Ask PMS – which white balance should I use? White balance photography tips

White balance is one of those mystery settings that doesn’t seem to do much most of the time, but is responsible for a lot of disappointing pictures.  Hopefully, our white balance photography tips will help. The concept of white balance is about trying to get the white light right – white light can have different qualities – white light from an ordinary bulb is yellowish, from fluorescent lights is greenish, from a cloudy sky is blueish.  Our eyes are very good at adjusting to this, but cameras aren’t.  The auto white balance system (AWB) on your camera is there to automatically alter the balance of what the camera sees as white light, so that when you go into a room full of yellowish lights, the camera compensates a bit like our eyes do.

However, while our eyes are connected our brains – one of the most powerful computers on earth, our light-sensing chip is only connected to the camera’s processor, and it gets things wrong all the time, particularly on certain kinds of pictures where one particular colour is really dominating the frame.  A close up of a red Ducati motorbike, a purple flower, a green VW campervan, green autumn leaves, yellow sunsets – all these shots can cause the camera to over-react to the “excess” of colour that it sees, and tone down the colour to a bland-looking tone that isn’t right – ie isn’t what made you take the picture.

Here’s an example of some (as they like to say in America) “beautiful fall colors.”  The AWB shot has reacted badly to all the green. It thinks it’s looking at something lit by nasty greenish fluorescent light, and toned it down. So our white balance photography tips would be to tell the camera what the light is.

This is on auto white balance, and it’s much less green that the leaves actually were!

That’s more like it!  Cloudy white balance does the trick!

Same here with some green moss – auto white balance strips out all the interesting colours:

Cloudy white balance puts them back in!

Even in the UK, you don’t have to use Cloudy white balance all the time, and  for the vast majority of your shots Auto White Balance or AWB will work fine.  Sunsets and sunrises particularly suffer from this – many people on courses complain that their mobile phone takes better sunsets than their fancy DSLR – that’s because the DSLR is trying to cope with the weird yellow light by toning it down, while the phone can’t.  The weird yellow light of a sunset, exactly what you would want the camera to correct if you were indoors lit by lightbulbs, is what made you take the picture.  For many shots (a girl in a red dress, for example) there’s enough other colour in the frame and it isn’t a problem, but if you took detail on the red dress, it would be!

Similar issue here with Jo’s pictures at Charlecote.  Jo was struck by the lovely yellow light, but the camera on corrected it and rendered the stone grey.  Our white balance photography tips to change the white balance to ‘daylight’ white balance (on a Canon 1000D) fixed it.

Ugg – what happened to the lovely light?

That’s better – what it really looked like to the eye

Of course, if you shoot raw, you can change the white balance afterwards.  More on this in a a future article.