When it comes to white balance, there are several ways to accomplish it. Honestly, I think I have tried them all! Finding the best one for your shooting style is important. You may like to set a CWB in camera or adjust it in an editing program such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Whichever way you choose to address white balance, it is a step that can’t be skipped.
White balance plays a huge role in the outcome of an image. When beginning to edit an image, one of the first things I do is correct exposure, then white balance. You can have the best focus, best composition, and perfect lighting, but without good color, the image is going to be missing something or in really technical photography terms, just look wonky. Of course white balance can be tweaked in Lightroom or Photoshop, but for me, the easiest way to set white balance is in camera with minimal changes in an editing. Stressing over white balance is one of my least favorite aspects of photography, so I choose to get it as close to perfect as I can, so there is less stress about it on the back end. So, in this article, we are going to look at different ways to obtain a correct neutral white balance. I will compare several different ways and tools to use and hopefully it will help you decide the best way for your shooting style.
Remember that white balance can also be subjective. Some people prefer warmer images, some prefer cooler images. The point of using a white balance tool is to get accurate color, but also consistent color, which will make managing your images much easier once you get them off of the camera and into a photo editing program regardless if you prefer a warmer or cooler edit as a finished image.
Auto White Balance (AWB)
I think most people when first starting out begin here. Usually as you upgrade cameras, the AWB feature gets better and better. I remember there being a huge difference when I upgraded from the Nikon D80 to the Nikon D700, which I still shoot with. This is the easiest of the options as far as setting your camera, but probably the most time intensive once the image has been uploaded to an image editing program. There are many well established photographers that find AWB to work great for them with minimal work in editing, but unfortunately, this has never been the case for me. The better your exposure in camera, the better the AWB feature will be as well. Underexposed images appear blue, overexposed washed out of color, so when using AWB, perfect exposure is important. Courtney has video on how to correct white balance in Lightroom that will be helpful when using AWB in camera (or tweaking white balance in general).
Easy to use. You can shoot away in any lighting during a shoot without changing settings.
May require more editing in your editing program of choice. Can change from image to image depending on how your camera measure the light, where custom white balance is consistent from image to image until you change it.
This particular one is an Opteka Gray Card. There are many, many brands on the market that I’m sure do a fantastic job. Basically, it is a hard plastic board. They come in different sizes. This one is an 8×10 which makes it easy to fill the frame for a measurement, but makes it more difficult to carry around on shoots. It can be used to set exposure as well as white balance. To set exposure, you place it in the lighting condition that you will be using, set your exposure to the center. Then the custom white balance can be set following the instructions for your camera. This one needs to be replaced as it has been scribbled on. I didn’t do it!
There are two ways that you can use a gray card to set CWB:
1. Place the gray card in the lighting condition that you will be using and snap a quick picture with it in the frame. Then you can continue to shoot away while in the same lighting. Any change of lighting will require another quick image with the gray card in it. Afterward, in your photo editing program, you can use the white balance tool to set your white balance by clicking on the gray card in the test images and applying that white balance to all of the images taken in that lighting condition. Then, repeat for each additional change in lighting conditions.
2. Set a custom white balance (CWB) in camera. Using the gray card this way will require minimal work afterward in editing because your white balance will be applied to all of your images in the camera instead of afterward in an editing program. Every camera model will vary, and some make it easier than others, but basically you take a picture of the gray card and the camera automatically applies that white balance to all of the images you take until you change your CWB or change your camera setting to another form of white balance, such as AWB or Kelvin. When using a gray card, this is the method that I prefer, and my camera makes it really easy to do this without going into a menu. If you are unsure of how to do this, look in your camera manual under Custom White Balance and there should be instructions on how to do so.
Kelvin is a great way to set white balance. I use this method a lot, mostly when I am outdoors. I may tweak it in Lightroom or ACR a little bit, but for the most part it is pretty minimal unless there is mixed lighting, which tends to get tricky no matter how you choose to set CWB. In a nutshell, you determine the color of your lighting and set your camera to a temperature of color. How to use Kelvin for White Balance goes into detail about how to set your white balance using Kelvins. This method takes some practice and it may take some testing as well to get it right. While I’m am not perfect at choosing the right temperature everytime, it is easy to adjust in an editing program because for the most part you move the slider either to the blue to cool it down or to the yellow to warm it up. I like to use Kelvin a lot when I’m outdoors.
It doesn’t require any extra equipment and it gets me pretty close to where I want my white balance to be.
Due to color casts indoors from walls, carpet, etc, it isn’t quite as accurate for me indoors as it is for me outdoors. Another downside to using Kelvin is that it only accounts for lighting from the yellow to blue ranges. Fluorescent lighting can also add a mix of green/magenta, so the tint will also need to be adjusted more aggressively in post processing when using Kelvin in those type of lighting conditions.
I also really love the ExpoDisc for white balance. Mine was a gift from my husband this past Christmas ’12, so I have been using it for a little over 5 months. It is my go-to for white balance when I am indoors. After using this tool, I panic if I have misplaced it, because I know that it will take me longer to edit my images without it. Jen wrote a post on using the ExpoDisc, How to Nail White Balance Like a Pro. Basically, with the Expodisc, you meter for your subject, then point your camera at the most dominant light source of the room or if outdoors at the light source that is on your subject. For example, if you are using the light streaming in from a window, follow the instructions for your camera model to set a custom white balance, then take a picture with the expodisc covering your lens pointed toward the window. Then your CWB is set and you can continue to take pictures until you move your subject or the color of light changes.
Easy to use. Consistent color.
Small and easy to misplace, if you are too cool to actually use the neck strap (like me).
White Sheet of Paper
If you are in a pinch and prefer to set a custom white balance, but don’t have a white balance tool, or aren’t comfortable with Kelvin, you can always use a white sheet of paper! It is better than nothing in some cases and is cheap and easy as well. This method is used just like the gray card, either as a picture of the white paper and adjusting WB in an editing program, or setting the CWB in camera following the directions in your camera manual.
It is cheap and easy. If you aren’t comfortable with Kelvins and are in a pinch, a white sheet of paper is better than nothing in some cases.
White paper comes in many different colors of “white”. So, you will get different results depending on the color of your “white” piece of paper.
Okay, tons of picture to follow:
The following are images of the gray card using all of the different techniques mentioned above:
I was really surprised at how different all of the images look. These were all taken within a few minutes an there haven’t been any changes other than resizing and adding text to the images.
I like the look of the Gray Card the best in this series of images.
I used a piece of white cardstock as my “white” paper. This one is a tad out of focus (sorry!) but it is really close in color to the gray card.
Auto did the worst job. When checking the RGB numbers (which for a neutral gray color should in a perfect world be the same) the Red, Green, and Blue were all about 10-12 points apart. In an image with a gray card, that would be a quick fix, but without a gray card it might cause some problems when dealing with an image with out a neutral color to check white balance with.
I was a little surprised by the following image being off so much. It is really cyan. If you compare to the more “neutral” images, it looks a little bluish green or cyan. When I was using Kelvin more in my everyday shooting, I usually needed to add red to my images. This would explain why!
I use the expodisc almost exclusively indoors. I was a bit surprised that it didn’t do as well as the gray card. When I looked at the RGBs in Lightroom, the Red and Green were equal and the Blue was a little high. After adding a little yellow, I had to add a tiny bit of green. It was a quick fix, but one I didn’t really expect.
Next up are pictures of my lovely assistant. Oh, what a little candy will buy you.
These are not SOOC images, however, I did very minimal work to them. I did not touch the temperature slider, but I did add a tad of contrast to each image bc Lightroom imports mine as flat images….not very pretty
And this is the area where I took these images. The light was coming from the doors pictured here. My sassy little one was in the chair either 90 degrees to those doors or 45 degrees. I was standing camera right for the majority of the images.
And thanks to my other assistant for helping me with a few outdoor snaps. Again, exposure tweaked a tad, and a tiny contrast was added in Lightroom, but no other changes or edits were made.
Disclaimer: He wasn’t crying because of me. He was angry at his big sister for riding off with the cookies….while he still had a mouthful.
While all of these look very different, they are all within an acceptable range, depending on taste. Once in Photoshop, I took measurements on the driveway concrete and all but Kelvin and white paper were within a few points of the RGB being equal. Skin measurements were also pretty close, except for the white paper, which was a little wonky, but to the eye doesn’t look horrible. Auto did a much better job outdoors than indoors. The results look much more like the Expodisc in these examples.
I hope this article has given you an idea as to how custom white balance works. I hope you take the time to try it out. It is especially helpful in tricky lighting situations. It really is a time saver!