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Digital Photography Tips: Auto White Balance Kills Color

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Photography Tips: Don't Use Auto White BalanceSkill Level: Intermediate

I've had a lot of students ask me lately why the colors in their photos are coming out inaccurate, so I thought it would be fitting to post a digital photography tip all about auto white balance. I'm marking this photography tip as "Skill Level: Intermediate" because I'm going to assume you already know what white balance does and how to control it. And if you don't know what it is, I offer group classes and online courses that can get you up to speed.

The topic of this photography tip pertains specifically to auto white balance - often abbreviated "AWB." The auto white balance setting is like many automatic functions on your camera: it works well enough a lot of the time, but it can really screw things up if you're not paying attention.

Auto white balance works like this: it looks at the photo you're taking and it tries to determine if there's too much of one color family. If it sees too much of one color, it floods the picture with the opposite color to try and cancel it out.

So let's say you have some incandescent lighting overhead when you're taking a picture of your family. Well, incandescent lighting is throwing out a ton of yellow-orange light. So auto white balance sees the excessive warm tones and says, "That's way too much yellow-orange," and so it floods the picture with blue to cancel it out. This is assuming auto white balance is doing a good job. Many cameras don't add quite enough blue in this scenario and leave your indoor shots looking too yellow.

That's the basic concept of auto white balance - if the camera sees too much of one color, it deems that an "unwanted color cast" and then tries to eliminate it by adding the opposite color. This approach to eliminating unwanted color casts is good enough for many pictures. And when you have to shoot quick, good enough is good enough.

But here's the problem with auto white balance...how could it possibly know the difference between a color cast you want and a color cast you don't want? The yellow color cast from incandescent lighting is a color cast you don't want, but the yellow color cast from fall leaves is. The camera can't make the distinction between these two. Your camera is dumb! It doesn't even know what it's looking at. It just sees too much yellow, regardless of where that yellow is coming from.

So when you shoot fall leaves on auto white balance, what ends up happening is this; the camera's auto white balance sees a bunch of yellow and it says, "Well, that's way too much yellow. Must be a color cast my photographer doesn't want," and so it floods the picture with blue to tone down the yellow. The result is fall color that isn't so fall color-y anymore.

Here are some examples:

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate shade setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

  AWB (above) vs. the accurate cloudy setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

Same thing on a sunset. The auto white balance sees a bunch of warm tones from the setting sun, assumes you don't want them, and then floods the picture with blue to tone it down.

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

As you can see, auto white balance can really destroy colors in your photos. That leads to my very simple digital photography tip: when photographing subjects with strong color casts, don't use auto white balance. Instead, use the appropriate white balance setting (daylight setting in daylight, shade in shade, etc) or adjust it yourself in the computer by shooting RAW files. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjust the white balance on my RAW files. It's a great program and I highly recommend it to all shooters. Get a great price on Adobe Lightroom at B&H.

Use auto white balance when you need to shoot quick and you're not too worried about the colors being perfect. But when the colors have to be just right, don't use AWB...it may just tone down the colors too much.