Why Auto White Balance Isn’t Your Friend

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I know the title for this article is very strong, but in all honesty, I am not fan of automatic white balance. Though, it seems convenient and the word “automatic” holds a lot of promise, the truth is that auto white balance doesn’t deliver consistent and accurate results that work for me.

Yes, sometimes it nails it, but sometimes it doesn’t and that variance can happen even when you are shooting the same subject or scene. This is because the camera is evaluating the tones and colors that are passing through the lens and trying to determine on the fly what the best white balance should be. If there is a change in the elements in the scene, it can lead to a shift in white balance that though subtle can result in differences in color for the very same subject. This makes for a lot of work in post.

That’s why I have preferred using the white balance presets or the custom white balance. When I do so, the white balance is fixed and is not subject any change in the subject or scene. As long as the light source matches that of the white balance preset (sunny, cloudy, shade, fluorescent or tungsten), I can expect that every frame will be consistent. Even if the preset doesn’t nail the white balance, I know that all the images on that series are the same, making for easy batch correction later.

If you shoot jpegs rather than raw files, this is especially important because it’s more difficult to correct for colors with jpegs, than it is with the raw files.

The following images were produced using the Canon 5D Mark III and the 50mm f1.4 lens.

Auto White Balance

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In this first shot, I used the auto white balance and though it looks like it’s a pretty good shot, there is a slight bluish colorcast, which is evident when looking at the white bowl containing the fruit. This is a pretty common issue when using the automatic white balance in shade or on a cloudy day. Most cameras deliver a slight bluish colorcast with light like that.

Daylight White Balance Preset

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When I switch over to the daylight white balance, the color is a more accurate. The image is warmer than the first shot, but it’s also more neutral. I’m looking at the white in this image, because this is a neutral color and it is this kind of color where you can easily detect whether an image is too warm (yellow) or too cool (blue). Neutrals colors such as green or gray are also good colors to look at when evaluating color accuracy.

Shade White Balance Preset

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The shade white balance preset is too warm for this scene. I was photographing in slightly dappled light and so the most accurate white balance lies somewhere between the daylight and the shade wb preset.If you take a look at the pears, you will see a yellowish color cast that’s not present with the image with the daylight white balance preset.

Custom White Balance Preset

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When using the custom white balance preset, I am most often assured of getting the most accurate white balance. In the case of my Canon 5D Mark III, I simply photographed a white surface, making sure to fill the frame with it. I also had to make sure that the light hitting the white surface is the same as the light illuminating the subject. This result in good neutral colors. It’s not always convenient but for those times when color is critical, it’s one of the best ways to ensure good color.

Raw Files

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Now, some people will say that if you shoot raw, you can adjust the white balance after the fact in Lightroom or Photoshop. That’s true to a degree. However, it’s important to remember that the white balance presets that exist in Lightroom or Photoshop or any editing application are not camera specific. So, if you compare the shade wb preset of your camera to that produced by your software, you won’t see the same color rendition. They may both be better than the auto white balance, but they certainly won’t match each other. So, I often defer to the presets that are specific to my camera and refine those using the sliders in Lightroom.

Using preset demands that you pay great attention to the source and the quality of the light that you are working with. This is something I believe you should be doing anyway as a photographer. By getting into the habit of using the presets or the custom white balance, you can begin to train your eye to evaluate the light which will inform how you use the camera. In this way, you can achieve better results in-camera rather than relegating it to being fixed in post.

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