Understanding White Balance

An essential component to ensuring quality nature images is monitoring your camera’s white balance. Since the majority of wildlife and landscape photographers are using natural light, it’s important to showcase that in your photography, or else risk your images appearing unnatural in their coloring. This can be managed with proper white balance, and, if done correctly, can really make or break an image. So what is white balance? And how does it affect your photography? Let’s take a look.

What is White Balance?
White balance is a method for managing your camera’s interpretation of the color (or temperature) of various light sources. This is measured in degrees kelvin on a range from about 2500 to 10000 (depending on your camera). Varying light sources produce different colors of light. Natural sunlight is typically between 5000 and 5500. Light sources that cast a blue hue, such as fluorescent bulbs or shadows are referred to as “colder” and carry a lower number. “Warmer” light, like candles, tungsten bulbs or even sunsets and sunrises carry a higher number, and tend to be more orange or red. If you only ever shoot under natural, direct sunlight, then white balance would be a non-issue, just set it once and move on. However, since light changes frequently and we often like to take photos during a wide variety of conditions, it is important to balance the color of your light source to ensure proper exposure.

Why do we need to use white balance?
If you ever get a headache after sitting under fluorescent lighting for too long, it’s often a result of the prolonged exposure to an unnatural light source that is causing your eyes to tell your brain to modify your interpretation of your surroundings and the colors of various items. As a result, a sheet of white paper will still look white under fluorescent lighting, even though the light source actually casts a bluish tint to the white paper. Your eyes do this on their own to help you naturally interpret what is considered “white.”  In the same way, your camera can also tell its brain to modify its interpretation of the surrounding lights through the use of white balance. The problem is, the “brain” in your camera is in no way as precise as the human brain when it comes to white balance. This is where your abilities as a photographer come into play and you can begin to utilize your artistic license to make an image exactly what you want it to be.

How do I use white balance?
There are a few different ways to utilize white balance in your camera to get the most out of your images. What I most commonly do when managing my camera’s white balance is I’ll just shoot on Auto. This is one of the only automated settings I use in camera, and it works great, because I also shoot in RAW. If you find yourself taking images in JPEG format, your white balance will be more deeply ingrained into your photograph, and will give you less wiggle room when it comes to adjusting your image with post processing software. The nice thing (and perhaps one of the biggest arguments for shooting in RAW) is that the adjustment that your camera makes to white balance is on the same plane as the adjustment made in Lightroom or Photoshop. Your camera uses very similar software to adjust color and white balance on the temperature spectrum as the majority of post processing software, so as long as you’re shooting in RAW, your adjustments can be made either in camera, or in post processing, with the same results. An image with a white balance of 7500k in your camera will look the same as if you were to manually adjust your white balance to 7500k in Lightroom after shooting at 5000k.

This image was taken using auto white balance. The top image was balanced to a sunny neutral value of around 5000k. To show the differences in white balance, the middle frame has been warmed up significantly (to about 9000) and the bottom frame has been cooled down significantly (to about 3000k).

If you read your camera’s user manual, you’ll find that there are a variety of white balance presets. These will often be things like, sunny, cloudy, tungsten and fluorescent, as well as a manual, auto and maybe a flash setting. The exact terms vary from camera to camera, but the general ideas are the same. The presets are all about balancing cool or warm light by shifting the white balance in the opposite direction to accommodate. Typically, the sunny preset will be in that 5000 to 5500 range consistent with natural, direct sunlight and as such, your camera will usually not make many adjustments to the color temperature. Cloudy light will usually be a bit cooler than sunshine, so your camera will warm up the scene slightly. Tungsten (traditional light bulb) light is typically warmer than standard sunlight, so the tungsten setting will cool the scene down a bit to compensate. Fluorescent light is often cooler than shadows, so this is usually the warmest preset, as the camera compensates for such blue light. You get the idea.

Now, with that said, there are a few times when I will make manual adjustments to my white balance in camera to ensure I’m getting the desired result. The time I manually adjust my white balance most often is when shooting night photography.

Astrophotography is a great time to utilize your camera’s manual white balance to ensure compelling coloration of stars or clouds.

I’ve found that I like the look of a cooler white balance when shooting stars, as it gives the sky a darker, more blue tone, and tends to brighten the stars and give them a more white look. The problem with most night photography is that there isn’t enough light hitting your camera’s sensor for most primary functions, like white balance and auto focus, to work. This is where your manual white balance adjustment is crucial. I’ll often adjust my white balance during night shoots to then give me a better idea of what my camera’s sensor is actually picking up when the image comes back on the screen.

Another very useful way to utilize the manual white balance adjustment is when you have a scene that needs to be spot on for white balance, and you don’t want to rely on your memory later in post processing to get it right (such as really dynamic sunsets, or macro flower photography). In this instance, I will switch my camera to live view and modify my white balance in camera while watching my result on the screen.

A great time to keep a close eye on white balance is when shooting snowy scenes like this one. You don’t want your snow to come out looking blue or orange!

Those of you with digital viewfinders (hello mirrorless crowd!) will be able to make these modifications at any time and see direct results, so long as your settings are such that your camera is not adding any artificial brightness in the viewfinder. The DSLR community will need to switch to live view, but upon doing so will be able to make adjustments to white balance and watch your screen to match with the scene in front of the camera. This way you can manually adjust your white balance and ensure proper color and exposure for the crucial shot. Just be sure to switch back to auto after shooting, or else your next series of photos could come out looking pretty weird.

Overall, white balance isn’t something that should scare you. I’ve had many different photographers on our tours with many different things to say in regards to white balance, and the reality is (like with most things in photography) that you can go as far down the rabbit hole as you’d like, but the result will be more or less the same. Shoot on Auto in RAW format and you will have every bit as much flexibility as you would otherwise. But if you need more specific settings, or just have a bad memory for the scene, make manual adjustments to benefit your workflow later. And if you find yourself shooting indoors quite a bit, well, don’t expect to do that on a tour with Backcountry Journeys, but know that your camera’s presets will help to balance the varying types of light that you may come across when shooting indoors. If your scene has a variety of sun and shadow, maybe just use the auto function and play with it later in post processing when you’re not relying on that grizzly bear to stay put while you adjust your white balance.

At the end of the day, know that white balance, while it can seem like an overwhelming topic, is extremely simple and an easy adjustment to make. Maximize your time shooting, and focus on other components of your photography, knowing that you can manage white balance from home. And until then, have fun, take risks, and happy shooting!

Chris Gheen







Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com