Setting White Balance...Subject in shade and daylight?

Started 6 months ago | Questions thread
rfsIII Regular Member • Posts: 352
Re: Photography is about building color contrasts

That’s fair. Learning to use white balance is complicated enough. “Appropriate” or “precise” white balance might be a better way to put it and reserve “correct” for those times when you want a shot that’s as neutral as your camera can produce—those rare days when the world looks perfect just the way it is.

I wouldn’t say it’s squishy, it’s actually pretty crispy. Once you understand that it’s all about blue vs. amber and green vs. magenta you can adjust those oppositions with a fair degree of precision and confidence.

Brian Kimball wrote:

Please don't confuse objectively "correct" with some kind of subjective "correct"ness just because you want to use figurative and dramatic language to make a point (that I ultimately kinda sorta agree with).

For example: no, daylight is not the "correct" white balance for sunsets. Nor is it the "wrong" white balance. Use whatever you need to match what you saw and what you felt. Daylight is a good shortcut to get you closer. So are all your other tips: genuinely useful shortcuts to get you in the ballpark. But when processing sunset shots, sometimes I'll tweak my WB by +/- 1000K or more to match what I saw and what I felt. YMMV. It's up to each individual photographer.

My deviation from daylight WB when shooting sunsets doesn't make my WB "correct" or "incorrect." Those words should only be used in the context of reproduction photography or product shots, two examples where color matching accuracy is critical.

Everything else is subjective and thus the word "correct" does not apply. Continuing to use that word harms most people's understanding of white balance.

White balance is a subjective artistic choice in the vast majority of photographs. In fact, let me repeat that:


Some choices will be more successful in conveying the mood of the scene than others. That doesn't categorize them in some arbitrary binary state of correct or incorrect. They still exist on a vast continuum of better or worse photos, for many reasons, WB included.

The sooner most photographers get used to the squishy, subjective, and artistic nature of WB, the better.

rfsIII wrote:

I answered it higher up with the Monet picture. The answer doesn’t depend on whether there is a “correct” white balance (even though there is)

My experience is that I get much more cohesive colors by following my camera manual’s instructions and setting a custom WB which gives the processor the most precise information possible about the color of the light.

Nevertheless, there is always a correct white balance. It is the one that produces the scene as you want it to look. For instance, if you want beautiful red and gold sunsets you use you camera’s Daylight setting.

In the case of mixed lighting you do your custom white balance according to the color of light you want to emphasize.

If you’re shooting a fox running from a meadow into the forest, maybe you want your shadows to go blue so the forest looks more mysterious and cold. In that case you use your white balance card in the sunshine.

On the other hand if the fox is emerging from the forest into the meadow, maybe you want the meadow to look warmer and more inviting so you set your white balance in the shadows.

Using the contrast between Amber (sunlight) vs Blue (shadows) is just one more of the many tools you have to create visual interest and a sense of three-dimensional space in your pictures.

Brian Kimball wrote:

rfsIII wrote:

D Cox wrote:

I agree it is a matter of judgement, and different photographers will set the WB differently.

In my opinion the best approach for outdoor shots in mixed lighting is to set the camera to Daylight WB, save a raw file, and adjust the WB to your taste in post processing. Keep the raw as you might change your mind about the WB later.

Where grey cards come in useful is for photographing artwork. That extends to mosaics and graffiti on evenly lit walls, and any similar flat subject. Do a shot with the grey card in the picture, and then one without.

Give your camera the data it needs. If you want to get maximum quality out of your investment, read your camera manual and learn your camera’s preferred method of setting a custom white balance. I use a WhiBal card from but there are other good choices.

It’s all about starting from a known neutral value. Then you can get as creative as you want knowing that you’re working from a firm foundation.

Unless your color discrimination is in the top 5 or 10 percent of humans you will have a very hard time striking an appealing balance between blue-amber and green-magenta. Your camera, on the other hand, can do it instantly and perfectly.

You didn't address the OP's original question: white balance off the grey card in the sun or in the shade? The two options give drastically different results.

Also, grey cards serve to eliminate color casts. What if you want to capture the color cast, like during sunrise, sunset, or other moody lighting?

Grey cards are not a panacea. They leave golden hour shots or other moody conditions looking dull and lifeless.

As D Cox alluded to, there is no "correct" white balance, unless perhaps you're doing product photography or repro work. Season to taste.

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