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I Don't Need No Stinken Gray Card!

Published: 14/12/2017
White balance - why i dont use a gray card

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Brad in WI asked the following:

Does anyone use several grey cards in a room to get accurate color balance? There are plenty of tutorials on how to use a single grey card but they frequently have it placed near a window or tungsten light. Frequently, it's near the edge of the frame which can influence color. Even twisting it one way or another can alter the white balance. If several were placed in a room at various locations, each could be on a separate layer and blended or painted out to ensure correct color in all areas of a room. Even an Expodisc varies depending on where it is placed in a room.

I'm sure I will get many viewpoints on WB (white balance) but I recommend you don't need to get too worked up about it. I've never used a gray card. I just set my 5DMKII or 5DMKIV to Auto WB, shoot RAW, and use a manual off-camera flash. I find that I rarely have to adjust WB in post-processing. Usually, the WB is right on. The worst case is a little adjustment of the Temperature slider in Lightroom. As Dom Bower describes above, "It's not about accurate WB, it's about good WB." That is, what looks good is more important than what's accurate.

Probably the most important part is to use at least one flash, even if you are shooting brackets. The flash helps get the whites white and the colors accurate.

Larry Lohrman

16 comments on “I Don't Need No Stinken Gray Card!”

  1. As we say in the film business, "If it looks good, it is good." I think in the old days, white balance made more of a difference. Now that we can easily control color temperature and balance in post, we can shoot in RAW where there is no white balance anyway, it's more of matter of just getting good color, not necessarily accurate color when acquiring the image.

  2. I regard using a gray card as a form of "information gathering" and nothing more than that. If I use one on a shoot it is just to understand more about the temperature of the daylight I am working with and what filtration/ distortion the windows are bringing to the party.. so: all tungsten off, no flash and small grey card in the window area inclined towards the outside view: hand held shot from close up if using my ultrawide so the card is big enough to spot read from later in Lightroom. It doesn't take long (and generally once per shoot) and I download this to Lightroom, setting up my import folder for the shoot as I do so. A quick spot read from the grey card image in Lightroom with the white balance checker will neutralise it: I look at the adjustment required: a big plus yellow in the temp scale means I am dealing with cooler than usual daylight (eg early morning/ winter) which means a small warm up gel (attached with velcro) over my flash to ensure the fill light when it comes is roughly matched to the daylight. A big Magenta setting in the tint scale means there is a lot of green at play (either light is bouncing off lawns/ trees in summer or the window glass itself is giving a green tint to the light) .. so believe it or not, I have had to take along a small weak green color compensating filter for the flash. Without this, when I white balance for the ambient and Lightroom applies a big magenta shift to knock out all that green, then the filled foreground takes on a magenta tint (because the flash isn't bouncing off the green outside or coming through the windows!). If all this sounds like a pain, a remedy can be to shoot an ambient only shot (or enfused sequence) and then hand blend a flashed exposure as a separate layer in a Photoshop composite image: you don't have to worry about gelling the flash to match the color temperature of the daylight, because with this split method you can independently white balance each layer in post (using adjustment layers in Photoshop or white balancing the two images in Lightroom to start). If shooting for Enfuse/HDR, then at least one is dealing with one light source throughout (assuming tungsten off) and I probably wouldn't bother with the gray card. But, as Larry says, the use of flash in the final image does lend a crispness to it and can clean up the whites in the way that HDR methods can be subject to color casts. And, as Lee mentions, white balance in interiors work is not something to really tear your hair out over: there are a lot of variables at work and a result which does not depart too much from reality is really what one is aiming for. IMHO , a gray card can be a help but shouldn't become a hindrance !

  3. Glad I'm not the only one to question the use of a grey card. I stopped because the Lightroom values from it made the color look much worse. I recently began blending a single flashed frame with my brackets and yes, it really helps.

  4. In the Real estate world I don’t use one. I can typically find something comparable in the room that I can balance off of and then adjust as needed. LR is good but sometimes it goes to an extreme when correcting.

    For commercial shooting if it has to be spot on I’d consider it especially when shooting connecting spaces. One room may be completely different than another especially when one room isn’t lit by the same source as the main room.

  5. If you are using a grey card to set white balance, you shouldn't be the least bit surprised that your white balance is off. A grey card isn't meant to be used for that purpose. A grey card is used to help set proper exposure.

  6. Something I discovered recently is something I believe a lot of photographers are not aware of, and that is that auto white balance will change the reading differently for changes in exposure. That means when you're shooting brackets, each image in a series is going to register a different color temperature. As a test this morning, with my Canon 5D MkIII I shot a 5 exposure bracket keeping the focus point (and thus the white balance reference) on the same spot throughout the series. My WB readings starting + to - were: 4400+11, 4550+14, 4700+16,5250+21, and 5100+2. I recently started doing a custom white balance before shooting each room using my new fave "toy", an Expodisc, and the results have been spectacular! I know shooting RAW is supposed to make all of this WB adjusting unnecessary, but I no longer have the crazy mixed colors in my ceilings and elsewhere in the image with my LR Classic HDR DNG's since I started doing this. I have no idea what the underlying technology of this is, but it's undeniable that this has improved my HDR files! I suppose, just manually setting a single white balance throughout your shoot would accomplish the same consistency, but with my custom menu settings on my Canon, the custom white balance process only takes a matter of seconds to do with the Expodisc. Anyway, my two cents worth.

  7. When I was shooting transparency film for my professional work and when a lot of that was in offices and factories lit by florescent and other light sources mixed in as well, I would include a grey card into one shot where it seemed iffy so that the color separator would have a neutral to go by. We photographers did not have PS to work with. When we finally did, it was normally to adjust and fix a scan of the transparency. So we basically had to get the color correct at the time the shutter tripped using Kodak CC jells in front of or behind the lens. So then the Grey card was a must. Or if shooting negative film, it helped us get a more accurate print.

    Today I have to blow the dust off my Kodak grey cards when I stumble across them. With color pickers and great monitors, I simply go with just what looks the way I want the image to look. And with the color spectrum now easily available in the latest version of Photomatix, you can adjust just one color in the image, such as Tungsten Orange, who needs a grey card? And if you want the whites to be pure, just use the color picker on a white in the shot, as with a bathroom.

    The biggest issues I have with color today are with modern tones of grey in the interior design. Even a little bit of differences in the light source color can make a big difference and when you have mixed lighting that effect is really exaggerated. That is when I like to shoot with just daylight if I can get away with it and as Larry says, pop a flash into the shot if you have to have some designer hanging counter warm lights lit. But since I am usually shooting video as well, my fill light is usually an LED panel. And the correction is present on all the bracketed images since I do use HDR although with the new Luminar 2018 I am finding I can use that for the more evenly lit images.

    So for most applications, I don't bother with grey cards since I also like to simply get the color that I like rather than a scientific controlled neutral grey balance since for me color is part of the communication of mood, feel, welcome. Color communicates. Its not just a technical exercise.

  8. The thing I always find with grey card is this. Aside of the issue of multiple light sources at different temperatures, what you need to remember is that the human eye/brain is used to seeing things under a certain temperature of light. Although our brains cancel it to a certain degree, we are still used to seeing things that are "slightly to warm", so when you balance back to white, it appears a fraction too cold, even though technically it may actually be correct.

    You can't take this too far though. In the same way that catalogue work has to display cloths at the correct colour in order to reduce the number of returns, you are trying to sell that specific house, and the potential buyer might be disgruntled if they go for a viewing only to find that the colour of the walls is massively different.

  9. A couple of points made above.

    While I agree with Mark that grey cards can be used for exposure (something I never found worked very well since it depended on the angle of the card to the light), in working with four color printers and their separators, it was also requested for color balance since it was a dependable neutral grey, something white paint is not.

    I agree with Ronald about the change in color temperature if you bracket your exposures and use auto color. I always use the Kelvin setting usually starting with 5000 and then adjusting when I run into too much blue coming in the windows or with warmer colors in a bathroom or kitchen. Helps a lot to have all bracketed images the same color balance. I usually do this with video as well although when doing a pan that includes a warm area moving to cool or vice versa, I try one take with auto and one with fixed usually set at the 5000K.

    Peter, indeed. I always warm my color since I find that it is more welcoming. But as you say this is for RE and travel photography. But for commercial work, often color has to match the product being shot like flowers, fashion, paint etc. Very tricky for organic things like flowers. But even with certain fabrics the fibers, especially man made, and dyes can react very differently from the way they look to the eye. So always best to check on a dependable monitor. I find my iMac 2009 has proved very reliable if the print ads I produce using my photos are anything to go by. And those problems also demonstrate the limitations of grey cards since items are not grey cards that are designed to be totally neutral at 18% reflective amount. But things absorb some colors and reflect others and than can mix their own color bands into the reflected and absorbed color coming from the lights. Really critical in commercial shoots, but I go by my gut feel when it comes to RE. I ask myself, "what makes me feel like going and see that property, house, room." and go with that. After all our job is not to document a property but get the viewer to pick up the phone and call the realtor, to provide the visual honey, which, we must remember, is golden.

  10. A grey card is not as useful as a white card, but the X-Rite Passport is a reasonable tool to start with if you'd like to exert more control over true colors. IF you're shooting with Canon, you can combine that tool with Canon software (Picture Style Editor) to control color balance and keep a leash on problematic colors. You don't have to use it on every job. Once you set it up, it applies to most homes that are painted white or off-white, buff (white to warm). I wish the other camera manufactures had similar capabilities.

  11. There is all manner of confusion about white v. grey cards in the photographic community (here included).
    First, many photographers, possibly most, who use a grey card for any purpose use an 18% grey, thinking this is neutral grey. It is not. Neutral grey is somewhere between 11 and 13% grey. In the days of C41 and E6 film photography, different films would require a different percentage as neutral. This was due to the differing dye combinations used by different film manufacturers, and even among different films within a manufacturing house, and the differing silver halides used by different manufacturers. In a modern digital camera, neutral is sensor dependent, but still not 18%.
    Second, using a grey card to help correct white balance is beyond pointless. The purpose of using any card method is to capture a true white - the theoretical color of light produced by the sun under ideal conditions, which never exist in reality. The actual white produced by sunlight varies depending on such variables as the angle of the sunlight to the atmosphere, amount of moisture in the atmosphere, particulates in the atmosphere, reflectance of sunlight off of various objects, etc. In any case, producing a white card that is "perfectly white" is a manufacturing impossibility. Every white card, even those made by the same manufacturer, will vary slightly or greatly, depending on the method of whitening the material the card is manufactured from, quality control of the batch process, etc.
    Third, the white one sees in his or her monitor may, or may not, accurately represent the actual color of the white card used. One would need to have an ideal monitor that is properly color calibrated, and capable of producing a true (at a minimum) sRGB color gamut. Most cannot, even if they are properly calibrated.
    Fourth, every human eye sees color differently - consider reg/green color blindness as an example - the color white included.
    And, finally, I have heard wonderful testimonials about ExpoDisc, and I own one, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to set a custom white balance with it

  12. I think I am either smart or lazy, not sure which. I use AWB for everything, shoot in RAW and I do not look at color very close while shooting, just concerned about exposure and frame. Then I import all into Lightroom and hit auto WB for interiors. 95% are fine with that. The other five % usually need added yellow. If that fails, and on 1% it does fail, I just set WB at 4450. Seems to magically work. Exteriors I rarely change, but, am adding yellow if I do change them at all. I doubt my colors are completely accurate. The only purpose for real estate images is to get someone to go look at a property in person, so it should not matter a whole lot if the color is off some. As has been pointed out many times above, we all see colors differently anyway, like it or not. Anyway, I do not spend much time adjusting color. My customers are happy, so I am happy.

  13. Paul, that is essentially the "work flow" most of us adopt. However, there are always sitiations where such methods fail us, and we want to know why. Also, some of us - me certainly, maybe you, too - enjoy the back and forth, and learning about the differing opinions. I am also a very particular person by nature, having studied math and physics at university (in Germany, no less), and always strive for, but never quite acheive, my final product.

  14. I try to find shodtcuts to good color and a fast shortcut is just to use flash.

    When shooting my intensive flambient workflow, the flash frame is put ont the bottom and the abient on top in luminosity blend mode. Bam. Correct color.

  15. After reading the comments to this question about the use of an 18% gray card (for what ever reason) I made a futile search of my entire house for the module from the US Navy Still Photography A-School (from which I graduated in Dec 1979) that discussed proper exposure. It contained a discussion of the topic of gray cards. I found, instead, two article online. The urls are


    Another good resource is the X-Rite website. X-Rite is the maker of the i1Pro line of tools (which I use to profile and calibrate my monitors and printers.) They also make tools to profile cameras.
    I hope this is helpful.

  16. Once one gains sufficient experience there is a realization that white balance is not a complete answer or solution to photography. A single global adjustment is easy way to create some kind of color uniformity but it does not necessarily create a beautiful image. Instead it is to retain the integrity of the image. This means to understand and account for the types of color casts from ambient light, how they interact with the rest of the space, when and how to blend overlapping colors together so they integrate seamlessly and to potentially subdue or suppress certain types of color casts.

    Under some very difficult lighting circumstances having a reference point allows one to start from there and build the image up. I gel my speedlites according to the ambient light of the space as the color temperature of the space is often tungsten/soft white, while in other cases the space has daylight balanced lighting which requires less blending of light sources.

    Of course it all depends on use case. This methodology is not intended for batch processing numerous shoots.

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