12 Jun

Better White Balance In-Camera With a Gray Card

Posted by Jenna, Under Photography

Whew, that title is a mouthful isn’t it? But when I write a practical post like this I think it’s best to be straightforward with my post title so it’s easy to find again. I’ve already talked about changing the White Balance settings in your camera, and today I’m going to teach you a trick you can use for getting a more customized white balance for each unique lighting situation.

You’re going to need a gray card. I bought this set of three which I like because of the lanyard, but I really only use the gray card so it was a bit of a waste for me.

This is a SOOC shot (SOOC means straight-out-of-camera if you are new to the photography posts) from the wedding I shot last weekend. Aren’t the colors beautiful? It’s nice to know that I won’t have to do any extra color correction in post-processing.

Oh yeah, I used my gray card to set the white blalance for this picture.
guestswaiting

How does this gray card thing work?

Well, I think you’ll know what I’m going to tell you is the first step. READ YOUR MANUAL. Get out that manual and figure out if you can set a custom white balance on your specific camera model.

Take a picture, and check out the preview on the LCD screen. I was already in a tough lighting situation. The light was low, and very warm, coming from one lamp to the left of the couch. Here’s the SOOC shot on Auto White Balance.

beforegreycard

I grabbed my gray card, set the focus to manual, turned my focus ring until the card was in focus and took a picture of the card. This is the part where people will think you’re crazy, but once they see the resulting photos they won’t think you’re crazy anymore.

Go to your camera menu and select the picture of your gray card as your custom white balance setting. This step might seem confusing but it’s really simple once you figure it out.

And don’t be like me and forget to change your white balance setting from auto white balance (or whatever it was set at) to custom white balance. I constantly take the picture of the card and go through the work of setting the custom white balance and then forget to change my white balance setting from AWB, which completely defeats the purpose.

holdingoutgreycard

The resulting SOOC photo is a little bit too blue, but I still think it’s better.

aftergreycard

The more light to be had, the better your results with the gray card will be.

Here’s the SOOC shot with AWB.

awb

Here’s the SOOC shot with custom white balance set with the gray card. Although the bride might like the previous photo because she looks really tan :), I like the color in the custom white balance photo much better.

withgreycard

Maybe there is a trick I haven’t learned yet, but there is one time when I can’t get the gray card to work correctly, and that’s when I’m working with two different light sources. In this photo I have sunlight streaming in near her feet and lamplight next to her head.

Here is the SOOC AWB shot. A little bit warm for my taste.

yisselawb

I decided to take a picture of my gray card to see if that helped.

yisselusinggreycard

Oh no! Entirely too cool for anyones taste. In this situation, AWB and some post-processing color correction will have to be the answer.

yisselwithgreycard

Yes you can shoot RAW and do all of your color corrections during post-processing, but I like using the gray card because it often saves me an extra step when I’m editing my photos later on. Whenever I do still life shots for this blog I use the card to get true colors without the need for editing later on.

Any questions?

13 Comments


  1. I just learned about the grey card in class. But here they sell big cards, so I think I’ll hold of till I get to the States. I can’t see myself walking around with a big one. Yours seems very handy!!

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  2. I hate my grey card. There, I’ve said it. I just can’t get it to work for me. Because, ok, you take the picture of it in the same light source as is on your subject. But what if your subject is something really dark, much darker than the pale grey card? It automatically underexposes? I can’t figure that out.

    BUT having said that, we weren’t told in my photo class about using the picture as a custom white balance. They just told us to set the light meter by the grey card and then use those settings to shoot the subject. Hmmmm. I am going to try your way.

    Jenna Reply:

    Yeah I don’t use the grey card as a light meter, only for white balance. I set my exposure first then take the picture of the grey card. Are you shooting on manual?

    Kat Forsyth Reply:

    Definitely manual (is there any other way?? :P). Hmm, at my photo class they had us use it as a light meter. Your way makes more sense!

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  3. Does it have to be a grey card? Why not any other colour?

    Jenna Reply:

    It’s something about how the light reflects. Completely neutral or something.

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  4. Aaack! I just ordered a new lens cap from B&H the other day. I put it off for a week because I wanted to make sure there weren’t any other little things that I could bundle with it to make the shipping feel a little more worthwhile. This post reminded me that I’ve been meaning to get a grey card. I think I need to start a formal list of some sort b/c obviously my brain can’t keep track of everything for me. :)

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  5. At what point do you use the white or the black cards?

    Jenna Reply:

    Black and white are used for editing “black and white” points in post processing. It helps get exposure in the right place. I don’t ever use it, but I think I’m going to start looking into how it can improve my photos.

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  6. Thanks for this, I think I’ll be getting one of these when I get my 50D. I’m also wondering at what point you use the white and black cards.

    Jenna Reply:

    As far as I have figured out the white and black cards are used during post processing for setting white and black points. I don’t actually use them though so I’m not sure!

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  7. I just found your blog a couple of weeks ago and love it! I love your photography tips. You are such a wonderful teacher!
    Thank you!!

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  8. Wow, the things I learn from your blog! I’ve never even heard of using any type of card let alone a grey one. I’ll definitely look into this!

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      I'm a farm-raised almost-crunchy stroller-pushing picture-taking lifestyle-blog-writing gastronomy-obsessed divine-seeking thrift-store-combing cheese-inhaling pavement-pounding laughter-sprinkling lover of individuality and taking chances.
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