Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Auto White Balance

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

Don’t you love it when something is “automatic”? It’s just one less thing to worry about, right?

Well, as you probably already know, “automatic” doesn’t always work (especially when it comes to cameras). But, that’s what makes photography so fun 🙂

One of those automatic features of your camera that doesn’t always work is white balance.

What is white balance?

White balance refers to the “color temperature” of your photo.

Have you ever seen a photo that looks like it’s tinted red (warm) or blue (cold)?

Well, both problems are a result of improper white balance.

Most of the time, your camera is pretty good at determining the right temperature of your photograph, but sometimes it guesses wrong. This usually happens when a large part of your photo is the same color.

Example of improper white balance

Bad (too warm):

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

Good:

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

My camera’s auto white balance had trouble with this photo because the scene was mostly red (the warm light of the sunrise made those brown rocks a saturated shade of red).

How to avoid white balance problems

The best way to avoid white balance problems is to shoot in RAW. With RAW images, you can safely change the white balance later in post-processing without ANY loss of image quality.

With JPEGs, you can still adjust the white balance later, but you’ll sacrifice image quality.

If your camera can’t shoot in RAW format, or if you prefer to shoot in JPEG, then you can try using one of the white balance presets on your camera. Most cameras have presets for various lighting conditions such as shade, cloudy, sunrise/sunset, or indoor lighting.

For more on white balance, check out this great tutorial by Sean McHugh.

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.

Comments

  1. Steve does a most wonderful job of sharing very simple but very important information with others. I am pleased every time I recieve an email from him. cheers, jon

  2. Could not agree more Steve. When I first started with digital photography I didn`t get RAW. I could not see it in my explorer viewer either so it was a bit of a mystery. I would suggest that for anybody timid about shooting RAW go and take a few test shots and put them into Photoshop elements or other similar editing program. Wow – you`ll see amazing adjustability and total control. You`ll never shoot in jpeg again. If you want to shoot in raw but also want to see the shots in explorer you can find a program called an explorer RAW codec – a small program which improves the viewing capabilities of explorer and you`ll see it all.
    SHOOT RAW!

  3. Very timely post, Steve. I shoot RAW when the camera supports it and it’s interesting to see the huge amount of difference the different white balance options in Lightroom can make to a photograph. I agree wtih Jan — SHOOT RAW!

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