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Setting Custom White Balance | Day 13

Out of the box, your digital camera will typically be set to auto white balance, usually indicated with, “WB – A” on your control panel.

While auto WB won’t ruin your photo, as we saw yesterday – it won’t help it. When you see a pro photographer’s images and you think, “How’d they get those colors so true and rich?” the answer is that they set custom white balance, or they know Photoshop really well. In my opinion, the less time you have to spend in Photoshop – the better. It’s smarter photography to get it right in-camera.

indoor white balance settings

ISO 200 f/2.5 1/30s

Setting white balance makes a big difference in your results indoors, too. (Something to keep in mind – not many people have their monitors color balanced, so you may not be seeing the same results!)

Using the presets we learned about yesterday allow the camera to better guess what your light may be, but it’s still just a guess – a range of light’s color temperature measured in kelvin (K). Light is unique day to day, hour to hour… sometimes in a single shoot I have to change my WB settings 4 or 5 times.

There are many ways to help your camera better judge reflective color and light. We’ll talk about some common ones.

How to set a custom white balance using a gray card:

gray cardA gray card is 18% gray and will tell your camera what’s neutral in that moment’s light. You’ll need your camera manual to walk you through how to adjust WB. I simply hold the gray card in front of my camera, filling the frame on my WB setting so I see only gray and press the shutter. Nikon will say “Good” or “No Good” on the control panel. It takes about 4 seconds.

Pros and Cons? Gray cards are inexpensive and can even be homemade. But they can be bulky and inconvenient to carry around on a shoot.

How to set a custom white balance using a BaLens or Expo Disk

expo diskUsing an Expo Disk is great on shoots. It comes on a long shoe-lace like string, so I can wear it and keep it around my neck – keeping my hands free to shoot. A BaLens Lens Cap fits over your lens. You follow your manual’s guide for custom white balance settings, aim at the light source and click. You can stick it your pocket while you shoot.

Pros and Cons?
Both are easy to keep on hand and conveniently sized. However – they are often created for a single lens size so you have to order large or plan to purchase one for every lens. That gets expensive quick. I ordered the size for my largest lens – 77mm – and just hold it over the ends of my smaller lenses.

How to set white balance on a Canon:
Canon White Balance on YouTube

I end my unbias here and say – if I were a new Canon user here I’d have to watch that slowly over and over, step by step. I watched it a few times, and had to take a few deep breaths. I bid you all good luck! I know it can be mastered, because I’ve seen a lot of great pros nail it in 20 seconds. Before you throw the towel in – keep in mind the results are worth it!

Good news Nikon users – for us it’s much, much simpler.

How to set white balance on a Nikon:
Nikon White Balance on YouTube

Time to play!
Using your manual and the tutorials above, experiment with your camera’s white balance settings. If you shoot another brand, I encourage you to search YouTube. There are tutorials on just about everything there.

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Comments

  1. At the workshop where I first learned about the ExpoDisc last year, we Canons learned that setting custom white balance did involve an extra step that you pesky Nikons don’t have. Having said that, I can do mine in less than 5 seconds now…it just takes practice. : )

  2. This is such a valuable lesson and very well explained. Setting the custom white balance for the first time for me was one of those eye-opening moments. It really does make a HUGE difference in the final results. Well done Darcy!!!

  3. Hot tip: if you’re shooting outside on an overcast day, use custom WB and use the gray, cloudy sky as the gray card. The colors, especially the skin tones, that you’ll get from that are amazing.

    • I love this, Rachel. I’m going to try this next time as my own little experiment.

      Great tip! Thanks, :)

  4. Love my Canon, tho I do … I won’t use custom WB because it’s just too cumbersome a process. My sessions move pretty fast & furious, with constantly & quickly changing lighting conditions. Adding yet another manual “step” would put a serious kink in my “fluid” shooting style …

    But I love the idea of custom WB. Maybe down the road when I’m lightning-fast choosing my exposure, I’ll have the luxury of adding another layer of manualness …. ;-)

    • Your work is always breathtaking so you’ve clearly found a method that works for you! You have stunning and rich images. After watching the Canon video, I might feel that way, too. ;)

  5. My eyes have been opened. I am ashamed to say I never even gave custom WB a second thought until now – and people pay me for pictures! pfft.

    Okay, so question for you pro WB’ers. What do you do for custom WB when you use fill flash? If you’re supposed to point the expodisk to your light source…. I don’t get it. AND what did you do in your photo example yesterday of the (adorable) boy in the fall leaves? I’m assuming it was an overcast day and you were in the trees – did you even HAVE a light source? The sun’s not out, even if it was, there were trees overhead.

    My mind is blown – yet still curious! :)

    BTW – this is a GREAT series. I am thoroughly enjoying this October tutorial! :)

    • I shoot 90% natural light, and in the case of my son’s photos experimenting with WB presets – it was an overcast day, and we were in the trees, but it was also about 2 in the afternoon and the light was diffuse and fairly bright.

      If I were shooting that again for portraits, not for the sake of the WB experiment, I would have opened my aperture a stop or two, and possibly bumped up my ISO 1/3 stop. Those are on the darker side for my personal shooting style – but for the sake of the experiment I wanted the in-camera light meter to be at zero.

      We have Nikon SB600 and SB800s that we use with a Fong diffuser for fill light when needed. But honestly, we tend to use reflectors as modifiers more than flash – so we WB off the reflectors and ambient lighting. I’d probably rely on auto for flash and fix it in post – but for in studio – we actually have a Sekonlc Light meter than reads a Kelvin number.

      If you use your on-camera flash a lot and custom WB is important to you, then you can set your custom WB using the K setting. The Sekonic light meters will tell you exactly what the light color reading is, and you can match your custom settings that way. I personally think that’s an expensive solution, and would only consider it if photography was earning me big bucks.

      The cheaper solution is to photograph your subject WITH a gray | black | white card or a color cast card at the beginning of the session – and again whenever you see the light change then use that to set neutral in Lightroom or ACR and simply synch the rest of your images to the one you fix.

      This takes a bit more know-how in post production, but would be so much faster and cheaper.

      Some links for you:

      Color meter at B&H: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/558948-REG/Sekonic_401_500_Prodigi_Color_C_500_Color.html

      black | gray | white card

      Color Checker card – this one is only $6 !!

      Since I shoot almost exclusively in natural light and on-location, the Expodisk has been so easy. My studio is almost done being built, and who knows how that might change my shooting preferences when I don’t have to haul everything with me.

      Thanks Missy!

      • Our shooting styles are very similar – I much prefer natural lighting outdoors, on location. Being as I’ve never customized my white balance, I am a super editor in post-production. hahaha I also use an SB-800 for fill, and I am all about auto for flash – that is something that intimidates me to no end. I do fix a little more in post-production than most probably, but it works for me (at this point). The light meter? I am sure it is super awesome and valuable to some photogs – but I’m not there yet. You are right, that’s one expensive solution. I’ll start with the $100 Expodisc. ;)

        I can’t wait to get in the pumpkin patch with my daughter this weekend! I may even get bold and do a linky here (if they turn out decent enough hahaha). ;)

        Darcy – thank you so much! The time and effort you’re putting into this is above and beyond and is an excellent read! Thank YOU. :)

  6. Is there a “Homemade” solution for the items above?

    • Yes – simply use a piece of gray paper. On the fly, a rock will work. You really only need to tell the camera, “Hey this is nuetral in *this* light.” It’ll do the rest for you.

      • I figured it out! Yay!! I’m hoping to post some pictures soon. This is so fun to be brave enough to experiment. Thank you for making it “easy” and “understandable”

  7. I ALWAYS set my white balance! Darcy is so right, taking this extra step makes post-processing much easier and often I don’t have to fix anything at all!!! I have found the best way to set white balance is to carry around an inexpensive white 5×7 card instead of purchasing the expo discs or the more expensive whitebalance cards or lally caps. Someone once told me that a few coffee filters will do the same trick but I’ve never tried that method. If I am without my 5×7 card, I use the palm of my hand…it really works!

    • Rocks will work on the fly, too. I’ve heard something about coffee filters, too – but I always thought that was a flash diffuser ? I’m sure it would work.

      • So if you were going to use a rock or a piece of paper, do you hold that out right infront of where your subject would be? I know you point the Expodisc up at the light source, but for the other manual WB settings, where exactly do you hold the card/rock/hand? I’m an Auto WB and then tweak to my liking in LR. The Sync feature makes it quick and easy, to set a series all at the same WB. Shooting something stationary like an engaged couple would be easy to manual WB but when I shoot kids and they’re running from bright sunlight to shade, to backlit areas and everything in between, Auto is my friend.

        Definitely something I’m interested in trying more of though – Custom WB.

  8. Not sure if it works the same way, but when white balancing with a video camera, a simple sheet of plain white paper does the trick. Hope that helps!

    • I believe the Olympus brand balances with white paper. I watched an Olympus tutorial on YouTube. But I’ve been led to believe that for Nikon and Canon, 18% gray works better for getting more realistic tones.

      I suppose it couldn’t hurt to try. After all, most of us can find a white piece of paper for free or very cheap.

      • Finally figured out how to set this on my Olympus E-620- had to google and find out how to get a custom setting for the Fn button, but it takes me less than 30 seconds and a sheet of white paper to set a custom WB now and I saw a difference even in the test pictures I did.

  9. hubby taught me how to do this and I do it every time I pick up the camera, but i don’t do it through the day as the light changes.

  10. This one’s going to take me a while. It’s like jumping from algebra to differential equations. But my first experiment with white balance is here:

    http://bensrib.blogspot.com/2010/10/playing-with-white-balance.html

  11. You. Are. Smart. I have had mine set on auto FOREVER and then just make my photos cooler or warmer in photoshot. Oh how I would love to know how to just TAKE the perfect picture… not have to edit to get what I want!

    Cant wait to read all your tutorials!

    Blessings-
    Amanda

  12. I have a Canon. I love it. Buuuut I’ve never set my WB because I’ve never been able to figure it out. Oh, I’ve tried. And tried. And cried. And tried. But you know what? I’ll try again. [Courage mounting.]

    • It’s really not hard to custom set white balance if you have an entry level Canon. The youtube video that was posted above looks like it’s for a more fancy Canon. I have a t2i and it takes me approx. 10 sec. to custom set white balance. As with anything, it just takes practice! If I can do it anyone can!

  13. Just came across your blog this evening, and have read all 13 of your 31 Days to a Better Photo posts. I learned quite a bit and really enjoyed them. I hope you don’t mind I put a post & link to your blog. :)

  14. My eating area is painted taupe with muted amber lighting. Every single birthday dinner has the kids looking orange! Just used a white paper to customize white balance in that room. What an amazing difference! A little tricky with the Canon. Forgot to put it in manual focus at first. (Manual focus with my eyes is not easy.)
    Thank you for helping me to continue learning. :)

  15. This is exactly what I have drafted for my blog, as well. However, I’m going to include a part II that shows how to fix color casts in photoshop. I just learned this easy method to show what color cast you have in your photo (my eye is totally not trained to see them correctly) and I can’t wait to share it!!

    • My eye is not trained to see color casts correctly either…I would love info. on correcting color in photoshop and knowing how to tell if and what color cast is in photos….thanks!

  16. To begin: Loving this gentle and intelligent tutorial: you have finally gotten me over brain-bumps that others have been unable to do thus far (books, friends, manuals etc) Thank you for sharing this with us all.
    why I am writing: I haven’t seen any mention of Sony DSLRs which was fine until the WB section: now I am stumped. I will look for other sources, but do you have any assistance for us sony users?

    • So glad you like it!

      That’s one of the challenges of choosing one of the other brands. There is just so much less online support for the other brands than the 2 kings of the hill. I know Me Rah Koh is great resource for Sony stuff, since I believe she is an official rep for Sony and a promoter of all things Sony. Check her out!

  17. i have shot canon and use custom wb a lot. never knew it was a pain seamed easy but now that i see how easy it is for nikon i wish it was that easy with my canon. but my favorite camera to set wb on is my fuji x100 you can set it by kelvin and it shows you in the live view as you adjust so you can get it just right. fast and easy.
    auto wb is how i normally shoot but it is a very good thing to know how to set it to custom cuz as smart as our cameras are we are still smarter (for now)

  18. Darcy,

    I’m coming back to this older post looking for an answer. In your opinion as an expodisc user, would buying one replace the need for a gray card for metering? I find carrying an 8×10 gray card a little inconvenient. I seem to be unclear about if one replaces the need for the other, or should I set WB with an expo and the still have to meter with a gray card? I’d love to fix both with one tool.

    • Hi Kim –

      I keep both, but I’ll explain how I use them and maybe you could do one over the other.

      Anytime I am outdoors and have an easy way to point toward my light source, I use the Expo disk. It is so super easy. Get your approximate exposure, put it over the end, push and hold WB and click. The camera will tell you if you got it with a “good” or “not good”.

      In the studio, however, I tend to use a bit more ambient light, rather than a direct light source. Yes, I have big windows, so it would work to point the expo disk at the windows. But I have a lot of other elements in there bouncing light… floors, ceilings, reflectors, etc. Because of the multitude of sources, I tend to prefer the gray card in the studio. I hold the gray card up in front of my subject, so it has the same sources as my subject and use it to WB.

      That said, my WB gray card folds in itself and comes with a little pocket so it’s only about 4-5″ and pops open. I can throw it in my camera bag if I need to. I almost never bring it on location but keep it close in the studio.

      Hope that helps!

      Darcy

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