Understanding White Balance Settings

It’s official: Casey has finished her Yoga Teacher Training program! She is so excited to share more about the life-changing experience, but wanted to take a week or so to process what the month meant to her. So that means you’ll be hanging out with me this week for another travel photography lesson! We’ll be going over one of the most overlooked aspects of photography—white balance settings.


Understanding White Balance


White balance, though easily disregarded, has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the look of your images. In today’s post I will be talking a lot about the different qualities of light, so I would suggest looking over my last post on Seeing and Using Natural Light if you need a bit of a refresher.


Light Temperature


Let’s get started with temperature. Basically, different sources of light have different temperatures. These different light temperatures produce different colors. You can see this right away when you look at a florescent light bulb next to an incandescent light bulb. The florescent light bulb emits a more blue-ish light when compared to the incandescent bulb which produces a more reddish/orangeish light. Light that appears bluer is referred to as ‘cool.’ The light that is redder is considered ‘warm.’ Go outdoors and you’ll see the same effect. Have you noticed that on sunny mornings the world seems to be just a bit more vibrant compared to rainy grey afternoons? Temperature variations of light also occur with sunlight depending on the time of day and the weather. For example, the morning sun casts a much warmer light than a heavily overcast afternoon sky. Below you can see an example of mixed lighting. Shaded cool light is coming through the window on the right while the incandescent bulb casts a warmer light in the shower on the left.


Mixed Lighting


Warning: technical jargon ahead! The temperature of light is described using kevlin (k) and appears on a sliding scale from cool blue to warm red. Color temperatures higher than 5000 K are considered cool. Colors below 5000 K are warm. This comes in handy if you want to manually adjust your white balance setting.


White Balance Color Temperature

via Cambrige in Colour


The goal of white balance is to get the colors of your image as true as possible. Because of the different temperatures of light, the overall color of your image may shift to being cool or warm. While cameras are getting smarter every year, in order to pinpoint the exact temperature, almost all cameras give you the ability to choose your white balance (WB) setting based on your light source. This WB button will be in the top right corner above your LCD screen on Canons and on the left side for Nikon users.


The following images are unaltered and were all shot within one minute of 6:29 am on a cloudy morning in Costa Rica. The lighting conditions did not change during this time. All photos were shot at 1/500 f 8.0 iso 800. All results are simply from changing WB settings.






Under most situations Auto does a fair enough job at picking up on what color temperature is appropriate. My Nikon D7100 chose a color temperature which was close to 5000 K.


Incandescent (tungsten)




Incandescent light bulbs emit a very orange light. The color temperature of incandescent light bulbs falls around 3000 K making it one of the warmest emitters of light. These are the typical bulbs you find in homes. Using this setting will cool down your shots and make them a bit more blue to balance the warm, orange light of incandescent bulbs.






Florescent lighting emits a color temperature of around 4500 K. This type of lighting is more popular in areas where the lights are left on for a long time like businesses, hospitals and high school gyms. This setting will also cool your images, but only just slightly, not as drastically as incandescent.






For my camera, the Daylight setting comes in at 5200 K and is used for images taken in direct sunlight. This falls right in the middle of your camera’s temperature range.






Used in conjunction with flashes. Difficulties can arise when using flashes of different models, but Nikons built-in flash comes in at 5400 K.






Used for overcast days. Color Temperature of about 6500 K.






My camera registers 8000 K for subjects in the shade on sunny days. This is one of the coolest types of light and therefore will warm your images considerably. The shade setting can also be used if you have a super overcast day and your cloudy setting isn’t warming your image enough to get your true colors.




K at 5000


You can also choose to adjust your color temperature manually. Here it is set to the standard 5000 K.


So the goal of white balance is to match your white balance setting to the temperature of your light source. Play around with your camera’s white balance and see how it affects your images.


Do you adjust your white balance while photographing? Which setting do you find to have the truest color balance of my breakfast?



  1. Very useful tips Dan! I’m still struggling to improve my photography (well, not currently since my camera was stolen in Nicaragua) and admittedly white balance isn’t something I’ve paid enough attention to in the past. At least now I know it’s easier to shoot it right the first time than to try to correct it later in post-processing!
    Leah of The Mochilera Diaries recently posted…Unconventional Milestones: My 100th Post & A Pura Vida GiveawayMy Profile

    • So sorry to hear about your camera. We know how it feels to have stuff taken from you and it’s no fun at all :-( I’ve found it’s good idea to do as much in camera as possible so you don’t have to work so hard later on. Hope you get the chance to get back into photography soon.

  2. I think WB is so underestimated! I discovered it only recently and it changed my way of shooting! Thanks for the great tips! And congrats to Casey!!! :)
    Pam | a Blonde around the World recently posted…FALL IN NEW YORKMy Profile

    • Thanks Pam! Casey is super excited to share all of her yoga knowledge next week :-)

  3. Nice, clear explanation of white balance. I used to use a coffee filter or a styrofoam cup to set white balance on my old D70 when I didn’t have a gray card handy. It made a huge difference. I have the same camera you do and I’ve gotten a little complacent because the auto WB is pretty good most of the time. Good reminder.

    • The white balance on the D7100 is pretty darn accurate and I’ll admit I find myself relying on it from time to time :-p Great tip using a coffee filter or styrofoam cup as a grey card! Thanks for sharing :-)

  4. Very informative. I’m always disappointed with my images when I forget to pay attention to the WB settings.
    penny sadler recently posted…6 Favorite Moments in RomeMy Profile

  5. Yay, congrats on the yoga, that sounds amazing! And thanks for the informative post…I’ve actually never played around with WB on my camera, but clearly should start!;-)
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…Three YearsMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Jess! Good luck with the WB settings :) Hope it’s helpful!

  6. I take very basic photos, and should take lessons from you two. (PS, congratulations on the yoga!)
    Jennifer recently posted…A Day in Reykjavik, IcelandMy Profile

    • Haha thanks Jennifer! I let Dan do all the photography – I just don’t have enough patience to learn how to do it correctly ;)

  7. I’ve always been intimidated by the whole white balancing task but you’ve really simplified it for me. Now I need to take out my Nikon and go play.

    • YAY! Glad to hear that! WB doesn’t have to be as tricky as it seems ;)

  8. Learning white balance was probably the most difficult thing for me to grasp when I was first learning photography. I so much wish I had stumbled across this sooner!

    What a wonderful post! Thank you x

    • Ah that’s too bad! It can definitely be a bit confusing, especially in the beginning. Glad you enjoyed the post though, and thanks for your comment!


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