Busting the Top 7 White Balance, Color Balance and Grey Balance Myths

There are a lot of myths floating around about how to get good color with your camera, specifically about white balance (also referred to as Color Balance or Gray Balance).

Let’s take an in-depth look at 7 of these myths in our updated white balance tool review.

Myth #1 is the main cause of bad color in images today.

Myth #1: Auto White Balance is good enough.
This is especially true for my “everyday photography.”

This is the simplest myth to bust. Yet, it is the most prevalent reason people don’t want to “bother” with white balance. This is simply a case of “ignorance is bliss.”

Have a look at the before and after images below and ask yourself honestly if you wouldn’t prefer the image with the correct color. Auto White Balance is on the left (Before) and the correct White Balance is on the right (After).

before white balance after white balance

Myth #2: Raw is the Answer
I don’t need to worry about White Balance / Color Balance / Grey Balance if I just shoot raw. Right?

A lot of well meaning folks believe they can just “fix” their color by using a raw workflow. Most of these same folks also believe there is no cost associated with this approach.

The biggest cost of a raw workflow for color comes in terms of time, money and accuracy. If you shoot a lot of images and try to “fix” the color in post you’ll easily begin to understand how it can take hours to adjust the color on every single image.

Secondly, when trying to set color in post you assume a lot of things. You assume your monitor is properly calibrated, you also assume that you as an individual are able to see color well. It is well documented that some people do not see color well. How would you know if you are one of those people. You probably wouldn’t, unless you are color blind.

Finally, you assume that you have a great color memory. Since you have no reference you are going to go back and guess what the colors in the image really were. Was that wall white or tan? Was her skin olive or white?

But, let’s assume that you don’t mind spending lots of time in post production and you like shooting raw for “color fix” purposes. There are no other issues with this approach, right. Right?

Well, no. There is another big issue.

The Raw approach will inevitably introduce exposure errors and noise into your files.

 Let’s have a look at the typical steps involved with correcting a Raw file with incorrect color.

Typical steps to correct a Raw file to the correct White Balance

steps to white balance a raw file

You just introduced lots of pixel noise into your image unnecessarily. This presents an even bigger problem than the time and effort it takes to do all of this in Raw to all of your images.

So, just how much noise did we introduce. Well, let’s see.

image noise white balance raw

Again, as you see, there is no “free lunch” with raw. Of course, this also points out the importance of getting your exposure correct, a task made more difficult when the histogram and exposure values you see at the time you take the picture are wrong. Some things just cannot be “fixed” in post, at least not without a cost to your photo.

Consider Myth #2 busted. Raw cannot fix what should have been done right during capture.

Myth #3: No one can tell the difference anyway.

Please see Myth #1. Some people may not be able to put their finger on it exactly. But, most people recognize when images are properly color balanced, even those who know nothing about photography. Here are some more before and after shots to consider.

before white balance after white balance 2

Myth #4: Setting a Correct White Balance is hard and time consuming.

Some approaches to correcting color are difficult and time consuming. One such approach is the Raw workflow method discussed above. Many Color Tools are also difficult to use and cumbersome to carry. But, there are a number of color tools that make getting good color a breeze. The easiest and most accurate color tool we know of, takes only about 15 seconds to use.


Myth #5: All White Balance Tools are the same.

I tried to do this custom white balance thing once, and it just didn’t work for me.

Many color balance tools and white balance aids, are time consuming and difficult to use correctly. Here are just a few drawbacks of some of these color tools and approaches.

-Many require that you shoot in raw and make your adjustment in post production. See Myth #2 above for why this isn’t always a good idea.
-Many white balance tools are large and difficult to carry.
-Many color balance tools, such as gray cards, are fragile and easily damaged.
-Many grey balance tools require that you take an “incident reading” to get a usable result. You may have seen tools that suggest you go stand where your subject is standing and shoot back toward the camera position. They may also suggest you shoot the “dominant” light source. Again, too difficult and time consuming for many shooting situations. The instructions are even more incomprehensible when it comes to using a flash.

It is true that there are many color balance tools that are more onerous to use than the bad color is to look at. These tools are a simple case of the “cure being worse than the disease.”

For each of the problems outlined above there are tools that deliver the goods quickly, accurately and easily. We recommend the ColorRight line of tools.

Myth #6: All Color Balance Aids provide Correct and Accurate Color
I already have one of these tools, I follow all the instructions, but I often still get poor color.

It may not be your fault. Many, many color tools cannot provide the correct color no matter what you do. They are not accurate. Many co
lor tools just are not neutral, no matter what their marketing or packaging may claim. And, almost all color tools stop a lot of light from entering your camera.

Color geeks refer to neutrality when talking about how correct the color will be when the light leaves your color balance tool. You cannot determine neutrality with your naked eye. Neutrality is determined in the lab using special color equipment that produces a variety of spectral data, including what color is really being shown to your camera by a particular white balance tool. Bear in mind that perfect neutrality is a theoretical ideal, and is
rarely achieved to absolute perfection. However, the closer you get to this ideal, the
better your colors will be.

We took four camera white balance tools and had a look at them under a “daylight” fluorescent bulb. We measured this light with and without a white balance product and found what colors you and your camera are seeing (color patches), the corresponding color temperatures (in kelvin), and how much light got through each device (lux). Here is what we found for this fairly common type of light source.


Actual Color of these Fluorescent Bulbs

Kelvin: 3632 K
Lux: 14937

Our source light color temperature in Kelvin is 3632 K and our light source is pretty bright at 14937 lux. In a perfect world our color tool would come as close to the same Kelvin numbers as possible. Close lux numbers provide additional bonuses for color balance.

Here is what we found for each of the following products. Smaller red numbers are better.

ExpoDisc Neutral
Expodisc Product
expodisc color
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using an ExpoDisc Neutral

Kelvin: 4233 K
Lux: 4920

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 601 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 10017

BaLens / Photojojo (with neutral disc inserted)
BaLens product photojojo
balens photojojo color
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using a BaLens (also Photojojo ) Neutral

Kelvin: 4132 K
Lux: 2266

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 500 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 12671

ProDisk II
Pro Disk II Color 
Pro Disk II Color
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using the ProDisk II White Balance Tool

Kelvin: 4443 K
Lux: 8022

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 800 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 6915

ColorRight
ColorRight White Balance Product
colorright color
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using a ColorRight Neutral

Kelvin: 3581 K
Lux: 11429

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 51 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 3508

Smaller red numbers are better and assist in getting your camera closer to the actual color of the light. The most important number is the K number.

As you can easily see above all color balance tools are not created equal. Some of these white balance tools change the color temperature of your light by 800 degrees Kelvin. This is a tremendous difference in the overall color of any image. This is what 800 K degrees of error would do to an image with the correct color.

Kelvin differences ProDisk II and ColorRight 


Myth #7: Do it Yourself Tools like a pringles lid, drink lid or a coffee filter are just as good as commercial products.

do it yourself white balance tools

While it can certainly be fun trying to save a few bucks, homemade tools should be used only if you have no other available option.

While some of them can get you closer to the correct color, they lack in almost all other respects.

1) They get damaged and dirty easily
2) They are not neutral
3) Most do not transmit much light
4) They are often difficult to use, carry and store

What little money you think you may have saved, will be lost the in the overall experience and difficulty of use. Not to mention the lack of neutrality.

However, there is one instance where I would recommend the use of a homemade substitute- if you lose your professional tool and cannot replace it before your next shoot. These tools will often times work better than just plain old Auto White Balance, which is wrong about 50% of the time.

Neutrality of Some White Translucent Items

Actual Color of these Fluorescent Bulbs

Kelvin: 3632 K
Lux: 14937

Our source light color temperature in Kelvin is 3632 K and our light source
is pretty bright at 14937 lux. In a perfect world our color tool would
come as close to this same color and these same lux numbers as possible.

Here is what we found for each of the following products. Smaller numbers in red are better.

LaserPaper
white laser paper white balance
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using a sheet of generic white laser paper

Kelvin: 4407 K
Lux: 6779

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 775 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 8158

Arby’s Plastic Drink Lid
Lid Color
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using a generic plastic drinking lid

Kelvin: 3425 K
Lux: 13377

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 207 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 1560

Coffee Filter
coffee filter white balance
Color of the fluorescent light as shown to your camera using a generic coffee filter

Kelvin: 3738 K
Lux: 9193

Color Temperature Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 106 K
Lux Difference from actual Source Light (absolute value): 5744

The coffee filter I had on hand was not that bad, in terms of neutrality. But, again, you have no way of knowing by just looking at a coffee filter if it is neutral or not, and in which direction it may be off. So, it is by far the best to go with a professional tool of known quantity.

Conclusion:
But why isn’t close enough, good enough?

Is a one foot ruler ever 11.2 inches long? Is an oven that cooks at 350 degrees, but says it is cooking at 300 degrees a problem?

Guys, think of it this way. Say you have to cut a board exactly one foot long. You grab your 12 inch ruler, make the cut mark and then make the cut, only to find out your ruler is only 11.34 inches long. And guess what. That was the last piece of wood you had on hand. Why would you use a ruler of unkown length? You wouldn’t. So why would you use a critical color balance tool of unknown neutrality. You wouldn’t, if you are serious about getting your color right.

Ladies, that Turkey is supposed to cook at 300 degrees for four hours. So, you set the timer and run out to finish your other Thanksgiving shopping. When you come back four hours later what has happened to that precious bird you spent so long preparing? The same thing that will happen to the color in your images when you have no idea whether your color balance tool is accurate and neutral. The same thing that happens if you trust your color to Auto White Balance or a Raw workflow.

You get burned.

Be Professional. Do it Right.

Article and Review by: Drew Strickland
ColorRight is made and distributed by the parent company of Pro Photo Home, Strickland Portraiture, Inc.
All other trademarks mentioned are property of their respective owners.

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