Affiliate Disclosure: We earn a commission if you purchase through one of our links at no additional cost to you.
Why use a grey card for white balance in your photography?
Have you ever taken a picture, and the colors looked slightly off? Maybe everything was too blue or too yellow? This is often caused by incorrect white balance. When you take a picture, your camera tries to adjust the colors to make them look “normal automatically.”
However, sometimes it gets it wrong. This is where a grey card comes in handy. This article discusses a grey card, why you should use one for white balance, and how to do so.
Your White Balance Settings Lie
Most DSLR cameras come with multiple white balance settings. We know them by heart. Cloudy, Sunlight, Florescent, etc. Despite all of those options, I’d bet a dollar that you’re just leaving your camera’s white balance setting on Auto.
Why not? The camera does a good job of choosing the right white balance, doesn’t it?
Not every time.
That’s the problem with automatic detection of anything inside your camera. It’s inconsistent. Not just from one location to the next, but from one shot to the next. With each frame, your camera takes a fresh reading and stamps your image with something that may be different from the other shots you’ve taken.
In many cases, we accept it because the convenience outweighs the need for control. We accept color casts in our work and say, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop.” It’s just a slider, right?
You run into those odd situations with mixed lighting that throw your camera for a loop now and then. None of the settings is right. Fixing it in Photoshop just got a bit tougher. It doesn’t have to work that way, though.
Why is white balance essential?
White balance exists to capture accurate colors.
When you take a picture, the colors might not look right if the white balance is wrong. This is because your camera tries to adjust the colors to make them look normal, but it sometimes gets it wrong.
Some lighting conditions have a color cast that affects the overall color balance of your photo. Your light source affects the color temperature based upon a meter reading.
While the camera tries to create an accurate exposure, sometimes its judgment is off, and you don’t get the correct colors.
A correct white balance shows you the colors as they are. It takes the guesswork out of post-processing and gives you a great starting point for color correction.
Do you need a grey card?
A grey card is a neutral reference point that can set an accurate white balance in your camera with a custom white balance, or you can use the grey card in post-processing for color correction.
Most image editing software has a white balance eyedropper tool. If you use RAW files for your photos, it has all of the information you need to adjust the color to a neutral tone so you can set your color balance.
You can use your camera’s preset white balance options to get close to the correct color. When you use a grey card on a photo shoot, you can set the perfect white balance for the light conditions where you take your test image.
If you take photos in the same lighting conditions, you don’t need another photo of the grey card. When the conditions change, take another test shot of your grey card as a reference point for the entire scene.
How do I choose the right Grey Card?
Here are a few things to remember when selecting a photography white balance card.
That last point is something that can save you some frustration. A solid grey card won’t work with autofocus, so it will just keep hunting and waste your time. The only option is to use manual focus.
My Recommendation for a Grey Card
Is your camera giving you weird, inaccurate colors in your photos? Avoid that issue entirely by using the Lastolite 12-Inch Ezybalance Card.
This helpful tool lets you set your camera's white balance perfectly, so you'll never have to worry about poor coloration again. Not only that, but the Ezybalance Card is also great for exposure control and creating accurate color rendition. It's collapsible and durable, so you can take it wherever you go, and it's easily cleanable too. Plus, it's double-sided with grey and white tones to suit your needs.
Use a Grey Card White Balance on Your First Shot
For most portrait photographers, this is Photography 101. Models are accustomed to taking the grey card shot to get things started. Here’s an example.
You get to do a few things right off the bat by using a grey card to set the white balance. I like it, particularly before the model goes into hair and makeup.
Using a grey card isn’t just for studio photography. It’s also useful outdoor to help capture colors accurately.
1: Grey Cards Give You a Chance to Start a Rapport with Your Subject
If you haven’t shot with a particular model before, you should remember that being photographed by someone can be an intimidating process. It’s natural for someone to be apprehensive before a camera, especially if they don’t know you.
I don’t need a great shot of a grey card, but I do need a chance to start connecting with my model. Sometimes I tell bad jokes. Other times I ask them to make a face. Anything that lightens the mood and removes some apprehension is good with me.
Why do it before hair and makeup? Imagine something that makes you a bit nervous or apprehensive. How long do you want to spend dwelling on that thought? By trying to reach out and make a little connection, I’m trying to eliminate time spent worrying about how I behave as a photographer.
For some models, it’s no big deal at all. For others, it can take a load off their mind. Yes, I need the shot of the grey card, but it’s also a distraction that lets me get to know the model and the model to know me.
Take another grey card shot when you change scenes or adjust your lighting. Make it a fun experience, too. It’s nice to have that consistent item in your photos, but it’s also a bit of a mental break during the shoot. Don’t underestimate how rewarding that can be for your relationship with your subject.
2: Grey Cards Aren’t Just for Portraits
Grey cards need not be limited to portrait shoots, though. Take a small one with you on your next landscape or environmental photo outing. It only takes a moment and can help you capture the scene exactly as you remembered seeing it.
Look at the colors in the travel photos above. Imagine traveling halfway around the world to see all of those vibrant colors and failing to capture them because you didn’t carry a collapsible grey card in your bag.
Your camera meter does its best at white balancing, but sometimes you need color correction in post-processing to deliver a photo with perfect exposure.
When you use a grey card for travel, landscape photos, or any other genre of photography, you can ensure optimal exposure and color correction in post-processing.
3: Get Correct Exposure with a Grey Card
In addition to adjusting your white balance, a grey card also acts as a reference point for correct exposure.
Some environments are pretty difficult for camera meters. The photo above is a good example. You want to get the right exposure on the subject, but the white dress and background may confuse the meter.
That’s then the grey card is your friend.
Now you have a reference point for your exposure. Keep your camera settings locked down from the reference image, and you’ll get the right exposure and accurate colors.
Using this technique, you don’t need to be a wedding or portrait photographer. If you take photos in the snow, you can benefit from using a grey card.
The photo above shows a blue color cast instead of white snow. That’s the problem you get with allowing your camera to make decisions and choose the camera settings.
4: Save Time Using the Grey Card to Set the Correct White Balance
OK, the shoot is over, and you have a bunch of shots loading into your digital asset manager. You see the shot above, which looks flat, perhaps lacking a bit of contrast.
You may even want to warm it up a bit. All fine ideas, but all you have to do is tap it with an eyedropper tool.
Then you get something that looks like this result.
The result is pretty dramatic.
Now her skin tone looks much more like a human. That’s why photographers love grey cards. No need for complicated Photoshop sorcery or launching 3rd party filters to identify and remove a color cast. One tap with an eye-dropper gives you a great head start to correct color.
You can get more complicated than a grey card. Other color checkers have specific color tones and require a profile in Lightroom or other tools.
A color checker is a wonderful idea if you’re a commercial photographer working for a client who needs to ensure that the color in the image matches their product exactly.
For the rest of us, it can be overkill. You can find grey cards that are inexpensive pieces of cardboard or pop up like a reflector, complete with targeting sights printed on them (that do absolutely nothing for you). I have both because I enjoy wasting my money.
The Calibrite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2 is the perfect tool for avoiding frustration with poor colors in your photos.
The Portable Protective Case accommodates multiple positions for easy use with four specialized targets. You can create custom camera profiles based on your individual camera/lens/lighting combinations for DNG and ICC workflows. You can also create a custom in-camera white balance for a consistent white point across a set of images without needing to correct each image later.
The enhancement patches allow you to check and evaluate shadow details and highlight clipping, and the lanyard ensures that your Passport is always where you need it.
5: Should You Create a Custom White Balance in Your Camera?
A custom white balance is a process that adjusts the colors in an image to make them appear more accurate. You do this by photographing a grey card and then using that image to create a custom white balance. This adjusts the colors in your photo to match the colors in the grey card image under the light reflected from your environment.
However, there are some drawbacks to this method. First, it requires you to always have a grey card with you. Second, setting up a custom white balance in your camera can be time-consuming.
If you’re shooting with RAW image files, you don’t need to worry about setting a custom white balance. This is because the RAW file contains all the information necessary to adjust the colors in an image. You can simply adjust the colors in post-processing.
However, if you’re shooting in JPEG, you may want to consider creating a custom white balance in your camera.
A grey card is a great tool for white balance in photography. By placing the grey card in your environment and metering the exposure using spot metering on the grey card, you can create a reference image to use as a basis for accurate exposures and colors.
Use this technique in various shooting environments and can be especially helpful when shooting in difficult lighting conditions.
If you’re shooting with RAW files, you don’t need to worry about setting a custom white balance, but if you’re shooting JPEGs, you may want to consider it. Creating a custom white balance in your camera can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it for the accurate colors it can produce.