Grey Card for White Balance

Save time. Save frustration. Save humiliation. Use a grey card for a white balance.  This inexpensive little prop can truly pay off when you get to post-processing.

Your White Balance Setting Is A 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 often does a good job at 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.

One of these things is not like the others. More likely, none of these things are exactly like the others if you rely upon auto settings.

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?

Every now and then, you run into those odd situations with mixed lighting that throw your camera for a loop. None of the settings is really right. Fixing it in Photoshop just got a bit tougher. It doesn't have to work that way, though.

Use a Grey Card for 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.

Using A Grey Card For White Balance

There are a few things you get to do right off the bat by using a grey card for white balance. Here's why I like it, particularly before the model goes into hair and makeup.

  • It's my first lighting test
  • The grey card gives me a consistent area to use for controlling my white balance in Lightroom.
  • It gives me a chance to set the tone of the shoot with the model

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 a bit 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'm going to behave as a photographer.

For some models, it's no big deal at all. For others, it can really take a load off their mind. Yes, I need the shot of the grey card for white balance, but it's also a distraction that lets me get to know the model and for the model to know me.

When you change scenes or adjust your lighting, take another grey card shot. 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.

Save Time Using the Grey Card to Set Your 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 and it looks flat, perhaps lacking a bit of contrast.

You may even want to warm it up a bit. All fine ideas, but all you really have to do is tap it with an eyedropper tool.

Then you get something that looks like this result.

Using A Grey Card For White Balance Makes Life Easier

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. Just one tap with an eye-dropper and you have a great head start to correct color.

You can get more complicated than a grey card. There are other color checkers available that have specific color tones and require a profile in Lightroom or other tools.

If you're a commercial photographer working for a client who needs to make sure that the color in the image matches exactly their product, a color checker is a wonderful idea.

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.

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 it can help you capture the scene exactly as you remembered seeing it.

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