Light comes from many different sources, many different directions and in many different colors. The light from the sun is a very different color from a candle. Daylight on a cloudy day is a very different color from day light on a sunny day. A regular lightbulb is very different in color from a fluorescent bulb. The light on your camera’s flash is different from all the rest. Halogen’s, metal halide, mercury vapor, daylight fluorescent, bright white and whatever other kind of bulbs you can think of all have different colors. Since your camera is recording the light, it needs to make some decisions about the color of light hitting the sensor. If those decisions are wrong, the color of the entire picture will be off. Sometimes it is way off and immediately noticeable. Sometimes it is only slightly off, leaving the picture looking just a little less than right.
Your camera has several different presets that you can choose from. Each setting will adjust the camera with the goal of making white appear white. Our brain automatically adjusts according to the color of the light, so we don’t often notice the sometime subtle differences of shading under different light sources. However, the camera is not near as sophisticated as our brain. It will sometimes compensate correctly, but every adjustment is a best guess by the computer inside your camera. Many cameras offer a range of white balance selections, some of the more common ones are listed below with an approximation of the color cast emitted with each light source.
Tungsten is the traditional light bulb found in lamps and ceilings. Unless your camera specifies different types of tungsten, this does not usually cover for bright white or day light bulbs. The traditional tungsten light gives off a bit of an orange hue. If the adjustment for this kind of light is not made, the entire picture can take on a slight orange tinge to it.
Fluorescents are rapidly becoming the most common lights found anywhere. From the strip light bulbs in office ceilings to the curly bulbs used in traditional fixtures, fluorescents are becoming king in artificial lighting. The problem is, unless you have daylight fluorescents installed, the light they emit has a greenish tint. This green tint gives many cameras fits. That makes setting your white balance for fluorescent very important.
Daylight and flash are by design almost identical in their coloring. The greatest difference is the color temperature of daylight will fluctuate while your flash is preset for one specific temperature that does not really change. Utilizing the flash white balance adjustment becomes especially important indoors. Probably every one has taken a picture of a friend and been disappointed to see their friend had suddenly turned pasty white. Part of that is due to your camera incorrectly compensating for the room lights and not the flash. (The other part is your flash is too powerful, back up a little bit.) Turn your white balance to flash and you should get a more natural looking friend.
Cloudy and shade are also very similar, and many cameras do not offer both chooses. Often shade is a bit darker blue than cloudy skies, but both clouds and shade cover a range of color temperatures. The deeper blues mean your camera tends to add in more orange and yellow in the image to bring white to where it should be. That color adjustment means the cloudy or shade setting can be especially helpful in bringing out the deep fiery colors of the sky and clouds when taking a sunset picture.
One of the most useful white balance setting on your camera is the custom white balance. With the custom setting you tell your camera what is white in the lighting you are shooting under. For most point and shoots, this is done by selecting the set custom white balance and then imaging something that is pure white (a piece of printer paper works great). Once you set the custom white balance, your camera will keep that particular setting in your custom setting until you set a new white balance. This is especially helpful in tricky lighting situations or when your camera just can’t seem to get it right using the other presets. Just remember, when you move to a different location your light will change so you will have to set a new custom white balance for the new location.
These are the most common options for setting the white balance. Many cameras offer more than one tungsten, fluorescent and custom setting. If your camera gives you multiple or other options, pull out your handy user manual to find out exactly what each one means. Taking the time to get comfortable with the white balance settings on your camera are well worth your effort. Nailing white will make your pictures stand out, so get comfortable adjusting those settings. If white is right your pictures will pop.