So, why is the White Balance setting on our camera so important?

Freeman (2008, p.20) comments that ‘White Balance is digital photography’s answer to the different, sometimes unpredictable colours of light.  It is a wonderfully convenient solution to getting the overall colour of your images as you would like them to be’.

In his 2011 book, The Digital SLR Handbook, Freeman (p.60) elaborates further stating that, ‘…the two most important ways in which light affects photography are colour temperature, and the discontinuous spectra found in florescent and vapour-discharge lamps.’

As with most of the subjects we are now covering; back during the work I conducted on the original TAOP course, we looked at both colour and White Balance and their relationship within digital photography (the details for this can be found at the following link (

More recently, whilst learning about camera sensors, we looked at the workings of the human eye and how, although very similar to the sensor, it is able to easily understand and work things out without us realising.  The same is true when it comes to the eyes’ interpretation of colour, as they seamlessly see a perfectly colour balanced world, regardless of how it is lit.

Unfortunately, our cameras are not so lucky (or cleaver), and they are not able to automatically distinguish between natural light, or artificial; tungsten light or candlelight.  This is because a camera sensor is literal, recording colour differences as seen, without making the changes that our eyes do so naturally – but as mentioned in the opening statement, the White Balance function in digital photography is the answer to getting these differences right.

Colour Temperature

Sunlight is our ‘standard’ when it comes to colour temperature, and although it can appear colourless, the colour of sunlight actually ranges from white (one of the highest colour temperatures), when the sun is directly overhead, through to red (one of the lowest colour temperatures) when it is either rising or setting in a clear, cloudless sky.  There are times when we see colour as white, but the light source dictates differently, such as when we use fluorescent lamps, or when the sky is heavily overcast and dull.

We call this progression of colour The Colour Temperature Scale.  Measured in degrees Kelvin, it is applied to all light sources, and the following table is a fundamental guide, matching common light sources to their temperatures:

Colour Temperature   Light Source

1000-2000 K                Candlelight

2500-3500 K                Tungsten Bulb (household variety)

3000-4000 K                Sunrise / Sunset (clear sky)

4000-5000 K                Fluorescent lamp

5000-5500 K                Electronic flash

5000-6500 K                Daylight with clear sky (sun directly overhead)

6500-8000 K                Moderately overcast sky

9000-10000 K              Shade or heavily overcast sky

This scale works on the assumption that if you heat something that will not easily burn, such as a ‘blackbody’ (an object that absorbs all incident light), or a theoretical substance, it becomes reddish, then yellowish and then white – which is where the term white hot comes from, and at the highest of temperatures, materials will burn blue.  This scale actually contradicts what we understand of temperature in the real world, where red is determined as hot and blue cold, and in photographic terminology, we would still associate the blue tint of a photograph as feeling cold and red light as warm and comforting.  Therefore, care needs to be taken with terminology, especially when writing papers and articles (such as this course) surrounding colour and the colour balance within photography.

The Function of White Balance

White Balance actually refers to the colour tint of a photograph (Masoner), and the White Balance setting on our camera is the function that processes this colour information.  Most digital cameras have a number of WB settings to choose from, and understanding how these work should assist in our goal of achieving overall colour harmony.

The Nikon D800 has nine WB settings, although this will differ according to the make and model of your camera.  These settings are usually available in order of increasing colour temperature, although the custom settings are grouped at either the beginning or end of each list:

White Balance Settings [Cambridge in Colour]

White Balance Settings [Cambridge in Colour]

Auto: this setting allows the camera to make the best guess surrounding lighting on your behalf.  Usually works well in most situations.

Tungsten: also known as incandescent, and symbolised by a lit light bulb.  Usually used in doors and generally cools down the colours in photos.

Fluorescent: symbolised by a tubed light source, this setting compensates for cooler light, warming your images.

Sunny/Daylight: this setting is often seen as the normal WB setting.

Flash: a cameras flash can have a cooling effect on images, but by selecting this setting, the WB is compensated and warmed up a little

Cloudy: symbolised by a cloud (!), this setting will warm your images a little more than when using the sunny WB setting.

Shade: as objects being photographed in the shade can be a little bluer than when shooting in direct day light, this setting, symbolised by shade at the side of a house will warm things up a little more than when using the cloudy setting.

Custom/PRE: this setting allows you to customise the WB and is put to good use when photographing snow scenes or scenarios that are not quiet covered by the automatic settings.  Custom settings are usually governed by the use of white or grey cards, which are specifically designed for the task or by using appropriately coloured objects found within the scene.

Kelvin [K]: under this setting you would dial in the relevant figure required, as governed by the colour temperature chart as seen above.

An additional refinement available to some camera is hue adjustment, where you have the option to fine-tune these settings further still.

Having tint in our photographs is not always seen as a bad thing; take for example these two images of the Lloyds building in London.

Lloyd's of London [Sunny White Balance]

Lloyd’s of London [Sunny White Balance]

This first image was taken under normal shooting conditions with the White Balance set to fine weather (or sunny).

Here the image is very monochrome, which is dictated by the chrome and steel structure of the building and the very bright, although cloudy sky.

This second image was taken with the White Balance set to Tungsten, which is known to cool down the colours in a scene, and is really apparent there as it makes the building look a very strange shade of blue.

Lloyd's of London Building [Tungsten White Balance]

Lloyd’s of London Building [Tungsten White Balance]

I am not particularly keen on this shot and I actually prefer the look and feel of the original image, but this shows a good example of how changing the cameras White Balance can give completely different image results.  In fact by changing the White Balance setting, rivers can look cooler and sunsets warmer, all by the flick of a switch.

Florescent and Vapour-Discharge Lamps

Florescent and vapour-discharge lighting work a little differently to other artificial light sources as an electric charge is discharged through the element, which is in fact vapour.  The colour from these types of light gives off a greenish or bluish hue when photographed, which actually has noting to do with colour temperature, but our cameras have the ability to deal with this in the same way, as long as the correct White Balance setting has been selected.

So, why is the White Balance setting on our camera so important?  If we want to achieve the perfect colour balance in our photos we need to be aware of this function within our camera.  Yes, if we shoot in RAW we can make changes to the colour of our image in image altering software packages, but it is always good to know where on our camera we can compensate for the different colours found in the world, how we can make our photos look different by changing this setting, and why we would want to do so.



Freeman, M.  (2011) The Digital SLR Handbook.  Revised 3rd Edition.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Freeman, M.  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography. East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Masoner, L.  (n.d.) White Balance [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 6 June 2013].


Cambridge in Colour.  (n.d.) White Balance [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 5 June 2013].

Freeman, M.  (2011) The Digital SLR Handbook.  Revised 3rd Edition.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Freeman, M.  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography. East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Langford, M., et al.  (2008) Langford’s Advanced Photography.  7th Edition.  Oxford; London.

Masoner, L.  (n.d.) Colour Temperature [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 6 June 2013].

Masoner, L.  (n.d.) White Balance [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 6 June 2013].

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) Introduction to White Balance [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 5 June 2013].

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