White Balance

How the color of light can change your photographs

Natural sunlight is a different color from the light produced by tungsten and fluorescent light bulbs. While our eyes adjust naturally to these changes, cameras do not.

If your camera has a white balance setting, it will adjust automatically to different colored lights, and produce natural color no matter what the light source is. You can also adjust the white balance manually.

The Color of Light

Light that comes from different sources has a different color. You may have seen photos taken under fluorescent lamps that have a sickly green color. Or maybe you’ve taken photos indoors at night with the lights on, and everything looks orange.

The light that comes from these sources is a different color than natural daylight. The color of light is measured in Kelvins (K), and the relationship between light sources and color temperature looks like this:

Color Temperature (K)Light Source
3200Sunrise and sunset
3400Tungsten lamp
5500Natural daylight
6000Overcast sky
8000Shade on a sunny day
12,000Blue sky

Some digital cameras have a setting called white balance. Typically, the white balance setting on the camera uses icons that look like a sun, clouds, a tungsten bulb and a fluorescent lamp. It’s no coincidence that these icons happen to match the light sources in the table above.

While most of us should never have to adjust the white balance on a digital camera, it is extremely useful when you take a lot of photos indoors. Whether the light source is fluorescent or tungsten, you want to be able to change your camera setting so that the photographs look natural and don’t have an odd color tint to them.

Photo One — Natural Light — Daylight Balanced

This photograph was taken with the camera’s white balance set to daylight.

Since the photo was taken outside in natural light, there is nothing odd about the color.
natural daylight

Photo Two — Natural Light — Tungsten Balanced

This is the same photograph taken with the camera’s white balance set to tungsten.

Notice the odd blue tint in the photograph? This is why you don’t want to leave your camera’s white balance set to tungsten when taking photos in natural daylight.
natural tungsten

Photo Three — Tungsten Light — Daylight Balanced

I’ve moved indoors now and turned on a lamp with a tungsten bulb.

You can see that the light has a orange tint to it. This is what happens when you take photos under tungsten light with a camera’s white balance set to daylight.
tungsten daylight

Photo Four — Tungsten Light — Tungsten Balanced

Now I’ve changed the camera’s white balance to the tungsten setting.

The light is now white instead of orange, the way that it should appear. This is also the way that it appears to your eyes.
tungsten tungsten

White Balance Warning

If you want to set your camera white balance manually, give it a try. It can create some very unique effects when you use different white balance settings in the same lighting conditions.

Here’s the catch: if you do set your white balance manually, always check what you have set it to before you begin taking photographs. You could take a ton of photos before you realize that the white balance is not set properly. And the tinted photos that this will create are almost impossible to fix in an image-editing program.

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