My very un-scientific white balance card comparison
Being able to set your white balance is one of the greatest advantages of shooting digital over shooting with film
If you are still struggling with how to get good colour in your photos, using a white balance card, or digital grey card as they are sometimes called, is one tool that can help you with this. I realize there are several tools on the market that help you with white balance, but I’m just going to talk about what I personally use.
I’ve been using a WhiBal brand card to adjust my white balance since I started shooting digitally.
I also really like the X-Rite Color Checker Passport, and it is now my number one choice of white balance tools. The Passport also has a full colour patch and software to give you consistent colour from capture to screen to print.
I decided to see what my local camera shops had to offer as well.
Here’s what I found locally in Calgary
- Saneal Camera has a business card size 3-pack of gray, black and white made by Micnova. The plastic cards have a nice matte finish to minimize reflections when shooting them. They also come with a neck lanyard so you can keep the cards handy. Cost was $16 with tax.
- Vistek carries the Lastolite Ezy Balance collapsible cards, but they’re a bit of a different breed of card than I’m used to using. More on this later, though. It’s also available from Amazon if you’re not from Calgary.
- Expodisc is also a popular custom white balance tool, but I’ve never used one of those, so I’ll just stick to the digital grey cards in this comparison.
How do the cards compare?
The photo above shows all the cards I tested in one photo. I used my original WhiBal card as my reference point for white balance, and in this photo the RGB value of that card is about 190 when measured at the centre of the card just under the letter “i”. I know some of you really techy folks are going to call me on this so I thought I’d tell you where I did my measurements. Keep in mind this is also a very un-scientific test and is just meant for general knowledge for those starting out with digital photography and using custom white balance.
The real WhiBal white balance card has two grey cards
One a lighter grey card than the other two models tested. The lighter grey is meant for RAW shooting, which is where I measured from. My own WhiBal is also a few years old, and if you buy them now they just have one card, and you get a fudge factor for shooting jpgs. The real WhiBals all come “certified” and you get a document with each card that gives you the spectrometer reading. Bottom line, these are the cream of the crop in terms of accuracy.
Using the real WhiBal card as the benchmark, The Camera Store version was the closest in color temperature and tint. The Micnova had a bit of a cooler cast to it (more blue when measured), but they were only a couple hundred degrees Kelvin from each other, so that’s still really close and better than eyeballing it.
Does it really matter if they’re a bit off?
That depends on how picky you want to be in all this. Getting perfect neutral white balance on your photos is great, but not always necessary. For me, I want neutral white balance for those business portraits I do every month for a corporate client I have. Those photos are going on their website and it’s important that they all match one another to give a more consistent look. I get the best overall color and skin tone if I set the lights up the same way every time and if I use my WhiBal card to measure and adjust my white balance.
I also want perfect white balance for my clients who need me to shoot their artwork for reproduction on their websites or printed catalogs.
Perfect isn’t very creative
But, for my landscapes I’d rather have a little leeway with my color. If I want to warm up or cool off my colors, I can start with neutral, and then adjust according to my own taste. For example, if I’m shooting at sunrise and the sky is nice and warm in color, if I use my WhiBal card, it’s going to neutralize all that lovely warm color, making my photo appear cooler than it looked to my eyes. So in that case, neutral is not really what I’m looking for.
If you’re not looking for perfect color, then just use a digital grey card as a starting point. Once you know where neutral is, it’s easy to deviate to a cooler or warmer tone. This is my preferred way of working where color is part of my creative process.
Using the custom white balance setting in camera
Digital cameras also have a custom white balance (WB) feature in the white balance menu of your camera. You can use these types of white balance cards to get an in-camera setting so that you don’t have to go back to each image and correct it in Photoshop (or other image editing software). If you have a surface large enough, then you can set your custom WB quite easily using your digital WB cards. (The card has to be large enough so that you can fill the frame when taking your custom WB reading in camera.) Read your owner’s manual on how to set custom white balance in camera.
- The Lastolite Ezy balance cards mentioned above would be great for doing custom in-camera white balance, as they are significantly larger. I think these would be perfect for video white balance too!
- By the way, I use my WhiBal card to get custom white balance for my digital video camera too.
- Using the digital white balance cards will be more accurate than using a white piece of paper, that’s for sure. By the way, don’t use a Kodak 18% grey card for custom in-camera white balance. Read on to see why not.
What about those Kodak 18% grey cards I used in photo school years ago?
Don’t confuse the digital white balance card with a Kodak 18% grey card. They are very different! The traditional 18% grey cards are for reflective light metering only. The cards are not necessarily neutral in colour. Plus they are printed on paper and the inks may fade over time. If you took 10 different Kodak grey cards from 10 different people you could have 10 different results. The following video explains the difference.
Using a white balance card is really important if you need consistency in your work.
If you are a studio photographer, or you shoot artwork for Etsy sites, or to make printed catalogues, some sort of custom white balance tool is a must. If you don’t use a color calibrated monitor, knowing that your white balance is perfect is also good practice, especially if you send files to clients. Having perfect white balance will also ensure your prints come out neutral as well. It’s one part of your colour managed work flow.
It’s also good to know how to use a white balance card in case you shoot in a difficult lighting situation where you may not have a clue as to what the color temperature of the light is. For example a school gym, or an indoor hockey rink.
To learn how I use the WhiBal white balance card when shooting raw files, read this blog post next.