Gray cards? Expodiscs? White Balance? ACK!
One of my biggest hurdles while learning photography was learning about white balance. I struggled a lot with how to get it just right and especially with custom white balance. I like to think of my style as fresh, clean, and crisp and in order to achieve that look I want skin tones to look just right.
Although there are a variety of tools you can use to help with custom white balance I’m a cheapo and therefore I absolutely refuse to shell out $100 for an expodisc when I can pay $20 for a gray card. And actually that $20 bought me two! Both of these tools as well as others all use the same concept so I’m going to talk about white balance from my personal experience with a gray card.
I don’t know about you guys, but all these terms that come with how your camera views light can be a wee bit over my head. We could chat about it in terms of the science behind how the human eye and the camera view light wavelengths differently, or we could talk about it like a bunch of photographers who really know nothing about science.
Using white balance in photography basically means you want to get rid of icky color casts. Color casts vary depending on what type of light you’re photographing in. The way our human eye sees real color is how the light is bounced off an object. Say you have a bright red apple sitting on a table next to window light. The light from the sun comes in the window, hits the apple and reflects off of it and back to our eyes which record it and send the signal to the brain to interpret it. The apple is red and the way our human brain works will mean that because of our prior knowledge we’ll always see the apple as red.
Now if you leave the window open and the apple on the table and you turn on your kitchen’s fluorescent lights your human eye will still interpret the apple as red because the brain tells us the apple is red. Cameras unfortunately don’t work like brains. If they did, photography would be so much easier right? The camera doesn’t have a brian in it to tell us that the apple is red no matter what type of light is on it. Instead what happens is those different types of light cast slight color variances into the red. That red may start to look more purple or more orange depending on what type of light is shining on it.
So what we need to do in order for our camera to see the world the way our human brain does is to correct the white balance in camera and get rid of color casts. As portrait photographers this is especially important. Have you ever seen an indoor photo where the lamp light makes everyone’s skin have a yellow hue? White balance can fix that. Or have you ever photographed in the shade on a sunny day and instead of everyone’s skin looking warm and creamy the way it does when your brain interprets what you see, their skin looks sort of blue and cold? White balance can fix that!
The goal of using white balance is to make the colors look ‘right.’ You want your whites in the photo to look the way a pure white would look and your grays to look truly gray.
Now that we know that the real color of an object can change depending on the light shining on it, and we know that it’s just the chemicals in those objects we see reflecting the wavelengths from the light source differently we also know that we can change it.
Most DSLR cameras come with a variety of white balance settings already built in. You can use Auto White Balance, Tungsten light, Fluorescent, Shade, Sun, etc. In my experience most of those specialty settings are still a little bit off. I resort to using my cheapo gray card to fix that and use the custom setting.
So what is a gray card you ask? Other than an incredibly affordable (and kind of old school) tool, it’s everything awesome that will improve your photos tenfold! A gray card is literally a middle gray reference. It’s not too yellow, blue, or reddish. You’ll see when you go to the store to buy one that you can chose an 18% gray card. This is what I have. That means it has an 18% reflectance across the visible spectrum of light and color (sorry about the technical mumbo jumbo). Not only can a gray card be used to help with white balance, but it can also be used to ensure consistent exposure in your photograph as well.
To use one all you have to do is bring it with you to wherever you’re photographing. Put the card where you plan on putting your subjects. Turn your lens to manual focus. If you leave it on auto, you won’t be able to take the photo, and then take a photo. Make sure you fill your entire viewfinder with the gray card. Don’t worry about if it’s in focus. That doesn’t matter. Depending on what type of camera you use after you take the photo of the gray card you can go into the menu and apply it as your custom white balance. You’ll have to read the instructions on your specific camera to figure out how.
When I was first using a gray card I didn’t have it explained to me very well and it took me months to learn a huge lesson. There’s a big difference in how your camera reads a gray card being photographed. You can set the gray card next to your subject and some people find this works for them, but I’ve found that the absolute best way to get perfect white balance is to read the gray card with it filling up the entire viewfinder. Reading the gray that way gets me the best results.
Now you can apply that custom white balance in two different ways, in the camera as I mentioned or if you shoot RAW you can apply it afterward in Adobe Camera Raw or whatever your editing software is. I personally would rather have it right in camera because it saves me time later.
When is it most important to use custom white balance? This is a good question. I don’t often need to use custom white balance when I’m outdoors in perfect lighting, but occasionally if I’m checking out my images on the back of my camera I might notice that they’re not quite right and then I’ll use it. When I’m outside I actually prefer to use auto white balance. Using any of the other “sun, shade, cloudy” types of settings always make the color look off. I’m most strict about using custom white balance when I’m photographing a newborn. I want their skin to be it’s real color in the photo. I also use custom white balance at wedding receptions or indoor ceremonies when you might get strange colored or odd reflected light from all types of light sources there.
I hope this tutorial will help improve your photos! It’s super easy so you can laugh at my lengthy struggles with it all you want. I know I do. Sometimes I just don’t ‘get’ things right away. You can buy gray cards at almost any camera store or online. They’re so cheap and easy to throw in your bag and take with you. If you want to be fancy you can buy the fancier tools too, the concept for using those is almost exactly the same.
Anyways. Over and Out! Let me know if you have any further questions. I’d be happy to help!