Don't Always Trust Auto White Balance

Sep 11, 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned two photography lessons on my recent trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Today, I will be covering the second lesson I learned. In short, never fully trust your camera's automatic white balance setting. While shooting under cloudy conditions, I found that the automatic setting resulted in photos that were way too cool in color, resulting in inaccurate representations of what my eye saw. Here's a great example from my visit to Mount Mitchell State Park (a wonderful place, I might add):

Photograph taken with automatic white balance

Compare the automatic white balance photo with the following one, which was taken with manual white balance (on the "Cloudy" setting):

Photograph taken with manual (Cloudy) white balance

Note how this second image is warmer in color, with richer greens and reds. This second image is much closer to what I really saw, and the color difference was enough to be apparent in the little LCD display on my camera. The morning I visited the park, weather conditions were definitely cloudy. It's interesting then that the automatic white balance didn't pick up on those conditions better than it did.

One obvious solution to this problem is to shoot in RAW mode (assuming your camera supports it). My camera does not support RAW, and I'm not entirely sure that the additional post-processing work necessary with RAW photos is worth it (though I'm sure plenty of pros would disagree). As I have learned, you're probably better off manually setting your white balance for a given scene. Just don't forget to change it each time you go on a shoot. You wouldn't want to shoot in "Cloudy" mode on a bright, sunny day.

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