Just hearing the words "white balance" is usually enough to strike fear into the heart of even the most hardened of amateur photographers. After all, it sounds so technical, so it must be complicated, right?
That was how I used to think of white balance, and I steered clear of it for a long time in the hope that it would just go away. Unfortunately it didn't, so one day I decided enough was enough - it was time to learn it.
To my surprise and delight, not only did white balance turn out to be a very simple concept, it is also one of the most useful to know. So if you're ready, take a deep breath and let me guide you through.
What is White Balance?
When we look at a white object our eyes will automatically adjust to the lighting conditions, so that the object appears perfectly white to us whether we are indoors under a tungsten bulb or out in the bright sunlight.
While our eyes are excellent at making this adjustment, digital cameras aren't, and the same object will appear different depending on the colour of light in the scene (something known as the "colour temperature"). This can leave our photos with a blue (cool) or orange (warm) tint.
White balance is the process of giving our camera a helping hand, so that it can reproduce the whites in our photo as they should be. Once it gets the white right, all the other colours in the scene fall into place, and we're left with an image that perfectly reproduces what our eyes saw.
Using White Balance Presets
Camera manufacturers know that their Automatic White Balance (AWB) setting doesn't always get it right, so they also include several white balance presets for us to choose from.
Typical white balance presets include Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash. These work exactly as you'd expect - you simply choose the appropriate setting for your shooting conditions and the camera will do the hard work of making white objects appear white.
Custom White Balance
For situations where the white balance presets won't do, most cameras also come with a Custom White Balance setting. In this mode you begin by taking a photo of a white object (a sheet of white paper or a professional white balance card) under the lighting conditions of your scene. Then you just tell your camera to use that image as its white balance reference, and then all photos taken under those conditions will come out correctly balanced.
Deliberately Using the Wrong White Balance
Most of the time you'll want the colours of your scene to be rendered as accurately as possible, but sometimes you will get a more impressive image by artificially warming up or cooling down your scene.
Sunsets are a prime example - your camera's Auto White Balance will often "correct" the rich, warm colours of the scene, leaving you with a photo which is cold and uninspiring.
To artificially warm up a sunset, you can select one of the "cooler" white balance presets, such as Cloudy or Shade. This will enhance the warm reds and oranges in the photo and subdue the cold blues and greens, leaving you with a much more pleasing image.