Colour and White Balance

White balance in photographyThe colours in your photos may or may not be accurate, and the appearance of proper exposure in part depends on accurate looking colours.

Light  strikes your subject or a scene, and then bounces towards your eyes or camera. Some colours are absorbed and some colours are bounced - the bounced colour or mix of colours is the 'colour' we see and is captured by our camera.

One of the issues is that our eyes are very forgiving and determin colours much easier than cameras actually can. To help cameras there are settings which help the camera understand the light hitting the subject - the temperature of light in "Degrees Kelvin" is used as a measure for the colour of light.

The "Temperature" of Light

Oddly, Blue light is is actually a higher "temperature" than Yellow or Red light, even though we perceive Yellow and Red as 'warmer' colours while Blue is thought of as 'cooler.'

The Kelvin scale was determined by British physicist William Kelvin who heated a block of carbon and noted that it radiated different colours based on the temperature it was heated to.

The light striking the subject may have a variation compared to "Daylight" which is the standard we compare all other light to. Shade and cloudy days are much 'bluer' than straight daylight because so much blue sky is supplying the light where daylight has more yellow in it.

Artificial lights usually are more yellow, or green in the case of fluorescent than daylight - although some 'daylight' bulbs are actually slightly bluer than daylight.

There are a lot of variables and occasionally we can't get entirely accurate colours especially in 'mixed lighting' situations but we can get closer to natural looking images by making sure the white balance selected on your camera is done correctly.

How to actually set your white balance may vary by camera, so do look up how to change settings in your manual.

White balance Icons
White Balance icons and what they mean

Typically you press a 'WB" or White Balance button and then scroll through the choices. This affects how the camera sees the light.


Auto White Balance often does an acceptable job, but not always, especially when one colour dominates in a scene affects what ithe camera thinks is an 'average light.'

Wrong Auto White Balance

Advanced Colour Ideas:

You can also do a Custom White Balance by shooting a white or grey card and using that to set how the camera sees colours. Often this gives the most accurate colours but is also the most work to get. Always make sure to fill your frame to get 'all white' and no off colours in the image. And not all paper is the same 'colour' of white. Please read in your manual how to set 'custom white balances.'

There is also a 'Kelvin' setting in cameras that you can adjust if you know the temperature of the light source. Again please read in your manual to learn more about this adjustment.

Comparing Light Sources and White Balance Settings

Here is a sample sheet of different light sources and how white balances look when properly AND improperly applied. Note you can use improper white balance to create specific effects to match the mood you want to create in your image. Note that 'auto white balance' is also dependant on the source of light and is not consistent.

White Balance Settings Comparison
White Balance Comparison - click to see larger version
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