I think it is fair to say that most digital photographers use auto white balance, letting our cameras make informed guesses as to the proper color casts for our images (for an explanation of how white balance works and why I use auto white balance, check out Understanding and Selecting the Best White Balance). Your camera is actually pretty smart, and probably gets it “right” more often than not. But there’s no reason to feel constrained by the settings your camera chooses, especially when shooting raw format which allows penalty-free white balance adjustment during the image processing phase. I’ll often deviate from the choices my camera makes, typically because: (1) the camera’s suggested white balance doesn’t look “right” to me, (2) I’m trying to replicate the old Fujichrome Velvia color slide film look (which I used for years before switching to digital), or (3) for purely creative reasons. Here are five examples where I deviated from the camera’s white balance choices:
1. “Fiery Dawn”—Acadia National Park, Maine, USA
The white balance meter in your camera can struggle during a really intense sunrise. This particular morning, color simply exploded across the sky, transmitting primarily red light and bathing the landscape in all directions in warm color. My camera, trying to correct for all of the red light, choose a white balance of 3950K, which sucked the life out of the vibrant reds. During the raw conversion process, I instead opted for a white balance setting of 6400K, which is a bit warmer than the “Daylight” preset (which for most cameras is between 5200K and 5500K). Although the blues in the sky ended up looking a bit warm, the reds and oranges looked just right, and I found the overall color balance to be much more pleasing than what my camera choose.
2. “The Gloaming”—Isle of Harris, Scotland, United Kingdom
I shot this long exposure at the edge of twilight. Because of the overall cloudiness, and because the sun had set and was well below the horizon, blue light dominated the scene. The camera tried to compensate by picking a white balance of 6900K. The end result was a sickly warm blue color cast which was not at all appealing to the eye. I shifted the white balance to 4900K, which cooled the blues, allowing me to render the colors more vibrantly.
3. “Fires of Dawn”—Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
For this image, I opted for a creative white balance rather than trying to capture the colors consistent with the way they looked to the eye. In the old film days, I might have added a warming filter to achieve this look; in the modern digital age, all I had to do was slide the white balance from 5500K (which the camera choose) to 7600K. In doing so, I was able to impart a warmer, almost sepia-tone color cast to the image, enhancing the overall mood.
4. “Diamond Shoals”—Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina, USA
For this image of wind-whipped waves off the Outer Banks, the camera’s auto white balance tried somewhat to correct for the warm light of sunrise, selecting a white balance of 4750K. I shifted the white balance a bit warmer to 5500K in order to preserve the vibrant orange tones. If I were looking to render the scene closer to what the eye saw, I would probably have lowered the white balance to somewhere in the 3000-4000k range. As I explained in my white balance tutorial, although we perceive warm tones at sunrise and sunset, our brains tend to filter out some of the colorful light—essentially, we don’t fully perceive sunrise light as warmly as it is presented here. With a white balance set to Daylight, however, we get a color “mismatch” which can be used to creative effect.
5. “Night Eye”—Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA
I bet you think that for this star trail image I creatively adjusted the white balance to make the arch look red. Actually, it was the other way around: I had to drop the white balance considerably in order to make the night sky look blue. The red color of the rocks came from me illuminating a red sandstone boulder outside of the composition during the one-hour exposure, which in turn reflected a faint red glow onto the arch. I find that when doing night images, my camera often chooses a white balance somewhere near the Daylight preset, which makes the sky look too warm (to further compound the problem, in my experience Canon cameras tend to show a significant shift to red or magenta during long exposures). Here, the camera chose a white balance of 4500K, which rendered the sky a garish color which can only be described as “orange-magenta.” I dragged the white balance slider all the way down to 2650K to get the sky to look blue instead—which also made the hyper-intense reds look much more reasonable.
Just remember that the settings I used for the images above are by no means absolute. White balance is a relative measure, and the choices your camera makes—and the choices you make—will be primarily influenced by the condition and color of the light when you take a photograph. These examples merely illustrate the types of decisions you can make regarding white balance, but ultimately your own personal taste will dictate your final processing choices. My best advice is to experiment with your white balance settings, and by all means feel free to break free from the selection your camera makes.