Even when all the other factors of a great photo (exposure, composition, timing, etc.) have come together in a good way, screwing up the color can easily ruin what would otherwise be a wonderful image.
"White balance" refers to the way that your camera interprets the color of light emitted from various light sources. For example, as you've probably noticed, candlelight emits a warm, orange glow that's quite different from the light you'd find under the shade of your favorite tree. Similarly, the color of the light on a sun-drenched beach is a far cry from what you find on a cool, overcast day. While our eyes and brain easily compensate for this difference, our cameras sometimes need a little help in order to render color correctly.
Nearly every digital camera contains several white balance "presets" for interpreting color. The idea is that you match the setting to suit the conditions of whatever scene you find yourself shooting. Most cameras have presets for sunlit environments, shaded environments, cloudy days, scenes lit with tungsten or fluorescent bulbs, and situations where you're using flash. A few cameras will even let you set a custom white balance or make other manual adjustments.
To see the results that different white-balance settings can have on your images, look at Figure 6.
Figure 6 White balance can have a dramatic impact on your photos, as shown in this scene captured with a variety of different white balance presets.
Step-by-Step White Balance
By default, most cameras are set to auto white balance (AWB). If you've never changed your white balance setting, that's the setting you've been shooting with all this time. Similar to exposure compensation, white balance is a function that's often inaccessible while in "auto" mode, so if you're having trouble finding it, try another less-restrictive mode such as "P" (program) or "CA" (creative auto) to get started.
- Locate your white balance settings. Some cameras have a dedicated "white balance" button. Others require poking around within the menu system. After you find the white balance, you'll see icons that represent the different settings. Options vary by camera model, but typically include those shown earlier in Figure 6.
- Choose a setting that fits your shooting location. Take a guess at what most closely matches the main light in your current environment. If you're shooting outside on a sunny day, try the setting depicted with the "sun" icon. If you're in a high school gymnasium, try a fluorescent option.
- Take a test shot. Did the color improve, or get even worse?
- Experiment. Depending on the lighting conditions, your subject, and the look you want to achieve, you may discover that the setting that yields the best results is the exact opposite of what you would expect.
When to Use White Balance
Anytime you catch yourself looking at your LCD screen and cringing when you see the color, reach for your white balance settings. Though auto white balance (AWB) often does a pretty decent job, it's not perfect. Common situations and locations that tend to trip up AWB include shady scenes, underwater environments (scuba, anyone?), and almost any high school gymnasium.