How to use the Wb Setting on Digital Cameras

If you’ve ever shown someone a photo you’ve taken and said, “But the colors really didn’t look like that,” you already have an instinctual understanding of the importance of white balance. It’s all about controlling the natural appearance of colors in your images. Chances are good that right now your camera is set to AWB for “automatic white balance” since that’s how it shipped from the factory.

AWB does a reasonably good job of measuring the temperature of the available light (warm or cool), but not in all cases, for instance:

– when the scene does not include a natural white tone,
– when deep shadows are present,
– or when there’s a single dominating color.

Moving yourself out of the “auto” settings and into “P” (program) mode is your first step away from just settling for snapshots and becoming a photographer who is in control of the camera’s color output.

1. Find out what your camera can do.

First, explore the settings on your camera and find out what it can do. Most point-and-shoot models have presets for white balance such as: sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent, and flash. (You will also see “tungsten” and “shade” on some models.) Higher ends P&S cameras and prosumer units will allow for custom white balance settings according to K values. (More on that in a minute.) Get out the manual and read what it has to say about each of these settings. Familiarize yourself with the steps necessary to change the WB quickly.

2. Take the temperature of the scene.

Professional photographers who use light meters are intimately familiar with something called the Kelvin scale, which provides “K” values for given light conditions. For instance on a sunny day, right around noon, the K value would be approximately 5500. As a general rule of thumb, “cooler” temperatures have more blue while “warmer” ranges are more orange. (To read more about the Kelvin scale, click here

So, work that out in your mind with real life corollaries. A light bulb is going to be cooler than the sun, therefore it has a lower K value. Does it make sense that you’d use the same setting to take a picture under such different lighting conditions?

3. Memorize the situations that call for different WB settings.

As a general rule of thumb:

– AWB – Sunrise and sunset shots. Also early morning light and in some conditions, afternoon light if deep shadows aren’t present. (Experiment with Sunlight WB mid-morning and afternoon.)

– Cloudy WB – At noon when the sun is directly over head and in instances of deep shade.

– Shade WB – Obviously, when shade is present, but also on days when the sky is heavily overcast.

– Fluorescent / Tungsten / Incandescent WB – In artificial lighting conditions. Take shots with each and go with what looks most natural.

– Flash – Indoors when ambient light is sufficiently low to use the onboard flash. (If you want to go a little father in your explorations, use your manual and learn how to turn the flash down so your subjects won’t look washed out. If you can’t turn down the flash, bring the exposure compensation (EV) down 1 or 2 notches.)

Experiment, It’s Not Like You’re Wasting Film

Finally, experiment and take comparison shots. Every camera will have unique abilities for “seeing” light. In the case of you, the photographer, a picture really is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to convincing you to take the time to fiddle with WB.

If you’re not filling up your memory card, you’re not exploiting the beauty of digital photography. It’s free. No photographer gets the perfect shot on the first try. The more shots you take and the more comfortable you become with your camera’s controls, the more likely you are to get top notch images with balanced, natural color.