Color Balance is All About Neutral Gray

Sometimes taking a neutral position on things isn’t really the safe thing to do – sometimes it’s downright destructive! Your camera may not be as smart as you think!

WB Camera Setting  

Auto White Balance. Your camera’s Auto White Balance, or AWB is the most popular color balance selection used by most of us believing that the camera will automatically sort out any lighting anomolies, or is at least more capable of judging lighting conditions than we are. But assuming that AWB will diagnose all lighting issues and set the proper color temperature is quite risky. Here’s why.

Color Wheel NeutralThe first thing to understand about color is that in the language of RGB color, equal values of red, green, and blue (like red 128, green 128, and blue 128) will produce an absolutely neutral gray color.

The AWB algorithm in your camera always assumes that there is a detectable neutral gray component present in every scene. It then examines the light reflecting from objects in the scene and locks onto the cluster of pixels whose individual values are the closest to being equal. The AWB algorithm then dutifully forces those colors to become absolutely neutral value. And at the same time, all other colors in the scene are shifted to the same degree. This is the heart of auto white balance. Most times, that works out well. But sometimes the result is disastrous.

AWB works if the assumed neutral color in the scene is suppose to be neutral (gray) in color. The automatic color shift will then truly improve the balance of color in the image.Alaska NiteLight
But, if the scene doesn’t actually contain a neutral gray component; if there is a bluish –almost-gray item (like the snow scene above) in the scene, and you capture the image with Auto White Balance, the real colors in the scene will be neutered. The image on the left was captured with Daylight setting. The image on the right was captured with AWB. Notice that the camera interpreted the bluish snow as “neutral,” rendering it unnaturally gray. The image processor in the camera changed that bluish color to neutral gray, and shifted all the other colors in the scene in the same direction on the color wheel absolutely destroying the emotion of the scene.

Notice that in the color wheel illustration above, yellow is the polar opposite of  blue. When the bluish snow was interpreted as gray, all the colors in the scene shifted toward yellow. This is the way color balance works.

Gray is not a color. If color were political, it would be Swiss (politically neutral). It may sound strange, but color balance is all about gray. Neutral gray is the colorless backbone of accurate color because it contains equal values of all three RGB colors. Gray is the standard by which all accurate color is judged. Auto White Balance in cameras is useless unless there is an element within the scene that is absolutely neutral “color.”

With all the whiz-bang technology and automated functions built in to today’s cameras, we photographers (whether accomplished or improving) tend to be a bit lazy with this AWB setting. Successful photographers (like the ones who inspired you to purchase your camera) didn’t become successful by accident, they learned by making mistakes like this. Their education of photography included learning about how light behaves.

The best color balance setting for any scene is the one you will choose after evaluating the lighting in the scene. Understanding color all starts with understanding how light and color behave. When you get beyond learning composition and and the mechanics of your camera’s controls, you realize that learning about light is THE most important part of photography. You will eventually realize that light is the one thing you MUST learn to control. In truth, light is the only thing you can control in photography.

You can either learn about color and how to control it in your camera the easy way or the hard way. If you really want to understand what makes color work, and learn how light behaves, I can help you. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go online and get this video series. Get Bright About Light!

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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1 Response to Color Balance is All About Neutral Gray

  1. Pingback: The Visible Spectrum: What Your Camera Sees | The Way Eye Sees It

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