White Balance Settings for Landscapes

April 5, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment | |

The light from our sun is a constant, it never changes. Well, that's not strictly true, eventually our star will become a Red Dwarf and then white balancing will be the least of our worries. But within the puny time frame of our existence we can take it as read the light reaching the earth from the sun is unfailingly white; a continuous spectrum with all sorts of nasty radiation thrown in. As soon as sunlight reaches the atmosphere, all that changes. Thankfully the solar radiation that would frazzle us alive is filtered out, and as the light passes through the atmosphere it is modified, bounced and scattered by the particles of moisture, dust and random microscopic jobbies chucked out by our rattling diesels, forest fires and volcanic eruptions.  How much scattering takes place is dependent on many factors. At midday on a bright clear day the amount of disruption to the path of light through the atmosphere is minimal, and this is what we define as Daylight, with a CT of 5200K. But later or earlier in the day when the rays have to slice through a thicker chunk of atmosphere the scattering is more pronounced. That scattering affects the shorter wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum more than the longer ones at the red end, so we get blue light bouncing around the atmosphere as ambient light and the direct rays of a setting sun look orange, especially on a hazy day in Bangkok. The CT of the direct rays from the rising or setting sun light is low, typically around 3000K, giving the warm soft glow we love bathing our foreground interest. Add in the effect of clouds and we have a highly variable mix; a layer of grey in the sky cuts off the direct sunlight leaving just the diffuse ambient light, which has a higher (bluish) CT; hence the Cloudy WB setting on our cameras. Before the sun has risen and after it has set we have the effect of twilight, when the sky and landscape are still illuminated indirectly by the sun lurking below the horizon. And at even at night there is still light knocking about which we photographers can use. Stood by the tripod contemplating a scene as the sun nears the horizon it really pays to pause, analyse, and think of what is happening and is likely to happen to the light painting the landscape. Let's look at a few specific examples.

White Balance Settings for Landscapes The Athabasca River with Dragon Peak and the Winston Churchill Range at dawn, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 16-35mm lens @ 16mm, 25 secs @ f14, ISO 100, 0.6 ND grad filter. The dim light at the crack of dawn is non-directional, diffuse and monochromatic. The colour temperature is sky high, 10000K or more, giving a rich blue hue to the scene when shot with Daylight WB. Many don't even consider exposing under this lighting, but it has its attractions.

It's an hour before sunrise early on a cold October morning in Jasper National Park. It's dark; I need a headtorch to set up my camera on the Giotto's legs, select the Bulb setting for exposure and check all my defaults. Thankfully I scouted out the location the previous day, so I know the exact rock to perch the tripod on and the composition I want.  I can just about make out enough looking through the eyepiece to compose, so clearly there is some light about. Where is it coming from? That is a question a photographer should always ask. In this case the light faintly illuminating the scene before me of the Athabasca River with the Rockies beyond has reached my lens by a tortured route from the sun still well below the eastern horizon, which itself is hidden by the bulk of the mountains. That route has involved much bouncing and scattering as the rays from the sun have permeated through the heavens. As a result it's been stripped of the red wavelengths and has a sky high CT well in excess of 10000K, giving a cool monochromatic blue illumination to the scene. It is also weak, diffuse and non-directional, but still an interesting light source for us photographers. I like to get to my chosen location early to experiment with this evocative faint illumination in the near darkness. I could set my camera to AWB in an attempt to neutralise the excessive blue cast of the high CT, but I don't, I leave my camera resolutely set to daylight with the result that all the exposures have a rich royal coolness to them. Right or wrong? You tell me.

White Balance Settings for Landscapes The Mawddach Estuary at dawn, Snowdonia, Wales. Canon 5D mkII, 70-200mm lens @ 70mm, f8 @ 1/15 sec, ISO 100, 0.6 ND grad filter. This is Happy Hour, when the natural light goes through magical transformations just before and after sunrise and sunset.

Another dawn, this time an outrageously early rise has been necessary as it's late June in Snowdonia, near enough the longest day of the year. I arrived in darkness and have watched as the heavens lighten and twilight seeps through the sky. The monochromatic blue light still paints the scene but as the sun nears the horizon the sky to the north east is just starting to pink. It begins as the smallest hint of salmon but as the sun heralds its inevitable arrival magenta and violet arc through the sky. This is Happy Hour, the time us landscape photographers live for when the natural light goes through some magical transformations. Our star is still yet to make an appearance but direct rays from the sun pink from their journey through the atmosphere are bouncing off the bottom of clouds and down onto the landscape. No matter how many times I stand on hilltops and watch this sort of scene evolve I'm always lost in wonderment. Non-believers think we conjure up these vivid colours with dark deeds in Photoshop; we know otherwise. Every dawn and dusk is different; there are just so many variables at play. You can watch this scene as it played out and I worked to make the most of the fantastic light on high definition video:  http://www.davidnoton.com/rawfilm.htm. But here's the rub, what WB setting to use now? AWB? Do I really want the camera trying to neutralise those colours? Again, I left my 5D mkII on Daylight.

Now I know what you're saying. We all shoot RAW, so what does it matter? The white balance can be adjusted when it comes to processing, so the camera WB setting is irrelevant. Actually, I disagree. That may be true, but an AWB setting in the camera will affect the monitor display, and when I'm shooting I like to see the nuances of happy hour evolve on screen. Also when it comes to importing the RAW file into Lightroom, Capture One or whatever converting software you use the image opens up with the WB “as shot”, in this case at 5200K, or Daylight. And do you know what?  With landscapes I hardly ever, less than 1% of the time, change the colour balance in post-production. I shoot with the camera set to Daylight WB and that balance stays. If the light is cool and blue I'll not interfere. If the rays are warm and golden I want them to look as such. Who am I to interfere with Mother Nature? I don't believe the subtleties and complexities of natural light can be improved upon. Of course this is purely subjective, there is no right or wrong colour balance and some may prefer a more neutral scene. It pays to experiment. I know many guests on our workshops http://www.davidnoton.com/workshops.htm grapple with these concepts, but it really pays to take time to contemplate, think about the light and experiment with different WB settings to fully understand all this.

White Balance Settings for Landscapes The Athabasca River with Mt Fryatt & Brussels Peak at dawn, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. A six frame stitch. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 16-35mm lens at 24mm, 0.9 ND grad filter. Just look at the warm light from the early sun on those peaks, and cool tones in the foreground. That contrast between warm highlights and cool shadows is what gets us photographers out of bed at 4am.

Back in Alberta the sun is up. I've shifted along the river to attempt a panorama with six frames to be stitched together. The early morning sunlight has just lit up the mountains to the west. The light has a beautiful warmth and clarity with a low golden CT. The river and rocks in the foreground are still in shade, so in effect I have two light sources illuminating the scene; the direct sunlight with a low golden CT and the blue ambient light of open shade with a high cool CT. I select manual metering and set an exposure for the brightest part of the scene, I'll need six overlapping frames which will be subsequently stitched in CS4. What WB to set? I don't even think about it; Daylight is my default setting, it works for me. You may care to disagree, but please don't just set AWB and hope for the best. Even if you do prefer that setting at least understand what the camera is doing, unless of course you're shooting a wedding. Then I'd advise to set AWB and forget about it. Just make sure you can see the ring in the cutting the cake shot, and good luck with fainting brides.



Born in England in 1957, David spent much of his youth travelling with his family between the UK, California and Canada. After leaving school David joined the Navy in search of further travels and adventures – and it was while sailing the seven seas that his interest in photography grew. After several years at sea he decided to pursue his passion for photography and returned to study in Gloucester, England.  After leaving college in 1985 he began work as a freelance photographer specialising in landscape and other travel subjects, which over the last 25 years, have taken him to almost every corner of the globe.

David is now established and recognised as one of the UK's leading landscape and travel photographers. His images sell all over the world – both as fine art photography and commercially in advertising and publishing. He has won international awards for: British Gas/ BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in 1985,1989 & 1990 and also writes regularly about landscape and travel photography for a number of national and international magazines. David has worked for numerous clients including British Airways, Sainsbury's, Geo, Toyota, Qantas, Sunday Times and the Telegraph.  During the last twenty years he has also worked extensively for the National Trust covering much of the UK's landscape and coastline, which has featured in many high profile publications and several highly acclaimed photographic exhibitions. Most notably:

'New Vision' Contemporary Art Photography – AOP Gallery
'The Coast Exposed' – Maritime Museum Greenwich and the Lowry
'Climate Change – in Britain's Back Yard!' – London, Nottingham, Wales, Belfast, Bristol

“l'm still passionate about photography. All aspects fascinate me; from capturing the first light of day on a frosty landscape or making the most of a bustling market in Vietnam to portraying the dignity of a wrinkled face in China.”

David spends much of the year travelling with his wife Wendy. When not travelling they live in England, near Sherborne in Dorset.

All images in this article © David Noton

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