How to Choose the Right White Balance

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – color balance is critically important. No matter how carefully I compose my shot in-camera, I will always – ALWAYS – check my color settings during post processing. I recommend that you do the same. Even if you set your white balance in-camera. Even if you don’t make any other adjustments. Here’s why…

Your camera can’t see a darned thing. Really. It’s completely blind. It makes color choices based upon mathematical algorithms. And no matter how good those algorithms are… no matter how advanced the equations gets… it’s still using math. It can’t see what you can see with your eyes. So take a few seconds to get your colors right. A simple adjustment can make a big difference.

The first step is the simplest – but many people skip it. While you are shooting, take your eye away from the viewfinder and look around you. Take a moment to look carefully at the colors that are really there. Is the light from the setting sun changing the color of the landscape? Is light reflecting off brilliantly colored clouds and causing a color cast on the ground around you? At first, most of us have a hard time seeing those slight changes, but over time, you can develop your vision so that you notice the colors changing around you.

Try this simple exercise… next time you are out driving just before sunset, wait until the sun is directly over one of your shoulders. Either on your right, or on your left. Then, look at the trees, buildings, or other objects on the sides of the road. When the sun is low in the sky, you’ll notice that the objects on one side of the road are painted with light. The objects on the other side will be in shadow. Can  you see the golden or magenta color cast?

This is a great comparison for those who haven’t noticed the effect before. When I point this out to new students, they are almost always surprised by it. It’s something they haven’t noticed before. Once you start to notice changing light, see if you can see the color cast that appears on the ground under a brilliant sunset. Look for the glowing golden colors that appear in a forest in the spring… especially on a wet and overcast day. Soon, you’ll be seeing subtle color changes everywhere you go.

Ok – so now that you’ve seen the colors… now that you are really noticing them, open up your file in your RAW converter, and make the necessary adjustments. Start with the default setting based upon the conditions as they were when you took the shot. Was it cloudy? Choose a cloudy setting. But don’t stop there. Look at the image. Does the color balance look just right to you? Shift the temperature slider back and forth just a little and watch what happens to your image. Pay attention to subtle color casts that appear as you adjust the slider. You need to decide if those casts are what you want for your image.

Of course, color balance is a personal artistic choice. You can choose a realistic color balance, or you can choose something “artsy”. Do you want a moody look? A warm and inviting feel to your image? It’s up to you! Experiment with it. Remember, I have only one hard and fast rule for art… If you aren’t enjoying it, you are doing it wrong.


About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.