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What is White Balance

Ned S. Levi (Ned_L) on January 15, 2012

Keywords: guides, tips, tricks


Different scenes have different color temperatures, expressed in Kelvin degrees, which describes the light tone of the scene.


Nikon D700 White balance Menu



Here are some basic, typical color temperatures of scenes we often photograph:


3,500°K to 8,000°K
Incandescent 3,000°K
Sunrise/Sunset 3,500°K
Fluorescent 2,700°K (Sodium vapor) to 7,200 (high pressure Mercury vapor)
Direct Sunlight 5,200°K
Electronic Flash 5,400°K
Cloudy 6,000°K
Shade 8,000°K
Choose Color Temperature Custom, from 2,500°K to 10,000°K
Preset manual Use subject, light source, or existng photograph as reference for white balance


It turns out that Auto White Balance handles many different scenes pretty well, but does have general limits in DSLRs of about 4,200°K to about 7,000°K. So, from about fluorescent light through light clouds it works pretty well, though at the ends, it doesn't balance the white as well as near direct sun daylight.

I use specific settings for white balance for virtually any artificial light other than my Nikon Speedlights which have the same temperature as daylight, and whenever the sun is heavily filtered such as when there's heavy cloud cover. If I'm at or near direct sunlight lighting the scene then I'll use auto white balance.

If I'm taking photos on a cloudy, overcast day, I'll set the white balance to "Cloudy", but if I'm shooting a scene under a big oak or elm tree, in in the shade of a skyscraper, I'm going to set the white balance to "shade." Then again, if I'm outside and it's a bright sunny day, I'll leave the white balance on "auto," and if some light clouds get in the way at different times, it won't matter as "auto" can handle that. If I'm in an office building and taking available light photos, I'll probably set my white balance to "Fluorescent" as that's likely the predominant light source. I think you get the picture on white balance now.

So, what's everyone talking about "expo disks" and gray/white cards?

There are times when its difficult to know what setting you need for white balance. You may be photographing an indoor scene where you're using a speedlight for fill, but most of the light is what's available in the room. You may be photographing a scene with multiple light sources. I did a wedding once in a sanctuary which had sunlight, stained glass filtered sunlight, fluorescent light, and halogen light. In either case the question hits us, "What in the world should we set our white balance to render white as white, and especially for the wedding, the bride's dress white.

Here we use a custom white balance, which Nikon calls a "Preset Manual" white balance. Most Nikon DSLRs have the ability to directly read the overall color temperature of a scene, and create a white balance setting for your camera which will render the color including white, in the scene properly in your photograph of it.

The question is what do you use to take your measurement of the color temperature of the scene which the camera will capture. It could be a simple as a white sheet of paper held in the light of the scene. For a variety of reasons, if you use custom white balance often (I do.), using a white sheet of paper is at best inconvenient, and sometimes because of the scene, the light sources, the position of the photographer capturing the scene, etc. holding out a sheet of paper won't work.

For many years, the default aid for white balance was a white card, and for some an 18% gray card. They're durable and easy to bring with you, however, there are instances where they are far from ideal. To start with, light meters and Nikon cameras are calibrated to 16% gray, not 18%.

In comes the Expo Disk. This is a specially manufactured device which lets the light of the scene come through it, which you hold directly over the lens, or screw it on to the end of the lens, which acts just like the white card in that it lets your camera measure the color temperature of the scene and create a white balance setting. Instead of having to stand and hold that white card where the subject of the photo would be located, the Expo Disk has the advantage of aiming the camera where the main subject of the photo would be located, while you stand exactly where you will be when making the photograph. Let me tell you that's often a very big advantage.


I hope my explanation makes sense.




Editors notes:


  • Another device for the purpose is the CBL-Markins Color Balance Lens rendering accurate white balance and more true color, plus more accurate exposure, by having the camera-lens reading light reflected from it, not the subjects.
  • While there are no universally accepted absolute 'correct' White Balance and Color Temperature values for a given 'generic' capture type, they are all only 'accurate' relative to a specific scene.
  • In the absence of a true white section in an image, then personal taste plays a larger role.
(3 Votes)
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Ned S. Levi Ned S. Levi (Ned_L)

Awarded for his in-depth knowledge in various areas, especially Travel Photography

Philadelphia, USA
Moderator, 8049 posts


Y V Tyagi (yvtyagi) on December 23, 2013

Do the settings under picture control also have an effect on White Balance?

Zita Kemeny (zkemeny) on March 12, 2013

Good explanations. Thanks.