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Understanding White Balance
in Digital Photography

Alton Vance

What is White Balance?
The White Balance Concept
Film and White Balance
White Balance in Digital Photography
Setting Your Camera for Proper White Balance
Illustrations of White Balance Settings


Light is seen in different ways because of a quality called "temperature". Temperature has nothing to do with how hot something is in this case. Temperature is related to the wave lengths of the light. The different wave lengths of light create different effects for photography. Our mind and eyes are created in such a way as to make adjustments automatically and so we never have to think about making light temperature changes with our mind. However film and digital cameras have to be balanced for the proper WHITE BALANCE or your picture will look unnatural.

Different types of artificial lights produce different light wave lengths and thus different light temperatures. Even the sun produces different wave lengths or light temperatures during different times of day. That is why early morning or late afternoon produces such vivid yellow and orange effects to our surroundings. The longer wave lengths of the early morning and late afternoon produce the dynamic beauty of a stunning sunrise or the warm tones of a memorable sunset. During midday the shorter light waves hit the earth and we see the cooler tones of the blues and greens.

(Click for camera settings paragraph)

The chart below shows the light temperature in degrees Kelvin which corresponds to approximate colors. The chart is not meant to be scientifically accurate. It is here to provide an illustration of the WHITE BALANCE concept and help you understand the concepts in this article.

Orange ------Yellow----------White---------Cyan--------------Blue
2000 -----------4000-----------5200---------8000----------10,000
Sunset -------------------------------------------------------Overcast
Tungsten------Florescent-----------------------Strobes & Flash-----

For all practical purposes we consider the tones of midday the more natural color temperatures. Our eyes would see a white sheet of paper as "white" whether we looked at it in the early morning light, midday light, or late afternoon. But film and digital photographic sensors will record a white sheet of paper differently at each time of day. Shade and direct sunlight will also cause a white sheet of paper to be recorded differently. A white sheet of paper would have a yellow or light orange tint when photographed outdoors on a clear day in the early morning or late afternoon. It may have a blue or gray tint if photographed in the shade.

Light temperature is measured in "degrees Kelvin." Midday lighting usually produces light temperatures of somewhere between 5200 and 5500 degrees Kelvin. Heating a piece of iron to 5500 degrees Kelvin should cause it to emit the same color of white light that the sun gives off during midday. As the sun sets the temperature decreases to approximately 1500 to 2000 degrees Kelvin.

The terms "WHITE BALANCE," "light temperature," and "degrees Kelvin" are all basically speaking of the same thing when used in reference to photography.


Film is manufactured with only one light temperature quality. Depending on the manufacturer and type of film those qualities vary to some degree but the goal is to manufacture film so that it produces a photograph with natural colors under midday lighting conditions. In other words, daylight film will have a WHITE BALANCE somewhere near 5500 degrees Kelvin.

Different types of film are manufactured to produce natural colors (midday colors) under different lighting conditions. I.E. some types of film (like Fujichrome T64 or Kodak Porta 100T) are manufactured for use in tungsten lighting. This film would have a WHITE BALANCE of approximately 3000 degrees Kelvin. Film balanced for florescent light would have a WHITE BALANCE of about 4000 degrees Kelvin. Thus each type of film is manufactured with a certain light temperature or WHITE BALANCE in mind.

When daylight film is used to photograph a sunset, or an object at sunset, the photograph has a warm yellow-orange tint. In this case we usually consider that a good thing. It is considered dramatic lighting. But what if we are photographing our child's birthday party at night under the light of our standard household light bulb? A standard tungsten lamp has a light temperature of approximately 2500 degrees Kelvin. With our 5500 degree daylight film we will record the white frosting on the cake as yellow frosting and the faces of our guests will have a bright yellow-orange tint. The solution would be to change film in our camera and shoot with tungsten film balanced for 2500 degrees Kelvin. Many of us have rarely used tungsten film, let alone changed out our daylight film in place of it.

WHITE BALANCE in Digital Photography

Thus the tremendous advantage of digital photography. Almost all digital cameras today have an automatic WHITE BALANCE (or color temperature) setting. It is like being able to change the type of film in midstream. White balance settings on your digital camera are literally color temperature settings. They are usually registered in your camera as "degrees Kelvin".

The automatic WHITE BALANCE setting on digital cameras allows the camera to analyze the temperature of the light and automatically set the camera's firmware to interpret how it should be set. Sometimes digital cameras do an excellent job of determining proper WHITE BALANCE and sometimes they don't. That is why it is a good idea to become familiar with your manual settings for WHITE BALANCE. There will probably be times you'll want to or wish you had made some adjustments. Sometimes you want to change it for lighting effects.

Herein lies one of the most beneficial advantages of shooting with your RAW setting if you can. (See my article on Understanding RAW Format) The WHITE BALANCE or color temperature setting can be adjusted for every individual shot in post processing. It is the firmware in your camera that does the interpretation for WHITE BALANCE. With RAW format the conversion software will allow you to make the setting you most desire after you have shot the photograph and before you develop the final image at home or in the office. What tremendous control you then have over your developed images.

If you would like a little more warmth and color in that beautiful sunset picture you took you can set your WHITE BALANCE slide bar accordingly. If you would like that greenish picture you took under fluorescent lights to look like it was taken in the sunshine you can set your WHITE BALANCE slide bar accordingly. I shoot most of my pictures in RAW format mainly for this single element of control. That way I rarely have to worry about what my settings are when I'm in the field. I can spend more time thinking about composition and exposure. I know I can make RAW format adjustments when I get home. No more wishing the camera had done a better job finding the right automatic setting, or wishing I'd taken time to set it manually, or wishing I'd taken a WHITE BALANCE exposure to determine the right setting.

Setting Your Camera for the Proper WHITE BALANCE

But just in case you don't plan to bother with RAW format here are some suggestions for using your WHITE BALANCE settings on your camera.

Some digital cameras use only automatic settings so you have no control.

Others give you the choice of an automatic setting, as well as presets for various lighting conditions, and manual settings.

Most digital cameras will give you the choice of setting WHITE BALANCE to three or four presets, i.e. "Florescent," Tungsten," "Daylight," "Shadow," etc. Some digital cameras give you the choice of setting the WHITE BALANCE manually or taking a custom setting exposure.

A custom setting is set by taking an exposure of a white object in or near the scene you want to take. Then, through the menu, you select that exposure and set the WHITE BALANCE according to the light temperature arrived at with that exposure. Most of the time the camera will make this adjustment automatically after you follow the manufacturer's procedure. Use the manual that came with your camera to determine your procedure.

(Click) The chart above might help you understand the concept of setting your camera's white balance manually. To have natural looking pictures you want a balance of color. You don't want too much blue, for instance, which often happens in a winter scene in the shade. You don't want too much yellow which happens when shooting under tungsten lights.

The concept of WHITE BALANCE is to set your camera's temperature settings, in degrees Kelvin, to a setting that corresponds with the color temperature of the lighting conditions present at the time of shooting. Theoretically this is supposed to produce white areas of your photograph as white instead of some hue of yellow or blue. WHITE BALANCE means whites should be white in your photograph. Theoretically speaking, if white is white then all the other colors should be natural and balanced as well.

Here is the practical side of all this information. Tungsten lamps produce warm yellow light somewhere in the range of 2000 to 3500 degrees Kelvin, depending on the wattage and other technical elements. So you want to set your camera's WHITE BALANCE somewhere in that range. A good base is about 3200 for tungsten lighting.

Florescent lighting produces a color hue closer to the 4000 degree range so a good base for setting your camera's WHITE BALANCE would be 4000 degrees Kelvin. You can experiment with moving the setting by plus or minus 500 degrees in increments of 100 degrees. Sometimes you may want a warmer look to your pictures to produce a certain mood. Warmer pictures are produced by setting your camera to correspond to the cooler temperatures (the higher numbers). Don't be afraid to experiment.

Once again, moving up the scale with your settings will always produce warmer tones and increase the yellows and oranges in your photograph. Moving down the scale will produce more subtle blue tones in your photograph. This sounds opposite to the chart. But here is what happens. The temperature settings are programmed to correspond with the quality of light you are photographing. When you move your camera settings away from that corresponding light temperature you add or subtract warm and cool temperatures from your photograph.

For instance if you take a picture of a sunset and set your camera to 2000 degrees Kelvin to match the color temperature of the sunset (approximately 2000 degrees Kelvin) your photograph will have a rather natural looking blue sky as if it were taken in the more natural lighting in the middle of the day. If your camera is set for natural midday lighting at about 5200 degrees Kelvin the sunset has more of the yellows and oranges you probably want in a sunset. This happens because you have subtracted the cooler blue tones and added more of the warmer tones by increasing the temperature value . If you want your photograph to have an even more vivid orange and yellow saturated look you can manually set your camera to a higher number, say 7000 to 8000 degrees Kelvin.

When you move a slider back and forth on the temperature chart you are allowing more of the color tones to saturate your photograph in relationship to the side with the most space. As you slide your pointer towards the blue (higher numbers) you cause the yellow (lower numbers) to have more space. As you slide your pointer towards the yellow you cause the blue tones to have more space. The hues on the larger side of the slider will be more dominant in your photograph.

The further you set your camera from the corresponding light temperature of the light being photographed the more unnatural the colors of your photograph. This is not always a bad thing. Early morning and late afternoon photographs produce dramatic pictures when the camera is set at midday WHITE BALANCE. But there are times that you want a more natural WHITE BALANCE.

See the photos below which illustrate these concepts.

Experiment a lot and enjoy your photography.


Developed at 2000 Kelvin Degrees

Sunset 1 - 2000-K


Developed at 5200 Kelvin Degrees

Sunset 2 - 5200-K


Developed at 8000 Kelvin Degrees

Sunset 3 - 8000-K



Developed at 2000 Kelvin Degrees



Developed at 3000 Kelvin Degrees



Developed at 5200 Kelvin Degrees