White balance is a subjective decision, and I would suggest not letting the digital camera make that decision for you—thus, it’s best to avoid AWB, or the automatic white balance setting on your digital camera. In AWB, the scene is analyzed during the exposure and calculations are made by the digital camera’s software in less than a fraction of a second. As a result, you could literally place your camera on a tripod, set it to high motor-drive mode, and squeeze off a dozen frames—only to find that some of the frames are not identically white balanced.
This happens because the end result is based on digital camera manufacturer proprietary software. This software interprets, or interpolates the light captured as it sees it in that split-second. While this interpolation is usually very good, one problem is that the auto setting can actually neutralize color casts that you want in your photos, such as the sweet, warm qualities of the golden hour light.
This is why I normally shoot all my photographs, except maybe the kid’s birthday party photos, in manual white balance mode. The idea is to tell the digital camera the number of the color temperature in Kelvin and not let the digital camera tell me what it thinks is best. A camera is made to capture what I create, not to create and capture what it thinks logically is best.
On a normal basis, my digital camera white balance is set manually at 6000K, or 6000 Kelvin. Kelvin is how we measure color temperature of light, and for most photographers, the only real Kelvin numbers we need to remember are 3200K for tungsten or incandescent light sources; 5000K to 6000K which represents most daylight situations during the middle of the day, and 5400K which is the temperature most top of the line studio flash units produce on average.
When your digital camera is set manually to the 6000K setting whether you’re shooting in daylight or studio flash conditions, you’re basically tricking your camera into believing the light is slightly cool, similar to light on a cloudy day or light under shade. This forces the digital camera to lean toward a tad bit more of yellows and reds, or warmth, to compensate for this coolness. All the digital camera knows is that it must ensure a given standard white, 100 IRE, is reproduced as that given white under any lighting conditions. That’s all the digital camera is doing, making sure 100 IRE white stays 100 IRE white.
By ensuring that your digital camera will introduce this extra warmth in your photographs, you’re basically emulating the days of saturated-warm slide film—films like the now discontinued Kodak E100SW professional film. Using this manual white balance setting on your digital camera makes your digital camera think that the light is a cool-colored light source. In an attempt to neutralize this, the digital camera’s white balance software will add the complimentary colors of yellow and reds. If you’re actually shooting under neutral lighting, this results in a warmer overall photo. This works great for models or female subjects especially for darker-skinned models and it’s especially effective for fair complexions too.
Let’s imagine, however, that your model’s skin is a bit ruddy. In that situation, you might move your manual white balance on your digital camera setting toward 5500K. With ruddy skin, you don’t want any more reds, and setting the white balance closer to the more neutral flash or daylight setting will accomplish this as the digital camera will not add warmth. This same principal works when shooting with light sources that are not daylight balanced. Starting with the actual color temperature of the light you are shooting under, choose a slightly higher color temperature value to warm your subject’s skin tones, or select a slightly lower setting to cool them down a bit.
The scale below provides my personal interpretation of warm to cool, with neutral being normal, noon-to-3 p.m. daylight. For example, look at “Light Overcast Day” on the chart. You’ll notice the color temperature is approximately 5800-6000K, or “Cool +1.” This means that the light is one “unit of color” cooler than neutral, which is clear, colorless, boring light.
|Warm vs Cool
|Sunrise & Sunset
|1600K to 4300K
|Warm +3 to +.5
|1800K to 1900K
|Sodium Mercury Vapor Street Lights
|Average Household Bulb (Incandescent)
|2800K to 3200K
|Warm +2 to +1.5
|One hour after Sunrise
|4300K to 4500K
|Daylight at 12 noon
|5000K to 6000K, average 5400K
|Pro Print Viewing Lamps
|Neutral light standard
|Average Electronic Flash
|Light Overcast Day
|5800 to 6000K
|Heavy Overcast Day
|5800 to 10000K, average 8000K
|Cool +1 to +3, average +2
|Daylight Fluorescent Bulb, Consumer
|Cool + 1
*Kelvin Scale notes: The only precise way to measure the actual color temperature of light is with a calibrated color temperature meter. Because of this, this scale includes approximate values.
In the days of making color prints in the darkroom, we often referred to color correction of photos in units of color, such as +1, +2 or -1, -2 of cyan, magenta or yellow—or the exact opposites: red, green or blue. With this in mind, a Light Overcast Day is +1 cool which is almost like +1 cyan, a blue-green color. When you set your camera at 6000K white balance, as I often do, it’s the same as telling your camera the light is +1 cyan, so the camera adds the opposite. Again, the camera thinks it’s doing what it’s programmed to do, bring a known white, back to that standard white, but in reality, it’s tricked into warming the entire image.