White Balance – AWB, Presets, Gray Card, or ExpoDisc?

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

What is White Balance?

White balance is the color temperature of the light illuminating what you are shooting. It can range from 1,000 Kelvin through 10,000 Kelvin. Different types of light sources have different color tints that will affect the colors in your photo.

Light TypeColor Temperature in Kelvin (K)
Candle Flame (orange)1,000 – 2,000
Household Lighting (yellow)2,000 – 3,000
Sunrise/Sunset (light yellow)3,000 – 4,000
Sunlight and Flash (white)5,000 – 6,000
Noon Sun and Clear Sky (light blue)6,000 – 6,500
Cloudy Sky and Shades (blue)6,500 – 8,000
Heavily Overcast Sky (dark blue)8,000 – 10,000

If you shoot with a white balance setting on your camera that is not what it should be for what you are shooting, you end up with images that have a color tint to them. Photos taken indoors often have a pretty significant orange or yellow tint to them for example.

White balance tends to be something more important to photographers who do portraits where the skin tones need to look like the person. If white balance is off with a portrait that person can look like a smurf (blue tint) or an alien (green/orange skin). Though if you have gone through all of the effort to put yourself in the good spot to create images of a sunrise/sunset you want to get the light to look like it did in person.

Photographers tend to learn how to deal with white balance after they have learned how to get good exposure. If you aren’t quite to that point in your journey to master the art of photography, you should focus your time and effort on fully understanding aperture, shutter speed, and ISO before you dive into white balance.

Incident vs Reflective Light Measurements

We have to briefly cover a topic that most photographers don’t know about or associate with white balance, but for the custom white balance topic further down you need to understand a little about incident vs reflective light.

The words sound difficult, but with a little explanation it isn’t too hard to understand. Incident light is the light falling on the subject you are shooting. Reflective light is the light bouncing off of your subject into your camera.

If you have used the light meter inside your camera to help you get the right exposure, you used reflective light to do that. The light bouncing off your subject was measured by a sensor in the camera to show you the information on the level of light that was received.

There are light meters (Kenko KFM-1100 $250) that can be used to measure for exposure based on incident light. They are meters external to your camera that you use where the subject of the photo is rather than by your camera.

Professional portrait photographers may use incident light meters for exposure because they can be more accurate than the reflective light meter inside your camera. Most of the time there isn’t such a significant difference when measuring exposure using incident vs reflective lighting for it to be a big concern for most photographers.

The same goes for white balance. Measuring white balance using incident light over reflected light may be more accurate in some shooting situations, but really not so much for it to be a big concern for most photographers.

Can Photographers Change White Balance on the Computer?

The great news is that if you get the white balance wrong in camera it is usually pretty easy to fix it when you edit the photo on the computer using a photo editing tool like Lightroom Classic. This is especially true of you shoot raw. If you shoot JPEG you can still change the white balance in Lightroom, but you have a little less room to do it.

Please don’t think we are recommending you don’t worry about white balance because you can fix it on the computer (fix it in post as many photographers will say). We are huge proponents of doing all you can to get things right in camera to make your life easier when you edit on the computer.

Getting white balance at least close on your camera is especially important if you are shooting portraits and you are going to show them to your client while you are shooting. Some photographers don’t do that, but this is a core part of the business model for Jeff as he shoots portraits where he is sending the images to an iPad as he shoots so that the client can review them.

Three Primary Options for Setting White Balance

There are three primary options for dealing with white balance in your camera. You can get technically perfect white balance as you are doing your shoot, and we go into the details below, but neither Jeff nor Connor like the way the images look with technically perfect white balance. Both of us like to “warm” the tones in the image by moving the temperature slider to the right toward the yellow side.

The white balance controls in the Basic panel of the Develop module in Lightroom Classic.

Auto White Balance (AWB)

Every camera comes set to do auto white balance. With you camera setup to do auto white balance your camera is going to look at the scene you are shooting and guess at what the white balance should set to. It does this with every click of the shutter.

When you press that shutter button the camera finds the brightest of the bright tones and the darkest of the dark tones, looks for something sort of in the middle (often called a “neutral” tone), and make that gray. A good percentage of the time if that neutral tone can be gray you end up with pretty accurate colors.

Like all of the “auto” features of your camera, it is going to guess wrong sometimes. Like how auto exposure doesn’t really have a chance at guessing correctly on how to set the exposure when you are shooting the moon and you will end up with a massive light orb. Auto white balance is better than that, getting the white balance pretty close the majority of the time these days, but at some point you may want to take more control.

White Balance Preset

Your camera has some white balance presets you can use in place of having the camera guessing at the white balance every time you press that shutter button.

The various camera manufacturers call them different things but you should see something like “daylight”, “shade”, “cloudy”, “tungsten”, “florescent”, and “flash” if you dig through the menus on your camera and find the white balance presets.

Just like the table above, when you use these presets the camera compensates for the light source you choose so that the colors should look right if you select the right one.

You select the right preset based on the primary light source in your image. Primary meaning the light source providing most of the light, not the position of the light source. If your primary light source is flash, then choosing the flash preset should get you good white balance in the image.

The camera no longer guesses at what the white balance should be in the photos as you shoot, it is going to apply the same white balance to every image after you choose one of these white balance presets until you change it.

Custom White Balance – Gray Card or ExpoDisc

There are a few ways to take even more control over the white balance set in your images. The most common approach is using the “custom” white balance setting and then using a gray card, though there is another option with the ExpoDisc we will go into as well.

Custom White Balance – Gray Card

You remember that auto white balance tries to find the “neutral” tone in your image and make that tone gray. Imagine then if you took a shot where all you had in the frame was that gray it is trying to find. The camera would no longer have to search and guess at what the neutral tone is in the photo, all of the frame is that neutral color.

That’s exactly what the gray card custom white balance technique does. You can put something like the Foto&Tech Portable 12″/30cm 18% Gray Card White Balance Disc ($15) in the scene (not any old gray card, needs to be that 18% gray), try and fill as much of the frame with that gray target, and then use the menus of your camera to look at the photo taken of that gray target to set the custom white balance.

As a quick aside here, if you shoot raw, you could skip the step of telling your camera to use the frame you took of the gray target if you want to. After you bring the photos into Lightroom you can use the eye dropper in the white balance portion of the Basic panel in the Develop module to click on that gray frame and get the same technically perfect white balance to copy and paste to the images after it.

If you are shooting portraits you can hand the gray target to the model so that they are holding it in the light and get technically perfect white balance (as close to perfect as measuring white balance from reflective light can be).

The best part is that the gray target is both inexpensive and super portable. Even if you don’t think you are going to use it all the time, if you have it in your bag you can use it should the need arise.

We do have to mention there is a more expensive option for this that allows for more accuracy in something like that the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2 ($100). These are more useful when shooting video, where getting white balance right in camera is more important than with stills, but this works with stills as well.

Custom White Balance – ExpoDisc

The other common way to set the custom white balance in the camera using a reference image is to attach a device to the front of your lens that disrupts the light coming into the camera so that it will only receive neutral tones.

Similar in effect to taking a photo where you fill the frame with the gray target, which means you do the same thing after taking the shot with this device attached to the lens by telling the camera to use that frame to set the custom white balance.

The difference is that it is far more expensive and you only use it on the end of your lens.

The most popular device to do this is the ExpoDisc Professional White Balance Filter ($50).

Custom White Balance – Kelvin

Most cameras also let you dial in the Kelvin temperature manually as a custom white balance setting. Similar to the white balance presets, but if you find that the white balance for a scene is something that needs to be set at a value kind of between those presets then you can use this to get it set to the exact value you need.

Over time photographers can develop an eye for white balance. They can walk into a scene, take a look at the lighting, and have a really good idea of what Kelvin should be used to get good white balance.

Jeff hasn’t developed his eye for white balance to do that, but he has used this Kelvin setting in one shooting scenario, shooting high school basketball. The gym where these games are played has terrible lighting and none of the presets really got the image to a white balance he was happy with.

He got the gray card out, had an athlete hold it up for a shot, then set the white balance to that gray card. The white balance was much improved on the LCD screen on his camera and when he took a look at them on the computer. He noticed the Kelvin that resulted in the images on the computer and now dials that number in when he shoots in that gym.

How Do We Do White Balance?

Any of the three options for setting white balance can work, it is really going to be up to the photographer to determine which works best for them. Auto white balance can work great for some. Some photographers may find it so difficult to get accurate skin tones on portraits they choose to go the custom white balance route.

Now that you know how you can set the white balance, you can give all three methods a try, maybe even using them all in different shoots, and find which works best for you. The most important thing is that you can create the images you want to create, not how you get there.

Connor

Connor started to pay attention to white balance mostly when he started to use off camera flash. If auto white balance is used with flash the images tend to have a blue tint and that made him figure out how to deal with white balance.

Connor shoots using auto white balance quite often. Even though he does a fair amount of shooting with strobes in his studio, he does more work outdoors and he likes the convenience and simplicity of auto white balance. Sometimes he might choose a preset.

He did recently upgrade to the Canon R6 mirrorless camera where there is a better way to set up a physical dial on the camera to adjust the Kelvin setting being used for white balance. This makes it more accessible and he thinks he may dial in the Kelvin as a custom white balance more frequently going forward.

He has also seen that auto white balance in the R6 is doing a better job than the older Canon 6D he has been using for a long time.

Jeff

It took a while for Jeff to be too concerned with white balance. It was so easy to change on the computer when shooting raw there wasn’t a big reason to worry about it much.

When he started doing paid client portrait shoots he thought he needed to up his game to make sure he could get the skin tones of the people to be accurate. He started out using a pop up gray target that he had the model hold. It worked very well, but over time he found this to become disruptive to the shoot for everyone involved.

Most client portrait shoots involve models who want to get it done as fast as possible and asking them to hold a gray card every time the changes gets tedious really quickly. He also found that he was spending a lot of time thinking about white balance while doing the shoot, distracting him from adding more creativity.

Jeff values consistency over accuracy with regard to white balance. To him it is more important that the photos all have the same white balance setting than it is to have white balance technically perfect. For that reason he doesn’t use auto white balance. He doesn’t want to risk the white balance changing from shot to shot.

He prefers to use the presets on the camera to get white balance close and then gets it how he wants on the computer.

Doodads of the Week

Jeff: Cable Matters Active USB Extension Cable ($13 for 5m, $16 for 10m)

Connor: K&F 82 mm Variable ND filter ($35) 

Reminders

Comments

  1. Hi, loved this episode. Can you explain the different uses for grey card and white card? Would the reverse side of my pop out grey card also be useful for white balance?

    1. Author

      @Cat,

      So glad you liked it. Either the gray or the white card can be used for getting white balance that is close, especially if you have a target built do this that has both a gray and a white side. Like the gray, that needs to be a specific type of gray, the white also needs to be a specific type of white to get things technically perfect. They are both designed to make the white balance algorithm the camera runs arrive at technically perfect white balance. They look the same to the camera for the purposes of white balance even though they look different to our eyes.

      One of the differences between the two is how it effects things if you use the same target to also help you get exposure. The white card will help you get more of an expose to the right (EttR) effect where you can get higher quality images due to how photos are stored digitally with the risk of potentially blowing out some highlights. When the gray card is used for exposure then you get more of a neutral setting where it could make a mistake in making the images a little darker than they needed to be giving you more risk of noise as you have to increase the exposure in post vs less risk of blowing out highlights.

  2. A comprehensive look at setting a custom white balance, once photographers get the hang of setting this up, I am sure they will continue using the custom white balance setting.

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