Automatic white balance in cameras is an impossible thing. How should a camera know the quality of light? The Nikon D2x (and I suppose its predecessors) had a piece of milky white plastic with a color sensor behind, but as far as I know, that never worked as well as it should have. I don’t know the details, but I guess it will most likely have fallen apart in lowest, artificial light, exactly then when you need it the most.
Whatever the reason was, this was the last digital camera to feature such a sensor. I also suppose that today’s cameras, with their much higher processing capability, rely on some sort of scene analysis.
Take for instance the Panasonic LX5. Of all my cameras, admittedly not so many, it is the Panasonic, that has the best automatic white balance. Amazing. Yesterday I have taken some night images with snow on the street and all sorts of lights in the scene, and the snow looked exactly like it should.
And then there is this kind of yellowish/orange street light that completely breaks everything. As long as other sorts of artificial lights are present to balance it, there is no problem, but this sodium vapor light alone sets the camera completely off balance.
This is one such image. Had I not color corrected in Photoshop, the Song of the Day would have been Frank Zappa’s “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”, but thanks to Photoshop I can present you an amazing version of “The Way You Look Tonight”. Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk in 1954. Enjoy it on YouTube.