Getting Better White Balance From Your DSLR – Peter Gregg

There are tons of White Balance questions: Should I or shouldn’t I? What about if I shoot RAW, I don’t have to white balance right? Can’t I white balance afterward when I get back home and do it in PhotoShop? Okay, let me set you straight :)


I am not in a position to set anyone straight, but I have been wanting to do a an article on custom white balance for a while now but time hasn’t allowed that – until now. So I finally get to present what I have wanted to share with you on this topic and I can’t wait, so let’s get started.

There are so many white balance questions and answers, some are just plain personal choice, but some points of view have evolved into misconceptions and I don’t think that is right for newbies to learn the wrong stuff plus I know seasoned professionals just sometimes roll their eyes. Let’s see if a few things can be brought to the table to help you choose what is right for you and what may be some things not really thought about before.

First the tools. There are plenty of white balance tools out there. My personally choice for shooting is the ColorRight Max. Yes, I know this article will be published on a site associated with ColorRight but that has nothing to do with my thinking or freedom to write what is cool and what is not cool.

Just for the record I have bought and paid for my own ColorRight Max (full price too – through the sale email blasts many of you get) and I also bought and paid for the original ColorRight Version 1.

But it doesn’t end there – I also have purchased the Kodak Gray Card, the Expodisc Warm, and the Stratos. I have coffee cup lids and Pringles caps in the house too – lol. Too much salt is bad for you though – and so is using Pringles lids to do a man’s job. Just a calm easy laid back word on using coffee cup lids and tupperware lids for white balance. GIVE ME A BREAK !!!&^%$#@!  It’s crazy to take a $500 to $8000 camera and then choose an 11 cent item as your white balance tool. It was designed and tested to be a lid – and most of the time it does quite well as a lid, but they never were designed with color or consistency in mind. Whatever thickness one may be the next one isn’t – and as far as the color purity – it’s a freaking coffee cup – lol. They are not white balance tools, they are just uhm – white . . . walls are white, paper is white, lots of different kinds of white, and yes – toilet paper is white too – lol. This is not an “I don’t care as long as it’s close” kind of article. A pinhole in a piece of cardboard makes a perfectly usable lens – but I don’t see a sea of cardboard when I see a flock of photographers. If one is serious about color, then a serious color tool is in order, we are craftsmen and women with our photography. Not snobs, I believe there is a pleasure and a skill to making photographic images and each tool should be selected from research and purpose.

One of the first tools I bought when I first got into digital photography was the Kodak gray card. It didn’t take long after my first DSLR to realize the camera’s built in white balance sensor needed help and I wanted more than it was offering so I went for the oldest of the tools – the grand gray card.

Picture of Kodak Gray Card tool

One of the things about white balance is that white balancing is not done best on “white”. The best representation of true colors is done when the sensor is balanced to 18 percent gray – and there is where the Kodak 18 percent gray card comes in. Video people have used the gray card for years.

The gray card is “reflective” in operation. That means you take a picture OF the card in the lighting you are planning to balance. You can then use the picture you took in one of 2 different ways. You can set it in your camera as the white balance reference shot, or you can use it later in a program inside your computer to using the eyedropper tool to set your white balance. The gray card was a little big to put in your pocket so folks where cutting them down and using just little pieces of them so they would be handy. The gray card is still in use today and still does a good job.

Because carrying around a piece of the gray card was a cool thing to do, people began to try and market white balance tools designed to replace the gray card both in convenience and in optional white balance control towards a warmer look. Gray cards give a very clinical clean and neutral white balance, but our eyes see things a lot warmer than that and the clinical looks looks too cold and unexciting. The Whibal tool from Michael Tapes and WarmCards are two of the white balance tools that come to mind. Each tries to sell you on convenience and their quality.

Picture of Michael Tapes’ WhiBal tool

White Balance tools that shoot through the lens quickly became the more popular choice for lots of photographers and the ColorRight, Expodisc, and Stratos quickly come to mind, and I own all three of them.

Picture of Stratos Tool

These Through The Lens (TTL) tools are put up to the lens and you take a picture “through” them to obtain a proper white balance. The procedure is different for each camera but the basics are the same. You go to the menu, set the camera for custom white balance, take a picture thru the lens using one of these tools, set that shot as your white balance reference.

One day, Canon, Nikon and others will wake up and put in a ONE BUTTON white balance option like some camera like Olympus has (on some of their cameras). They (camera companies) know we white balance so it isn’t a secret, they put the setting in there to allow for it. Why hide it in menus that are hard to reach. We aren’t talking about $50 cameras here, these are $500 and up cameras – give us a simple white balance button – hello??? White balance button where are you??

Picture of ExpoDisc white balance tool

To use the thru the lens white balance tools, you take a shot through the lens and the sensor reads the colors and sets the white balance when you push the appropriate buttons. So the “color” or accuracy of the white now should become important to you – since you have gone through the trouble of selecting a white balance tool to perfect and hone in your white balance for your images. A craftsman is a craftsman is a craftsman.

Being a freelance writer on photography topics and also being the inventor of A Better Bounce Card, I have had to study, research, and learn a lot more about color than I ever really wanted to know. I am not going to bore you with the details, but there is a huge difference in one “white” verses another “white”.

Drew Strickland, the owner of ProphotoHome is also the owner of the ColorRight tool. Since I sell articles to him for his popular ProPhotoHome web site I have had the opportunity to have many phone conversations with him about “proper color” and I can tell you my knowledge of this topic is tiny small in comparison to what he knows about it. My eyes glaze over as he so passionately talks about proper color and color ratio’s that I can almost swear he is salivating over perfect and easy color like if we were getting ready to sit down to some huge prime rib dinner with all the trimmings. My dad used to have a saying for me when I was young and cocky and thought I knew it all – “you haven’t even learned the things I have already forgotten”. Dads are great :)   Bottom line – Drew Strickland knows color!

Picture of ColorRight white balance tool

When I talk to Drew Strickland about true “white” that is used among the custom balance tools one of the first things he tells me is for every 10 people you have 11 opinions. That’s true, I see it now on Google as I research for this article – and now, I have 2 or 3 or my own :)   Still, when talking with him on the phone he makes my head swim with information overload. In his testing he states that the ColorRight white balance tool has the most balanced white devoid of other color tints of all the tools. Knowing how emphatic and persistent his personality is, I have no reason to not believe him.

My point isn’t to tell you which tool is best (I will tell you that in a little bit :) ) it is to tell you that there is a lot of research to be done and either you and I have to do it or we have to depend on the people who easily swim in this stuff to have done the research for us. Drew Strickland eats, drinks and breaths color balance and my dime says he is probably right on the mark. I prefer taking the pictures, writing articles and teaching you about flash photography. But then again – white balance is quite important and that brings right back to why you are reading and I am writing this article.

Which tool should you buy?

First you need to determine if you want to go with the “reflective” technique – where you take a picture of the color balance target itself, like the ColorRight HD-Mini, the WhiBal, or a Kodak gray card.

Picture of ColorRight HD Mini white balance tool

The Kodak Gray card is a reflective tool. The WhiBal is a reflective tool. The ColorRight HD Mini is a reflective tool. You hold them up and take a picture of the tool in the lighting your subject will be in. The ColorRight MAX is a unique product in the marketplace as it has a full blown reflective target built right into it ready to use at all times.

Or if you want, there is another way to custom white balance. You can get a tool that you shoot “thru the lens” (TTL) where you put the tool on your lens and shoot through it to get the right color balance. The ColorRight Original, Expodisc, and Stratos are those types or style of tools.

Why not have both in one?
Good, now we are cooking with gas, why limit yourself and pay for 2 different tools if you don’t know which one you will need when? The one I like allows me to carry both types of custom white balance tools in one small package. Makes sense to me, and it is the reason I selected the ColorRight Max. To me it is kind of dumb and buy a reflective tool to find out that I might need the “through the lens” tool at certain times, or buy the “through the lens tool” and find myself in a position to quickly try and dig up my big old gray card tool. One that does both is where I spent my money. They are both on me all the time and because it does both types of white balancing it is less to have to carry. Which ever one I need is right there with me. Job done, money well spent.

The ColorRight MAX does more though. A really important “more”. The “through the lens” part works like the original ColorRight using, as Strickland calls it, the best white in the white balance business,  but the “reflective part has something no other tool has. And this is the killer part and why I OWN THIS TOOL. It has a white patch, a gray patch – AND it has skin tone patches!

Say what??

Yup, instead of using your old eye dropper to balance for white in your LightRoom or whatever program you use, you use the eye dropper to color balance for the skin tone rather than for whites or grays. The white and gray go along for the ride, but the skin tones come out RIGHT!

Picture of earlier ColorRight MAX white balance tool

Now that is revolutionary – because when I color balance pictures with people in the pictures, I don’t perfectly green trees with magenta tinted people. I need perfect skin tones – hello, anyone listening out there :) I am telling you an easy way to get delicious skin tones! And the wonderful thing is I get to have all 3 types of custom white balance methods in one tool, reflective color white balance, through the lens white color balancing, and the new skin color patches color balance tool. One little tool gives me all that. And that is why I bought the MAX from ColorRight.

Here is a picture of my ColorRight Max white balance tool:

And if you look closely at my ColorRight MAX tool, ColorRight has just upgraded the earlier ColorRight MAXto a new version that gives you a lot more skin patches to work with than the original tool:

The center part is the “through the lens” part. Can you see the shade of my red towel showing through? This is important because now you are going to learn some more stuff you may not have known.

Hey – how much light gets through???

Having owned and still own a lot of cameras I get to see how each of them work. How do you think I got so smart – lol. I read the manuals <grin>

On the Nikon cameras (especially the high end ones) if you go to do a custom color balance and you don’t have enough light come through your “TTL” white balance tool you get the dreaded “No Good” blinking on your LCD screen. What happened???

Not enough light!

If you want to color balance natural available light and mix it with your flash – can BOTH light sources get registered for your white balance? NO IT CANNOT. Did you know that? Come on now, did you wedding photographers know if you do a custom white balance with your flash and ambient combined you are NOT getting an accurate color balance? If you are sitting in your family room and you want a quick white balance for you lamp lighting and combine it with your flash – hello – no can do. You go with the reflective technique but then where you place the card or tool becomes so critical I bet 9 out of 10 folks will not get it right. Heck, I have a hard time getting it right. The best way is with a TTL color balance tool. BUT . . .

A white balance tool like the Expodisc that is TTL allows only about 20 percent of the light through to your sensor. In contrast, the ColorRight allows over 80 percent of the light through. That is a difference that will allow you to go from “No Good” to getting a good image for white balancing.

Talk to the hand . . .

Why white balance, I shoot RAW??

I will get to why you NEED to white balance even if you shoot RAW in a moment.

But first here is a picture of my (clean) hand in different types of light :)
The purpose of white balancing is to get the same solid results in all kinds of different light sources.

This is the Nikon D3X (one of the best cameras) doing an auto white balance in some very dark conditions. These are the conditions that gave NO GOOD from some of the other tools because enough light was not able to make it through to the sensor. The picture is taken at ISO 6400 1/20 shutter and wide open with an f/2.0 lens.

Here is a picture using the ColorRight MAX (using it through the lens – remember, this one tool has many uses on tap). The light source here is a mix of florescent from a hallway and a regular light bulb from the lamp in the room to my right side:

And now into the next room with all florescent overhead 4 tube fixtures. This would be in the kitchen where there is 4 of these fixtures:

Now me, my hand and the camera take a stroll a couple of rooms down where there is a 16 foot ceiling with overhead tungsten bulbs, a hanging chandelier with those huge bulbs that are supposed to be ornamental but make me feel like they would be perfect target practice with my BB gun, and 2 table lamps with the screw-in new economy florescent bulbs that play like they wanna be real light bulbs when they grow up:

In all three lighting conditions the hand skin tone was perfect or mighty close to it, plus just as important there is a consistency between the shots that allow you to see them all as taken by the same photographer with a consistency to his work. At a wedding (I am a wedding photographer) it is important to have a consistent look to your work with an “occasional” art photograph. Not having the ability to white balance your work properly is not supposed to covered by the excuse of “that’s the way it was” because most (not all, but most) of the time it wasn’t. Our eyes have the God given ability to white balance and focus properly even when the camera, AWB, or the photographer can’t. these shots of the hand is very close to  what you eye will really see. Saturated reds and saturated yellows is not what happens in our brain.

Speaking of weddings – they are most definitely a fast paced environment. And one of the reasons I like the MAX so much is when I do NOT have the time to go through the hoops a lot of the cameras try to put us through to custom white balance, all I have to do is take a quick shot of the face of the MAX and move on. because the MAX does 3 things at once it leaves me free to move fast when things get hectic. If i want to register a quick white balance reference, I shoot the face of the MAX like this:

Picture of the ColorRight MAX custom white balance tool in reflective mode

Back in the office (or the bedroom, wherever you computer is) I can use the eyedropper tool and click on the white or gray patch using the MAX as a gray card, or I can forget about balancing for 18 percent gray and use the MAX’s unique skin patches and color balance for the skin on the hand and let whatever happens in the background happen. This is great for getting rid of “blossoming” when a camera sensor is overwhelmed by one specific color to the point it burns out to become a rampant color that is not in the picture at all. If you never experienced that, you will – you will :)

Okay, my final point is going back to my original question – why custom white balance at all if you are shooting RAW???

The answer takes us back to the hand picture – this picture:

Look at a screen grab of this image in Lightroom:

See the red channel pushing past the other color channels to the point of where it is pulling the other channels back. The red is almost over exposed and the others are under exposed. If I use the eye dropper tool in Lightroom to correct this, watch what happens to the histogram:

Now the color channels look much more balanced and the picture no longer has a tint that is too far to the crazy side. But the brightness has come down about a stop. This means an ISO 3200 image becomes an ISO 6400 image, or an ISO 6400 image becomes an ISO 12800 image.

Why would anyone purposely take their image and give themselves a stop or more of a disadvantage?? Not me. I may have to in a pinch, but if I am pinch free and have the time to maneuver I will get a much more accurate exposure if I take a second and custom white balance. This means less noise for me and the bottom line is a lower noise image is usually going to be a better overall image in terms of color depth and detail strength. If I do not have to dumb down my camera then why would I? It doesn’t make sense.

My recommendations are:

I like the ColorRight MAX (specifically the portrait edition).

I like to custom white balance my raw files when time permits and use the MAX to take a quick color reference shot when I can’t white balance TTL.

I use the reflective part of the newest MAX when skin color is critical. This allows me the whole new concept of white balancing for beautiful skin rather than making sure my whites are white – that’s what Clorox is for – hehe. Great looking skin in a picture is what brings out the wow’s and ahhh’s. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “wow Peter, you have awesome whites in that shot – lol. Speaking of awesome skin colors, dark skin can be hard to white balance for and the MAX has eyedropper patches designed for darker skin. Dark skin done right is downright awesome and knockout gorgeous. Custom white balancing takes me a huge step forward towards achieving those perfect skin tones.

The Camera

Different cameras have different methods of custom white balancing. One of the reasons the really expensive cameras are more expensive is because they try and take little things to greater function and detail. The Nikon D3 series and Canon 1 D series give you a much faster way to white balance – PLUS – and that is a capital plus, they DO NOT RECORD the white balance reference shot if you have the camera set up to work that way. This means I can put the ColorRight in front of the lens, shoot a reference shot and not record a 25 megapixel picture on the D3X, or a 12 megapixel picture on the D3, or a 21 megapixel picture on the 1Ds Mark III or a xx megapixel picture on the new Canon 1D Mark IV. Even if I shoot 200 custom white balance exposures they will not get written to the CF card. Not so with the 21 megapixel 5D Mark II. Shooting with the 5D Mark II left me frustrated in that aspect of the camera and may be one reason to spend a little more cash on an upper level camera. FYI, the new Canon 7D is like the 5D Mark II and not like the 1D series in that department. Any new camera from Canon or Nikon is always interesting to me for many reasons, and custom white balance is a large part of the reason to peak my curiosity.

Hopefully you can take some or all of the information I presented and plug it into your workflow. The better your workflow the better your final photographs, paying attention to details like custom white balance goes a long way to raise the bar on better quality images from our digital cameras.

Happy shooting and see you online,


Peter Gregg

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