OK, this may be a stupid question…but here goes.

Does the human eye “white balance” itself?

I assume that each human perceives colour slightly differently according to the peculiarities of their own eye, but within parameters (notwithstanding colour-blindness).

But does our eye (or brain) white balance? Or do we simply all see our own personal colour balance?

If the eye can white balance in real life, can it also colour balance a photograph that has been taken at the wrong colour temperature.

So, say I shoot and print an image shot at 2000K. The image printed will have its luminance information intact, but colour-wise, it will be very, very orange.

If I could somehow exclude all other vision from my eye and fill my entire viewing capacity with that single image, would my eye balance the colour back to a true white?

If it does not, why not? What goes on in our brain to say “this is an image at a fixed colour temperature, so you will see it as an orange hue”

Please excuse me if this is an eye-roller of a question. I’m not a Biologist, so I am well aware I may be demonstrating my own ignorance in asking the question!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure any sort of color (or orientation / image / ...) correction happens in the brain. Anecdotally you can test this i.e. by wearing tinted glasses for a while (your vision should adapt to a more normal color up to the point where you take them off and get an opposite color shift for a while). Similar effects happen with other vision distortion effects (i.e. top-down mirroring glasses), which is why I'm pretty sure this happens in the brain & not the eyes. $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Jan 17, 2020 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Nicolai - Thanks for responding! I see your point. And I can get my head round the brain making adjustments to what we see - white balancing on the fly. But are there limits? If the tint is such that, for example, no green information gets through to your eye, does your brain then "invent" the green information in order to render white? So, as per my example, if I was to look at a picture shot at 2000K, to the exclusion of everything else, could my brain invent the colour information missing and render it a "true" white balanced image? $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 17, 2020 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know how this works in detail, so I can't really answer these specific points of the question (which is also why I only wrote a comment and not an answer) $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Jan 17, 2020 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE! This phenomenon is known as color constancy. Please note that we encourage you to do some research on your own and then, informed by what you have learned, ask any questions you still have (ideally with references to reliable sources). ——— Please also take the tour and then go through the help pages starting with How to Ask questions effectively on this site and edit your question accordingly. Thanks! 😊 $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Jan 17, 2020 at 19:13

1 Answer 1


The human brain white balances, the eyes do not, but the process is not instantaneous.

the easiest way to see this is to make a person wear colored lenses they will soon see colors normally again, but will need to readjust, taking a similar length of time, once the glasses are removed.

Your eyes will balance an image back to white , but it takes time, and may happen faster in a landscape image.


there is a great ted talk showing a major aspect of this visually.


you can also see it with common photo negative color illusions.

Stare at the center dot on this for a minute then look at the second image.

enter image description here

enter image description here

you will see that the as the brain adjusts color balance you can use the lag as the eye readjusts to see false color in black and white images.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There's an easier, or at least less contrived, way to see the white balancing in action. Go skiing late in the afternoon when there's a gaudy orange sunset. Take a picture of the snow that you are perceiving as white. It'll be orange. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 17, 2020 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf not everyone lives where it snows ;) $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 17, 2020 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, some people are deprived. But they can do the same experiment with any sort of white or light-colored object. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 18, 2020 at 3:39

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