White balance? What is it? For those of you who are not sure, white balance is essentially how the camera sees white. Unlike the human eye which automatically tells us white is white, the sensor at the heart of any digital camera has to be told what is white so it can process and represent colours correctly. Even with film white balance was important as shooting in different lighting conditions can result in different colour casts being captured in your photos.

On almost all digital cameras (even in some mobile phone cameras) there is the option of choosing a white balance from a number of different options (incandescent, fluorescent, sunlight/daylight, flash, cloud, shade, colour tempreture and custom as well as automatic), but what do all these options mean and how do we use them?

Most people will look at this and think it is all too difficult and set the camera into automatic white balance, which usually does a pretty good job by using the sensor to calculate what the appropriate colour temperature should be. The other options are preset colour temperatures that have been programmed into the camera and should be used when appropriate, ie use daylight when you are in sunlight, use incandescent/tungsten when you are in an area lit by incandescent light. Usually the presets will give better results when used in the correct environments.

Then there are the colour tempreture and custom preset options, these allow the user to dial in the exact colour tempreture (used in conjunction with a colour meter) or shoot a custom white balance preset using a calibration device (something as simple as a white peice of card or a specialised white balance calibration card).  When used properly these are the most accurate methods and will provide the best results.

Finally, you can correct white balance in post process by shooting a reference shot (using that white card or calibration card) and then white balancing that in your image editor and transferring the settings into your subsequent photos. This works as well as shooting a custom white balance preset but only works when working with RAW files.

With all these options you are probably thinking about how much difference there is, so here are a series of shots taken with all the different preset white balances available on my D300. As it is was not possible to shoot a preset and I did not have a colour meter I have left these two options out.  I have included the approximate colour tempretures (in Kelvin’s) in brackets as a reference guide.

Auto white balance


Incandescent (Tungsten) white balance (3000K)


Fluorecent white balance (4200K)


Sunlight (Daylight) white balance (5200K)


Flash white balance (5400K)


Cloud white balance (6000K)


Shade white balance (8000K)


This particular scene is actually lit be a number of different light sources so it is actually very hard to white balance without a colour meter (a custom preset not being an option) so it is hardly a suprise that the AUTO setting has produced the best visual result and the fluoresecent producing the most true to life result (due to the dominence of the fluoresecent light, albeit differing kinds). It is a series designed to show the differences that white balance can cause.

I usually leave my D300 and S5 Pro in AUTO white balance for day to day use, but when I am on the job I will shoot custom white balance presets whenever I change lighting conditions (where possible) or try to match the conditions to one of the presets. I also always shoot in RAW so I can change the white balance in post process if I need to.