White balance in landscape photography

by Northern Irish Landscape Photographer Stephen Dickey

Why is white balance important to landscape photographers?

How many times has someone looked at your landscape photograph and said “oh, those colours are beautiful?”  It is probably the most common compliment I receive about my own photographs.  Non-photographers especially seem to appreciate colour much more than other factors such as composition.

Shooting in good light is of course the first step in capturing a landscape photograph with beautiful colours.  However, in order to develop and maintain those colours during post-processing, you have to give careful consideration to white balance.

One of the key advantages of shooting in RAW mode is the ability to manually choose white balance. The white balance you choose determines the colours in your image.  Think of it as the foundation of all your colour work that follows – saturation, hue etc.

My own experience as a landscape photographer has taught me that, during the golden hour and onwards into dusk, the camera’s automatic white balance struggles to find a usable white balance.  It often leaves the image with a very strong colour cast, typically cool in tone.

How much can white balance change a landscape photograph?

In the gallery above you can see a landscape photograph I captured at Dunsererick Harbour, Northern Ireland.  I have converted the RAW file several times, altering only the white balance.  The best way to show the difference in white balance is to show you visually.

You can see that the ‘as shot’ white balance, which is what the camera automatically determined, contains a lot of magenta and doesn’t feel like the sunset I was fortunate enough to enjoy.

Next is the ‘auto’ setting.  Note that this is the automatic setting in Lightroom, not the ‘as shot’ value which was determined automatically by the camera.  This makes the situation even worse and moves the colours further away from what I remember the scene looking like.

One might assume that by choosing a white balance setting which matched the weather conditions prevalent in the photograph, the correct result would be obtained.  Whilst the ‘cloudy’ setting is closer to reality is still isn’t quite warm enough.

In conclusion

I have found that in most circumstances, taking a custom white balance from a white breaking wave produces a very good result.  I use this technique in many of my landscape photographs.  If that fails then taking a reading from a grey cloud also works well.  However, in this case I feel the best result was obtained from the wave.

In conclusion, don’t feel tied down to choosing a white balance preset for your landscape photographs.  Take the time to experiment and build that strong colour foundation that your work deserves!

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