Light Is Rarely White

An aerial view, over the ice, flying across Greenland.

One of my photography mantras is that Light is Rarely White. It’s a bit of a tongue twister, I know, but I consider it essential knowledge for all serious photographers.

The above image was made, through an airplane window, while flying over Greenland.

You'll notice that it's a monochromatic (i.e., one color) image. In this case that's because the color of the light was bluish.

The image was made on Daylight/Sunny white balance which means that it's an accurate reproduction of the color of the light under which I was photographing.

An artifact and the shadow of the light source illuminating it at Berliner Dom in Berlin, Germany.

Photography And The Color Of Light

The color of the light that we photograph under varies based upon the time of day, weather conditions and depending on whether the light is natural or artificial.

The White Balance function on your camera provides a range of options by which you can neutralize the color of the light so as to enable you to record the world around you closer to the way you perceive it.

This will ensure that a red sweater photographs red rather than, for example, orange. 

A few important points worth noting are as follows:

  • We all see colors, and the color of light, differently

  • In most circumstances our brain tries to neutralize the color of the light so that we perceive colors within the world around us as we would expect them to appear

Our brain is less likely to try to neutralize the color of the light, at sunrise and sunset, because of our collected memory of what a sunrise or sunset should look like.

It’s said that, in the case of sunrise and sunset, the history of landscape painting has influenced our collective memory.

Put simply, we know that light at those times of day is warm in color so, being more accepting of that concept, our brain is less likely to neutralize the colors that we perceive at that time of day.

Snowman, Huangshan, China

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In Camera White Balance

You can apply a white balance correction in a number of ways prior to making the photo in camera.

My preference is to manually adjust the white balance by choosing the appropriate option (e.g., daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent) from the list available to me in camera.

Be aware that the names of these presets will vary across camera brands but, generally, fall in line with the following logic.

  • Daylight or Direct Daylight on a Nikon camera is referred to as Sunny on a Canon camera.

  • Incandescent on a Nikon camera is referred to as Tungsten on a Canon camera.

A colorfully lit alleyway, photographed at night, in the city of Bruges (i.e., Brugge), Belgium.

What’s In A Name

It may also be that your camera uses symbols to illustrate a particular white balance.

So a graphic symbol representing the sun would be the same as Sunny on a Canon or Daylight or Direct Daylight on a Nikon.

Likewise a graphic illustrating a building in shade would be referred to as the Shade setting in camera menus that use words rather than symbols to define the white balance presets.

It’s really not all that hard once you’ve got your head around what each of these terms or symbols mean and, of course, accept the fact that light is rarely white

So when you’re paid a compliment on your photography, followed by a comment along the lines of “is that what it really looked like”. Here’s some possible replies:

  • Yes, absolutely

  • No, I changed the white balance to produce a more pleasing result

  • No, I messed around with it in Photoshop and now it’s ended up looking nothing like it did

  • How would I know, I’m only the photographer

A solitary penguin in the harsh, but beautiful landscape near Paradise Harbor in Antarctica.

The above photo, made on a summer’s evening looking down a narrow alleyway in the beautiful city of Bruges (i.e., Brugge) in Belgium was lit with incandescent (i.e., tungsten) light.

As you can see incandescent light castes a warm, yellow/orange light.

Traditionally incandescent light was emitted by those screw in and bayonet light bulbs that were common in kitchens and certain types of desk lamps.

I live in Australia and, in this part of the world, those globes have been replaced by newer fluorescent light sources which can vary in color depending upon the specific tube used.

This can make it harder to manually select the right color balance up front. But testing out a few white balance presets, including Auto White Balance (i.e., AWB), should get you very close to an optimum result.

And that’s the case whether you’re after a neutral white balance or one that produces an interesting result.

The small round halogen (i.e., down lights) found in many living rooms have a similar color temperature to traditional incandescent globes.

A quiet night on the canal, lit by neon light in Bruges, Belgium.

How to Neutralize White Balance With RAW Files

The fact is that, for folks photographing in RAW, it doesn’t really matter what white balance you have your camera set to.

This is why a lot of photographers probably set their camera to Auto White Balance (AWB).

They probably just don’t want to think about such things at the time the photo is made, in camera. What’s more they know that they can easily reset the white balance in a RAW Converter such as Lightroom while processing the RAW file on the desktop.

Personally I want to ensure I’m happy with the white balance prior to moving onto the next image. That’s why, despite the fact that I photograph in RAW mode, that I like to get it right in camera.

White Balance and JPEG

However, if you’re photographing with your camera set to JPEG, it’s critical that you get the white balance right in camera.

While you can adjust white balance in Lightroom, your options are dramatically reduced when the file you’re working with is a JPEG.

White Balance on a RAW file is really just a tag that’s applied to the file. You can change the tag (e.g., Cloudy to Incandescent) in your RAW Converter at any stage without any loss of image quality.

The same is not true for a camera-generated JPEG file. In this case the white balance is literally baked into the file.

While you can tweak the image in an application like Lightroom you’ll never completely correct a JPEG image with really poor white balance. I know, I’ve tried.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru