Winter Shooting & White Balance

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in warmer clime,s like Florida or California, car show season is just about over—except for some die-hard Cars & Coffee events. So if you’re going to be shooting in museums or collections you’re going to run headlong into the problem of White Balance.

You’ve often heard me say “Light is light” but it’s not always the same color. The color temperature emitted by various light sources is measured in degrees on the Kelvin scale. The sun on a clear day at noon is 5500 degrees Kelvin. On an overcast day the color temperature rises to 6700 degrees K, while 9000 degrees K is what you will experience in open shade on a clear day. When we photograph that sunrise, its color temperature may be well down on the Kelvin scale—at about 1800 degrees. Tungsten lights have a temperature of 3200 degrees K, while incandescent light bulbs measure about 2600 degrees Kelvin.


Most digital SLRs offer different white balance options including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy; Incandescent; Fluorescent; Flash and Custom. Here’s a few suggestions.

Auto white balance aka AWB works most of the time especially in venues with different kinds of light sources such as convention centers or athletic arenas. I always do a few test shots first to see if the color is close. If that doesn’t work I try a few more shots using some of the other available white balance options. Be careful of exposure too. Under most mixed-light conditions, I find it’s also necessary to increase exposure compensation to produce a bright-enough image.

Then there’s Custom mode, which some users might think is difficult to use, but it’s not. Under tricky lighting conditions all you need to do is use make an exposure of something that’s white. The camera will store that image and use it to color correct your subsequent images. T here are too many interpretations of white paint out there, so I bring my own. The flip side of the Kodak Gray Card is white and makes an ideal companion for the photographer interested in making color correct images, saving lots of time that would be spend later tweaking image files.

Photographing in museums, such as the San Diego Automobile Museum, can be a challenge because of the kind of mixed lighting conditions that exist. Exposure for the above photograph was 1/25 sec at f/3.5 at ISO 400. Understanding the concepts behind White Balance and the many options that are available to digital photographers make sure that this classic white Chevrolet truck is really whiter.

Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s now out-of-print but new copies are available at collector (high) prices or used copies for giveaway prices—less than two bucks—from Amazon.