White balance and what it does

The question that gets asked time and time again, is: Which white balance setting should I use and why?
The short answer is: It depends upon the lighting.
To illustrate the difference between individual camera settings, we ventured forth to one of our favourite locations, Newhaven.
For the purpose of this article we used a Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-85mm lens, remote release, all mounted on a Manfrotto 055 tripod.
Camera settings were, ISO 200, aperture f11, aperture priority, matrix metering.

What does changing white balance do?
Changing the white balance makes a colour shift in the opposite direction to the colour temperature of the light source, to adjust the overall balance of the image to a correct colour rendition.

Why do we do this?
The reason that all sources of illumination emit light at different parts of the colour spectrum, as light is measured in degrees Kelvin.  See our graph below for further explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

Clear blue sky at midday is rated as daylight and classified as 5500°K and is deemed to be the ideal starting point.
Unlike the human brain and eye combination, where the brain auto corrects the information fed to it via your eye to produce a perceived neutral colour, a camera is unable to perform this operation without additional information.

How we performed our test
The camera and lens were mounted on our Manfrotto tripod, we aimed the camera across the beach, deliberately keeping the life saver (right side of frame) in shot, the reason being that it offered a neutral reference giving a very good example of the colour change effected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Auto white balance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daylight

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cloudy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shade

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool white flourescent

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tungsten

Conclusions
Colour is a very subjective thing.  Everyone sees colour slightly differently, although this excludes colour blindness which tends to render colours vastly differently from the perceived norm.  Also some people like to see an image warmer than others, purely because it looks more appealing.
Rather than use the supplied preset colour balance, some purists will create a custom white balance for every photograph taken.

What are our recommendations?
Take a photograph in good daylight and try Daylight, Cloudy and Shaded settings, then view the results on a colour profiled monitor.  Make your own decision to which looks most neutral and use this as your standard.

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