was a neon lamp emitting monochromatic red light and even at 2000K their faces remained a solid red colour. However, this created a specific atmosphere and contrasted the faces against the night lights in the background.

When we shoot technical photography, fashion catalogues, furniture or products, we only take into consideration the technical parameters of the scene. A furniture maker or clothes manufacturer is not interested in what type of light we use for their products. He only cares that the colours should be as close as possible to the actual ones, because he does not want to face claims from dissatisfied clients misled by the pictures in the catalogue.

Any good photograph is a successful synthesis of technique and art.
Andreas Feininger