White Balance

White Balance is the technique to match the camera’s light sensors to the light on the subject and surrounding environment. Each light source produces different color results and matching it explicitly helps your colors to match right on and be vibrant without having to do any touch up work after on the computer.

To get the White Balance correct when taking the picture can save a lot of headache later. But beware, if you don’t get this technique down before you take your shot, you could find yourself stumbling and may lose the photo moment. And to me, that takes away from photography in it’s entire sense of it. Photography is a Snapshot affair, it’s capturing the moment. Don’t lose that great moment.

To see, or not to see…

So, to practice and be ready for that Snapshot moment, let’s review the techniques and skills right here.

More and more cameras are coming with a setting to pick White Balance, and it usually falls in the range of these choices:

  • Auto
  • Sun
  • Cloudy
  • Fluorescent
  • Tungsten

Others choices may exist, so know that every setting (except Auto) is a manufacturers best guess at the Kelvin temperature (color) rating for that light source, it may not be the same temperature across cameras.

Kelvin? Who is that?

Not a who, but a what… And a little science first (you thought you’d never use that high school science, especially the word Kelvin). Light sources are based on heat, this have a rating scale called Kelvin, a heat temperature for photographic purposes.

Here are some examples:

  • 0 Kelvin is absolute 0 (-459.67 deg Fahrenheit) which is just black in color temperature
  • 3200 K = Tungsten (your regular living room bulbs)
    • Red, orange, yellow, to white
  • 5500 K = the sun’s rays at midday and flashes
    • Yellow, white, light blue, gray
  • 7000 K = cloudy conditions
    • light blue, gray, to deep blue
  • 12000 K = the blue of twilight
    • deep blues

Knowing these values and when they occur in our environment by visual observation can help to adjust the camera setting (which is not like our human “electronic” eye) to make white look like white, instead of Orange, Yellow, or Blue.

As you might tell, the settings on your camera can be only ONE exact Kelvin rating. So you say to yourself, “what about all light in between?”, or “what if I have two or more sources of light in my view? Like sun from the window and light bulbs from the room.

Exactly! Some high-end SLRs (like the C*non) has a dial on it that lets you set the kelvin rating of the lights. This is nice, but sometimes I find it hard to get it just right when the range is from 0 to 12000. That’s a lot of numbers to go through and it’s not really related to understandble terms, like Sun, Tungsten, etc. There are times that on the Nikon I’d like to dial in the setting than using a preset or a gray card for the custom White Balance, but I’m almost always tinkering with the image anyways. So, I take Nikons better lenses and computer settings over the Kelvin dial. 😉


First, if you are a novice, use the Auto feature until you get the hang of what the settings do. If you don’t use Auto, your colors can be off and you may think something’s wrong with the camera.

Auto will examine the light source you focus on and attempt to read the Kelvin temperature (color) and compensate to make the whites, look “white”. The best for most photographers.

For simplicity, besides the camera mode setting, which is probably THE most important setting on the camera, the White Balance setting is the next most important setting; and it can make photos look way off if not set right.

The Sun

When the sun comes up and sets, there are thousands of different Kelvin settings. from 3200 K to about 10000 K. This can be quite a challenge. Generally, the Sun rating should be for mid-day and maybe a couple of hours plus or minus. Another situation for adjustment off mid-day, is shade.


Cloudy is more on the blue side of things. This also borders with Shade, which is probably more often.


These are the lights you find in an office, or building complex.


These are lights found in your everyday home, regular light bulbs. The filament in the light bulb is made of Tungsten.

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