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Milky Way Tutorial Wide Field

How to Choose the Correct White Balance

selecting White Balance

Just like your laundry — keep your whites white!

White balance is colour temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin (K). In its simplest explanation, white balance is an adjustment to ensure that the colour in your photos are accurate to how they appear in real life. It is the removal of unrealistic colour casts in the image.

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If an object appears white in real life, but has a blue or yellow tint in your photo, the white balance needs to be adjusted in order to render the white as white in the photo — which then also calibrates the colour of the entire photo.

To achieve the correct white balance, one has to take into account the colour temperature of the light source illuminating the scene, i.e. – the warmth or coolness of the light illuminating the scene.

What this means for wide field astrophotography is that shoot location and sky conditions will dictate the white balance selection in your images, which it’s why it’s important to know how to manually set the white balance.

Cameras come with various WB presets, which are fine to use, but only when you’re shooting raw.

Camera White balance

Camera RAW editor
Camera RAW editor

Thankfully, the white balance can easily be changed in post production if you shot raw.

If you’re only shooting to JPEG instead (which we don’t recommend for astrophotography), it’s essential that you select the correct white balance while shooting.

Custom White Balance Adjustment in LightRoon
Custom white balance adjustment in LightRoom

 

White balance for night photography

Daylight (~5200K) is nearly always too warm for night sky photos. Generally cooler settings of between 3200-4800 are used for astro photos, depending on your location and environment.

In light polluted skies, the excess ambient light reflecting off the atmosphere creates a warm glow to the sky, therefore in urban areas a lower (colder) setting around 3,400-3,900K would be more suitable. In darker skies, settings of 4,000+ will yield better results.

To find the best WB for your photo, start with the suggestions above and shoot test photos in increments of 100, adjusting either cooler or warmer depending on your location and the desired look of the image.

Remember, always photograph in RAW!

We’ve compiled some examples of what you can expect in dark skies vs. urban light-polluted skies. Choose wisely!

White balance setting examples, shot in darker skies

White Balance in dark skies

Urban light-polluted night-sky photography white balance examples

While cool is cool and warm is warm, the difference that artificial light makes in the final image in regards to colour temperature is quite different to what it looks like in darker locations away from the city lights.

Urban white balance

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About the author

Tanja Schmitz

Tanja is the co-founder of PhotographingSpace.com with her husband, Cory. She is also the co-owner of several telescopes and Celestron mounts, too many cameras, and not enough hard drive space.

An internationally commissioned and published astrophotographer, her work has been used in multiple online and print publications. Tanja was also shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award.

6 Comments

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  • Thanks for the artice, bit by bit, I am starting to understand how astrophotography works, do you have any experience Pentax star trailer, I am working with it now but need a lot of practice.

    • Thanks for the comment. I unfortunately don’t know about the Pentax Star Trailer. I tried doing some quick research, but can’t find much on the subject. Is it related to the Pentax K3 II with Astro Tracer?

  • Thank you for the tutorial! I’m getting ready to try shooting a galaxy for the first time tomorrow (so far, I’ve only done lunar and planetary work) and I’m in the process of trying to get the right settings for my camera. I just tried to adjust the white balance and was hoping to set it between 3600-3800 (light polluted skies in the Philadelphia suburbs), but when I went to manually adjust them, the choices I were given were not temperatures, but rather “Incandescent”, “Fluorescent”, “Direct sunlight”, “Flash”, “Cloudy”, “Shade” and “Preset manual”, which then leads to “Measure” and “Use photo”. If I click on “Measure”, it asks me if I want to overwrite existing preset data and if I select “Use photo” it shows me a white photo that I click on or gives me the option to select another. I’m confused. I have a pretty low-end Nikon – the D3300. Do you have any suggestions as to which setting would work best for me? Thank you in advance!

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