Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains why auto white balance isn't always the best choice in the twelfth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
The concept of “color temperature” underlies the white balance setting on your camera. What color temperature refers to is a comparison between the color of a piece of metal as it is heated and its temperature as measured on the Kelvin temperature scale. (On the Celsius scale, water freezes at zero. For Fahrenheit, it freezes at 32 degrees. On the Kelvin scale, water freezes at absolute -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. Zero degrees Kelvin is “absolute zero,” meaning there is no molecular movement at all.)
For example, a piece of metal that is heated so it glows a dull red corresponds to about 2000° Kelvin. When more heat is applied to the metal and it starts to glow yellow, it is about 3200° Kelvin. In the past when photographers shot film, Kodak and Fuji made films to give us a correct color balance when using household light bulbs, and these were rated at 3200 degrees Kelvin, i.e., the same color as the heated metal at this temperature. The tungsten setting on your digital camera (on some cameras it’s called "indoors" or it may have a light bulb icon) does the same thing. Sunrise and sunset lighting is virtually the same color as well—3200K.
As more heat is applied to the metal and it reaches a temperature of 5500° Kelvin, it will be glowing white. This white-hot condition of the metal gives us the same color of light that we see during the middle of the day from the sun. In photography this is considered “white light.” When you use the daylight white balance setting in your camera, and you photograph in the middle of the day using direct sunlight, the colors will be correct.
When additional heat is applied to the metal and it starts to glow blue-hot, this is 6000° or 7000° Kelvin or possibly even higher depending on how hot the metal gets. This is the kind of color that we get at twilight or in deep shade.
I shoot all of my landscape work on a daylight white balance or 5500° Kelvin. Many photographers use auto white balance (AWB) for their outdoor shooting, but I feel this is a mistake. Both a daylight white balance setting and AWB will produce the same color results when shooting during the middle of the day. However, when shooting at sunrise and sunset, the golden colors that we associate with this kind of lighting will be present if a daylight white balance setting is used but not if you choose auto white balance. AWB is programmed to “correct” the golden lighting to make it white. That’s not what you want. It’s much better to retain the golden tones of the low-angled sunlight because they make landscapes seem magical.
Compare figures 12.1 and 12.2. This is Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. I first photographed it at dawn, and the results were very bluish. This was taken in the 90s on daylight-balanced film, but if I had used a daylight white balance on my digital camera today I would have gotten the same results. If you don’t want a deep blue color bias, you can switch the white balance setting to "cloudy," and that will eliminate most or all of the blue tone. When a daylight WB setting is used, deep shade, dawn, and twilight all look very blue. Just after the sun rose behind the arch, the color instantly warmed up and the image was imbued with the beautiful golden tones associated with sunrise and sunset. Again, only a daylight WB produces this kind of yellowish coloration. If you use auto white balance, these tones will be absent and the picture won’t have the visual and emotional impact that you see here.
I use daylight WB (i.e., 5500 K) for all of my outdoor shooting. I know that in the shade my images will be bluish and at sunrise and sunset the photos will be golden. Because I shoot in raw mode, the color temperature can be altered if I want to add more warmth or more coolness to the colors. If you shoot in JPEG mode, you can’t do this very well.
Most of the time I am happy with how a daylight WB setting interprets the landscapes I shoot. Figure 12.3, for example, was taken under a mid-day overcast sky, and even though there are blue tones in it, I like that. After the sun goes down, the shade becomes excessively blue and sometimes that can be quite compelling. Icicles in Yosemite National Park (figure 12.4), is an example. The impressive chasm in Brazil’s Iguasu Falls (figure 12.5) also photographed blue because the sun hadn’t risen yet.
When you can mix the golden tones of a low-angled sun with the bluish hues of shade, the results can be quite dramatic. Photo 12.6, taken near my home in Tennessee, shows this juxtaposition.The sunrise was backlighting the trees with the first rays of the morning, while foreground fog was still in shade and therefore bluish. I think this combination of color is beautiful. The light changes very fast, though, and you have to shoot quickly. If you go back to the car and get a sip of coffee, the color relationships have already changed. When I shot at dawn in San Marco Square during carnival in Venice, Italy (top image), I got the same kind of juxtaposition of colors. The early morning sky was deep cobalt blue, and in contrast with the golden artificial lights in the square I was able to capture a visually compelling shot.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow