Just like the exposure meter wants to convert all exposures to middle grey, the default setting of the AWB, the Automatic White Balance, wants to normalize the white balance. AWB kills the deep oranges of the sunset or of the sunrise. The AWB does a decent job of dealing with florescent tubes.

  1. Getting the white balance right is important for JPEGs. The white balance will convert all the colors of the photos. It’s possible to adjust the colors afterwards in the post-processing, but there will be a cost in further degradation of the image.
  2. Getting the white balance right is not important for raw files. The white balance is just a flag (actually on Canons and Nikons, it’s a 4 bit integer.) It doesn’t change the image in any way when the photo is taken. The raw converter, be it DPP, Capture NX, Lightroom, Camera Raw, Bibble, DC Raw… will take that value into account and will adjust all the colors of the photo accordingly.

For small point-and-shoot cameras, I have to pay attention to what I’m doing. And even then I only use the Cloudy and the Florescent settings. For a real camera, I always set the white balance as “cloudy” which is a little bit warmer (more orange and reds) than the daylight setting. I almost never use the AWB setting.

There are many methods for getting the white balance right:

  • The most expensive option is to buy a color meter from Kenko, Sekonic… They are very expensive in the $800 to $2,500 (Canadian price) range. They measure both the lights and the colors. They most often use a spot meter (≈ 1°) to measure the color and the light of specific spots of the image.
  • There are many lens caps that help set the white balance. They cost from $30 to $75 (Canadian price.) They help measure the overall white balance. They cannot cope with a fluorescent light and a sunset in the same image.
  • My favourite is the simple grey card. The card cost between $5 to $50 (Canadian price) depending on the size. It needs to be placed in the image for the test, then removed for the “real” photo.

Please note that using a grey card also impresses people and customers. It establishes me as I know what I’m doing. Uncle Harry or the Girl With Camera never uses a grey card.