"Natural" White balance...?

The bus-shelter-at-night play-raw made me think.
Why change the white balance of an object which clearly is w-a-y off being neutral? If the bus-stop is lit by a sodium-whatever lamppost, isn’t that the way we see it, and the way to record it?

As a somewhat better example: imagine that you enjoy a candellight evening with She||He the Only One. If you post-process that feeling into a clinically, neutral white — all romance will be gone…

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden


In general that is a good thing to contemplate. I’m not so sure if the specific bus shelter example given is a good one, though. Blindly assuming that the camera itself or the operators choice of settings where correct might not be such a good idea.

The only one that really knows what the scene actually looked like is the one that takes the shot and that shot might not reflect what s/he sees.

Your candlelight example is, for me, an easy one: Candles create warm light so I think that should show in the edit. I’m not at all sure about the bus shelter actually being orange… I might be wrong but the light in the shelter seems to be one that holds a fluorescent TL lamp, which tend to be on the white side.

@age might have found a nice middle ground if I’m honest.

If I look around on my early morning walks I see a mix of sodium vapour lamps (the ones that shine orange) and modern natural (white) light lamps. Taken shots of these scenes often turn out to be too yellow/orange. The WB setting that is chosen does influence this. Many cameras try to keep it “warm” or “warmer” out-of-the-box (we all want that golden-hour" look, right?). Setting the WB to neutral/natural gives a much more real end-result.

Here’s an unedited, extracted and downsized jpg example of a shot of sodium-vapour lamps with the WB set to natural (Nikon Z6II):

And there’s, in general, just the fun part of editing a Play Raw entry :sweat_smile:


Ah thanks for articulating a perspective I’ve long held - depending on your desired outcome, white balance is as much an artistic consideration, sometimes weighing against colorimetric fidelity. Thank you, Stanley Kubrik, for Barry Lyndon

Sodium-based lighting is a more obvious example of what we need to consider in all our scenes, and that is, what is the real lighting? Even outside in daylight, you can have a mix of 5500K sunlight with 6500K indirect lighting from the sky, so in that case where do you anchor the multipliers?

Good question, @Claes


This is often why I toggle the drop down to custom if it doesn’t land there. Then I will move the chroma slider and often bring back a bit more color if I feel it improves the look or the wb correction is too strong and of course you can push it farther or experiment with he hue but I rarely find myself doing that …often I will take the chroma down to zero and then slowly add in the wb correction until I end up with the look I want…

It depends on one’s opinion. Some are romantics; others clinical; in psychosis; etc.

Personally, I prefer to match the scene first, then add creative/interpretive adjustments later. I guess your query comes from a similar place.

Why complicate your life with white balance if you shoot in raw?
( philosophical and provocative question )

The human visual system (mainly the brain) tries to adapt to the prevalent light color, so normally you see things more “neutral” than they really are (with respect to D65 or whatever). But in general some of the cast is still there, that’s why a candle light scene still looks warmer in person than a midday scene.

So, even before artistic considerations, both setting greys to “neutral” or setting the WB to “sunlight” is wrong from the point of view of the realism of the scene. It should be something in the middle. How much? Well, that’s the artistic part :blush:

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Because your mind interprets color different. The classic apple example . Even in purple neon lights your brain will tell you ‘red apple’, while it clearly isn’t red what is in front of you.

So the bus stop in a different light, your brain in real life would still tell you it’s a certain color. And you want that color to be presented in the image.

Your candlelight example is perfect for showing that there are no rules , and it depends on what emotion you want the image to portray.

So, in other words. If you want to neutralize a color cast or not is completely up you and what you want the image to be. There is no right or wrong (like always).
But there is a good case to be made for wanting to show the true color of an object , how your brain would recognize it… And there is a good case to be made to use the surrounding light and cast to bring over the mood of the scene.

White balance is one of those absurdly weird things about human perception.

My brain is simultaneously aware of the real, (roughly) absolute color temperature, yet it’s also able to perceive the actual color of the objects in that illumination (aside from metameric failure).

There’s no way to reconcile both of those in one photo.


The way I see it, we just have to trust our brain will tell us Red Apple even if the lighting makes it look blue in the photo, because that’s what our brain does. Therefore to me, White balance is all about the atmosphere. Neutrals dont have to be neutral, but are a handy guide.

When painting, it’s much more evocative to give neutrals a hint of colour, usually borrowed from their surroundings, because objects are reflective, than to just paint them neutral.

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IIRC @anon41087856 has had a detailed explanation of this matter, but I can’t find it, so I’ll try to give a short digest here.
WB is not supposed to be used for artistic purposes because all color math works around the white point. Consider color as a vector, one end of which is nailed to a WP. If you do some color manipulations (e.g. enhance saturation), you’ll get unwanted tint if your WP is misplaced, because the vector is pointing in wrong direction, in spite of the fact the other end of it is located properly. So, if you want your edit to be predictable color-wise, you need to set your WP as neutral as possible first. Then, if you want to saturate your image (=make vector larger), you’ll get predictable color enhancement without any parasite tint.
Then, as was mentioned above, our sight system is being adapting to an environment, that’s why we perceive paper as white in different light conditions. Thus, if we want to recreate the look-and-feel of the original scene, we need to add some tinting to the image on later stages (while WP is still set neutral).


Whitebalance is overrated. Set a fixed one in the 5000 to 6500K region and stick to it.

Then convert to monochrome.




my bold.

The reality is that you often have mixed light. ==> Unpredictable colour edits. Which means you still have to eyeball and manual fix a lot of issues.

IIRC, he explained this in his youtube video on the color balance rgb module:


White balance is best understood by playing with the Philips 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 bulbs… (I’m not a shareholder but I have the 2-in-1 at home):

Light the bulb, look at something for 5 min, then change the color temperature… Then colors become weird. Wait another 5 min. Then colors become normal (“natural”). Change the color temperature again… Yep. Still weird. Wait 5 min… Oops… natural again.

It’s all about adaptation of your perceptual reference : white. You will see white no matter the illuminant if you know that some surface lit by some illuminant is supposed to be white. Your brain is doing the work to distort reality to make it look like your a-priori knowledge of said reality.

Just think about this…

Your retina is a lens. Lenses invert images (upside down). Yet you see straight. Studies have been conducted on people to make them wear glasses that invert once again. It takes about 7-10 days of wearing such inverting glasses for the brain to re-invert (actually… de-invert) the image and see straight again. Same once you stop wearing the glasses.

So… The thing that sucks for neutral-reference image assessment is what actually makes the brain so great… it adapts very well. But also, adaptation is made by distorting the perception in order to match the a priori knowledge (aka prejudice).

Similar studies have been conducted on post boxes. In Germany and France, they are yellow and everybody knows it. Give people a B&W image of a post box, most will see it yellow while the colorimeter says “grey”.

What concerns me more here, is not about WB at all, but about “eye witness” in courts of justice. If you see what you already know, the value of an eye witness is close to zero in general. So much for justice…


Likely here as well…with worked example of mixed WB image…

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Setting aside the philosophically hard part of that problem (a la “how can I know your red is the same as my red”—if I feel your red like you feel blue, but I call it “red”, you would have no way of knowing), the practical question on how to balance—especially with mixed light sources, which is often the case in urban environments at night—has been bothering me for a while, and the way I have come to approach it (quite recently, I think) is this.

When we observe a scene, our eyes pick up a fairly expansive spectrum and dynamic range of light. Then, somewhat counter-intuitively, our minds more or less construct a 3D scene using that raw information as an input. But the fun thing is, it’s not the only input our mind uses.

The world is complex and our minds are constantly busy simplifying and predicting what happens next, and in part the scene we construct in the moment contains what we unconsciously expect there to be. While your brain is powerful, it still doesn’t have enough power to resolve reality down to tiniest detail, so to allow you to function in daily life it builds a simplified map of it.

Whatever we have come to expect throughout our lifetimes affects the scene we construct. For example, from early childhood we strongly anchor by human faces—whether it is lit by an orange streetlight, or sick-green hospital fluorescent lamp, we perceive a human face. If there’s a candle involved, we may perceive romantic vibe (or maybe a spooky one, depending on the rest of the scene). If we see a candle-lit paper sheet, we see a sheet of paper—we have no problem with it being yellow, we’ve seen plenty of paper. Experiencing scene over time from different angles (moving our heads) gets us extra information for our predictive minds.

Add the component of time to the mix. If you sat in a dull-lit grey room all day then stepped into a sunlit garden, colors will jump at you from left and right. If you spent much of your life in a small town and then stepped on a roof of a building in the middle of a megapolis at night for the first time, the visuals will be stunning. Whatever your mood has been that day, whatever you did or consumed, whatever the air smells like, whatever feelings of the past were evoked—there’s a whole mix that determines and colours what you perceive in the moment.

Now, what happens when we produce a photo (presuming raw capture)?

When we shoot, we get a static 2D slice of light. Modern tech gets us decent dynamic ranges, but still nowhere near what our eyes see, with RGB separation induced metameric failures, and obviously none of that emotional and experiential baggage.

When we produce a deliverable, we interpret those raw scene values in order to fit it all into even more limited dynamic range and gamut of our target media. Whether it’s sRGB, P3, paper, or high-nit Rec. 2020, the range we work with is just so tiny compared to what our cameras capture, to speak nothing of what our eyes saw in the first place. So any idea of “true” reproduction automatically goes out of the window in most real-life scenes.

For example, if you balance a scene with an orange streetlight by a colour card, someone will surely complain that the streetlight on that bus stop is not actually white but yellow. And if you calibrate it by some “canonical” white point like D50, then any human face under that orange streetlight will clip straight into red.

So how do we balance in the end (meaning general colour interpretation in the final photo, not necessarily using the WB tool)?

In my opinion, correct answers to this question only exist in very narrow scenarios of technical photography, such as if you’re digitising a work of art.

Otherwise, use colour cards, calibrate, all of that helps—but in the end, use your eyes and do whatever you think is appropriate (some super helpful pointers in this thread on how to make it easier) to convey what you want to convey in the best way. Limitations of output media don’t give us enough headroom to reproduce a real-life scene, but it doesn’t matter: no other person will see the scene like you did.


@anileated Welcome to the forum, Tony!

@afre Thanks!