Use Daylight White Balance for Outdoor Shooting, Not AWB


Auto white balance sounds like it solves every issue regarding colors in your pictures, but it doesn't. For example, when you shoot at sunset or sunrise, AWB wants to 'correct' the golden tones that we love so much when the sun is close to the horizon. It desaturates the yellow and red portion of the spectrum, and the colors look weak and disappointing. By contrast, if you shoot with daylight white balance, you will capture the colors you see. The yellows, reds, and oranges will be saturated and dramatic.

It is true that if you shoot in RAW mode (as you should be doing for maximum image quality and the ability to tweak your pictures in many ways), you can correct the color balance using the 'temperature' slider in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. However, who wants to correct every picture taken at sunrise and sunset? Use daylight WB, and you won't have to deal with this time-consuming problem later.

If you shoot in JPEG mode, you can't correct an incorrect color balance such that it looks just like the colors you saw with your eyes. You can use Photoshop to approximate what you saw, but it won't be completely natural looking.

Golden colors in the sky and on landscapes imbue images with warmth, beauty, and artistry. The picture of the Eastern Sierras, below, is an example of a scene where desaturation of color due to using auto white balance would be detrimental to the image.

Whether you are shooting into the sun or have the sun at your back, it's important to use daylight white balance. The photos below of Ogrodzieniec Castle in Poland, and the landscape surrounding the castle, are an example. Note the golden hue on the ancient architecture, and then when I turn 180 degrees to shoot into the sun, the intense colors (and the low angled sunlight) make the scene beautiful.

When shooting in deep shade, the daylight white balance setting will produce bluish tones. Some photographers don't like this, but I like the cool tones of an overcast sky or shade. If I want to correct the blue and make the image warmer (i.e. more yellowish), that's easy to do by using the 'temperature' slider in ACR or Lightroom. The reason I don't switch to cloudy white balance is because it's one more thing to think about and slow me down when I'm shooting. I prefer to concentrate on the composition, the light, and the subject matter.  

In the outdoor fashion shot below, the blue tones on the Spanish mission in Arizona are pronounced, but in this case I think that makes this image more compelling. In fact, those colors complement the model's dress.

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Hi Jim,


 I am very new to photography, over a year now and, the more I learn the more I want to learn.

I needed a better informed understanding of daylight white balance, and there you where.

Fantastic article, so informative and easy to understand.

I shall be back for more.

Another UK fan.


Hi, I am in England and just wanted to question something you say regarding JPEG shooting. You say that by altering the white balance on JPEGS "it won't be completely natural looking". How is shooting RAW any different? You are still editing the image at home to how you THINK it looked at the time, so how can that be natural looking either?

I believe this is the statement you are referring to:

“If you shoot in JPEG mode, you can't correct an incorrect color balance such that it looks just like the colors you saw with your eyes. You can use Photoshop to approximate what you saw, but it won't be completely natural looking.”

A digital imaging sensor captures visual information. This data unprocessed (or uncooked) is what is referred to as a RAW file meaning no processing or manipulating of the information has been done. You will need special software in a computer to open and view the file as an image.

JPEG’s are image files processed from the above mentioned RAW data. During this process, information is adjusted to meet criteria within the cameras software. It’s important it understand that unused data or image information is discarded and when the file is saved it is compressed further (although slightly) degrading image quality. One of processing functions is correcting for your scenes color balance. Here algorithms are used to automatically adjust for white balance (aka AWB) or using preset color temperature settings. Again, unused image data is discarded.

When correcting for color balance in RAW, you are using all of the information the camera captured and not losing any of the visual information. Rather than using in-camera auto functionality, you can make adjustments to your taste or specific needs to much more greater accuracy than in camera. Editing on a color calibrated monitor will also add to your images color accuracy.