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The Importance of Manually Setting White Balance

September 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

When I take people out hiking and photographing in the woods, one of the first thing I tell them is to take their camera off Auto white balance. There's a really good reason for this. Below is a photograph from a recent hike at Wood Rill Scientific and Natural Area.

IMG_0044Wood Rill SNAAuto White Balance

Notice how the ground and trees look gray and the leaves are a seemingly desaturated green. The ground cover at the ridge line has practically no color. This photograph was made using Auto white balance. Now look at the photograph below. This photograph is much more like what the scene actually looked like. The leaves are a luscious green and the ground is a deep brownish rust color. By comparison, the first photograph almost looks black and white in places. The second photo was made using Cloudy Day white balance.

IMG_0046Wood Rill SNACloudy Day White Balance

The issue is this--when the light is filtered overhead by the forest canopy, it takes on those colors. Your camera doesn't know what to do with that. If you've ever been in the forest in the fall when the leaves are at full color, the light that surrounds you is golden and warm. If left on Auto White Balance, your camera will try to bring that back into what it considers a normal white balance. The resulting image will look cold with a bluish cast. 

Most times when I'm in the woods, I find Cloudy Day to be the best white balance setting. The Shade white balance setting on my Nikon D800 usually results in too warm of an image. Below is this same scene shot using that setting.

IMG_0047Wood Rill SNAShade White Balance In this photo you sense that the leaves have already started turning, which is not yet the case. I also photographed this scene using Daylight white balance. This example is below.

IMG_0045Wood Rill SNADaylight White Balance While this is a definite improvement over Auto white balance, it lacks the warmth that the scene naturally held. You might ask why any of this matters, because if you shoot RAW you can change the white balance in post. Well, I like to see a reasonable approximation of the final image on the viewfinder when I'm out shooting. True, I can tweak it in post because I shoot RAW, but I'd rather not have to. The less time I spend in post processing the better as far as I'm concerned. I often shoot RAW plus JPEG so that I have a JPEG to share publicly without going through any post processing. If I want that JPEG to look good, I've got to select an appropriate white balance setting. If you shoot JPEG only, then white balance really does matters, because you have precious little ability to change it after the fact.

Setting your white balance manually doesn't just apply to shooting in the woods of course. If you've ever been out shooting on a cloudy day and noticed that your images look a lot more blue than what you're seeing, this is why. If you've ever been in a fluorescent lit room making photos and noticed that your photos look off, this is why. If you've even photographed an amazing sunset, only to find that your images look nothing like what you're seeing, this is why. There are just times when our cameras can't make sense of the color of the light in a scene. That's when the photographer needs to help sort that out.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of times where Auto works just fine for white balance, but I find that more times than not, I'm manually selecting the white balance. It's not that my D800 doesn't do a good job on Auto white balance, it's just that there are times when the light is altered in such a way that it goes outside the bounds of "normal" light.

Yesterday I was photographing a volleyball match with my Nikon D4s, a camera that has outstanding Auto white balance capability. The gym was lit with fluorescent lights. While the Auto white balance setting worked pretty well, I noticed that the skin tones of the players lacked warmth. The colors weren't far off, but the skin tones were just not quite right. When I set the D4s to Fluorescent white balance, all of a sudden that warmth came back into the players' faces. So even with one of the latest and most advanced cameras out there, it pays to take over control of white balance. You'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration in the process.


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