What is white balance in photography and does it matter?

When I first switched to digital photography I was initially a bit confused by the concept of what is white balance in photography.

However, like many things in photography, white balance is actually really easy and quite obvious once you know a bit about it.

What is white balance in photography?

White balance in photography is the color balance in a digital image and you have two ways to set white balance:

  • Set white balance in camera with a range of presets or set a custom white balance
  • Use editing software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, to alter white balance in post production for color correction when you’ve used the wrong white balance in camera, and for color grading images

Natural daylight white balance settings for girl at the beach

Why is white balance in photography important?

If you make a point of concentrating on achieving the correct color balance in an image, you will soon be able to see instantly when the white balance in an image is out. It’s really hard not to see it when your eyes are tuned to it.

So, the downside is that you’ll want to go back over old images and fix them, because all you’ll be able to see is that they’re too warm or too cold. On the upside, you’ll be one step ahead in your photography journey!

On a slightly different note that’s also quite important when talking about accurate color in photos, make sure that your monitor is calibrated correctly for color and brightness.

Creative white balance in photography

Not everyone wants a 100% accurate color temperature in their image and that’s fine, if it’s done intentionally.

Some photographers talk about having a warm style or a cool style. They’re talking about the color balance in their images. Once you know how to see color temperature and control white balance, you might want to bring it into your photography style.

Also, it is fun to use white balance creatively when you intentionally set the wrong white balance…but first you need to know how it will affect the image.

So, let’s get familiar with the details of white balance and how to set it.


What does white balance do?

Using the correct white balance setting for the conditions you’re shooting in helps to achieve an accurate white balance. In other words your whites will be white and you’ll avoid color casts that make your image appear unnatural.

Because changing the white balance alters the warm and cool tones of an image, it affects how someone feels when they view the image.

Imagine a gritty film scene that had gentle hues of orange and pink. It wouldn’t work. These scenes are usually quite blue and desaturated in color to emphasize the cold, hard vibe. Think Scandi noir.

3 different white balance settings on flowers

The white balance in the first image was set correctly to sun, but in the second to shade and the third to tungsten. Because shade is a blue color temperature, the camera tries to warm up the image. Tungsten light is quite orange, so the camera tries to balance it with blue. Because the second two are the wrong settings for the situation, the color temperature of the images is wrong.

How is white balance in photography measured?

Kelvin is the unit of measurement for the color temperature of light. When you set white balance, you’re setting the Kelvin for the scene and telling the camera that the light is a particular color temperature.

The most used color temperatures range from 2000K (candle light) up to 9000K (dark shade). In between those two ends are:

  • House lightbulbs at 3500K
  • Daylight at 5500K
  • An overcast day is about 6500K
  • In the shade it’s roughly 7500K

Fortunately, you don’t have to remember all these measurements if you don’t want to, because your camera’s white balance settings knows. It just helps to understand white balance better.

You can download this cheat sheet if you fill in the form above.

White balance settings

How to set white balance

There are four ways that you can change your white balance settings:

  1. Auto white balance
  2. Use the standard white balance settings built into your camera
  3. Adjust the Kelvin manually for custom white balance
  4. Use custom white balance presets

Let’s look at each of these.

1. Setting auto white balance

You can set your white balance to A for auto, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as you might end up spending extra time in editing to ensure that all your images have the same color tones.

As I always say, the more control you have over your camera the more you control the end result. Get as much right in camera so that you have less work to do on the computer afterwards.

2. Using the inbuilt white balance settings

These settings are, in order from a blue color temperature to an orange color temperature:

  • Shade
  • Cloudy
  • Flash
  • Sunshine
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Incandescent lighting

Using the inbuilt white balance settings is the easiest way to set white balance. When adjusting the white balance, the icons for these settings will show up.

All you need to do is assess the lighting conditions and dial in the setting accordingly.

3. Adjusting Kelvin manually for custom white balance settings

You can also set the color temperature manually on the custom white balance setting by dialling in the Kelvin.

For example, if you’re shooting in candlelight, the color temperature will be about 2000 Kelvin.

How to set custom white balance

  • As you scroll through your inbuilt white balance settings you’ll come across one that’s the letter K
  • At this point you’ll also see the current Kelvin setting, for example 5000k
  • Simply change this number to alter the Kelvin manually

4. Applying custom white balance presets

You can even apply your own custom pre-set.

This is particularly useful if you regularly shoot in the same environment. In my studio, for example, I measured the color temperature and stored the setting in my camera as a custom white balance preset.

If you shoot in several different lighting conditions regularly you can set a custom preset for each environment. The number of custom white balance presets you can use depends on your camera. On my Nikon D810 I can set up to 6 custom white balance presets.

How to set custom white balance presets

The exact process will vary slightly from one brand to the next, but the basics are the same:

  • Photograph something white or medium gray (preferably a white balance card, also called a gray card) where you’ll be photographing, under the same lighting conditions
  • The photo need not be in focus, but mustn’t be overexposed and the white area (or medium gray) should fill the frame
  • Go into the custom while balance menu and select preset
  • Select the photo you just took
  • Set it as your preset and save it
  • That’s it! You’re good to go
  • Just remember to update your white balance if the lighting or location changes

On my Nikons the custom white balance preset process is…

  • Take the photo as detailed above
  • Select PRE (Preset Manual) in the white balance menu
  • Choose the destination of the preset (d-1, d-2 etc)
  • Scroll to Select Image
  • Press the SET button to select the photo you just took
  • Your preset is now ready for you to use

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about white balance in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips have helped you to understand what is white balance, share that too.

4 thoughts on “What is white balance in photography and does it matter?”

  1. With regard to setting the white balance, you don’t mention using a sheet of white paper to take a reading that reflects the ambient conditions. Why have you excluded that?

    • Hi Graham

      Under “setting a custom white balance preset” I mention using a patch of white or preferably medium gray (such as a gray card) within the scene to set the white balance.
      You can can also photograph a gray card and then use that photo as the basis for setting white balance in post as well, but I prefer to set it in camera rather than afterwards.

  2. Hi! Thank you for this article. What is your advice if you are moving from one spot to another and the white balance is not the same? Do you just set it to the closest white balance setting such a fluorescent? Also do you have any advice for shooting in fluorescent light with low ceilings? I have found that there is a yellow hue to the photos and would like to avoid that in the future. Thank you for any tips or insight. Lastly, I am curious and would like to try to Kelvin but feel I may forget to change the setting as I move from room to room.

    • Hi Jessica
      I change my white balance manually when I move to different lighting conditions. If I forget (which happens more often than I’d like to admit), I just adjust it in Lightroom by correcting the first in the series and then syncing the adjusted white balance to the rest of the photos taken in the same lighting (see my article on batch editing – https://thelenslounge.com/9-batch-editing-in-lightroom-tips/). I don’t advise using auto white balance, even though it seems easier, because it can easily get it wrong and you’ll have to adjust each image individually.
      Regarding the fluorescent light… I’d turn off the light so that you don’t have 2 different types of light in the image. If you can’t turn it off and it’s affecting the look of your photo, especially if it’s on your subject you need to decide, and you’re using flash, you need to set the flash power high enough so that the ambient light in the room isn’t recorded.
      Hope that helps.


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