Speeding up your workflow using a Custom White Balance

by Michael Clark

One of the tricks I learned very early on when I started shooting digital was to use custom white balance settings while shooting. Every DSLR that I know of will let you set a "Custom" or "Preset" white balance. How easy it is to actually get to that place in the menu system will vary. Here I will show you two ways that I set a custom white balance so that my white balance is dead on (or at least accurate to the scene) when I get to Lightroom.

The first method, and the easiest, is created using a Gretag MacBeth Color Chart. I have a mini version of the Gretag MacBeth color chart which is very portable and stays in my camera bag at all times. This is not an in-camera method but it is a method whereby you set the custom white balance in Lightroom with one click. With this method all you have to do is take a photo of the color chart in the same light that strikes your subject. It doesn't matter what white balance mode your camera is in - auto works fine for this method. Once you have the photo of the chart you continue shooting. If you move into the shade or another lighting condition, you simply take another photo of the color chart.

Now when you get back into Lightroom, all you have to do to set your custom white balance is pick up the eye dropper in the develop module (top right panel) and click on the off white square in the bottom left of the color chart as in the image below. Presto - Lightroom has now set an accurate custom white balance. To adjust the white balance in the images you shot just after the color chart image, select the rest of the images with that same lighting and click on the Synch button in the bottom right panel, then when the synch dialog box opens up choose white balance and click ok to synch the white balance of all the images shot in the same lighting.


Another method is to set an in-camera preset white balance using a grey card. I find this method much more accurate. I don't know exactly why but it just seems to give me more pleasing colors. I use a Lastolite EZYBalance disc and I use the grey side for my Nikon D2x (see image below). It is a bit more involved but it still takes only a few seconds to take a custom white balance reading off the disc and then continue shooting.


In my tests I find that I get much more accurate colors using a custom white balance and all of the colors just look better, especially when it comes to skin tones. Of course, with either method, once you get into Lightroom you can fine-tune the white balance - and you will have to if you add contrast or saturation as this will affect the white balance of the final image. The custom set white balance is just a starting point. But it saves me a lot of time when I have large numbers of images to process. For myself, I prefer to set the custom white balance in camera with the EZYBalance disc instead of the color chart. I have found that the color chart works but it tends to give very muted tones.

And another side benefit is that creating a custom white balance slows me down and makes me think - that is always a good thing. Shooting digital for some reason makes us want to blast away as soon as we get the camera in our hands. I don't know why that is but taking the time to set a custom white balance slows me down and helps ward off the "blast away" urge.

That's it for this week. If you get a chance, try out the custom white balance techniques and see if they work for you.

Adios, Michael Clark


Jim N.
2007-05-14 10:11:57
Hi Michael,

I use an ExpoDisc for customer WB fairly consistently. Do you have any experience in comparing the ExpoDisc with something like a grey card or the EZYBalance disk? Also, I often get a green cast when my ISO is set to 1600 (Digital Rebel XT), regardless of what kind of white balance I'm using. I thought a customer WB would take care of that, but it hasn't. Any thoughts on that? Thanks!

Jim N.
2007-05-14 10:12:53
Obviously, "customer WB" should have been "custom WB". Sorry for the typo. :)
Michael Clark
2007-05-14 10:31:15
Jim -

I have not used the Expo Disc - I thought it was way overpriced and having to put a filter on my camera just to take a white balance reading seemed really time consuming compared to the other two methods I've outlined above. I'm sure it works well.

Don't know about the green cast either - you may want to send you camera in to Canon and have them check this out.

Bob G.
2007-05-14 17:32:26

Great tips! I acutally use a product called WhiBal. It basically works in the same manner as your EZYBalance disk. However, the WhiBal contains a grey card with black and white "targets" for setting your black and white points in post processing


Bob G.

James Duncan Davidson
2007-05-25 14:01:49
Setting up custom white balance is a real time saver for me as well. I do use the ExpoDisc and while the price is high, the results it gives are steller. If you use it right in the field, it keeps you from having to do _any_ white balance adjustments in post, unless of course you want to make a shift for artistic purposes.

However, the ExpoDisc isn't perfect for all situtations. Sometimes you can't get access to point your camera back at the light source to take a White Balance shit, so sometimes reflective White Balance readings are the way to go.

Meri Bond
2007-06-21 07:59:02
Couple issues/questions:
1. Custom white balance using a digital gray card doesn't seem to work well when I'm using flash (speedlites) at an event, and every photo is a bit different. I can adjust one picture when I'm processing, but it doesn't really work that well for many photos at one time.

2. Does anyone know why it is that each photo has a different white balance (temp/tint) when I review them in Lightroom or Bridge? I have a Canon 5d and I often have it on Auto WB, and my camera is set to 5000K.

I really want to understand how to work with white balance better, because I see how much time I'm spending on adjusting all these images so that they'll look somewhat alike. Please, when you respond, remember that I'm using a speedlite and I'm constantly moving around to different parts of a room and constantly moving my flash every which way, including using different modifiers.



Michael Clark
2007-06-21 08:44:34
Meri -

A couple of things...you can either set your flash to 5000 K white balance or use Auto WB but not both at the same time. With flash, on camera at least, my Nikon's seem to nail the white balance but that might just be Nikons since their flash system is pretty amazing.

With flash the gray card system works for me but I don't see the need for it since I know the color temperature of my strobes and speedlights. What you may want to do is borrow or rent a color temperature meter and find out what the color temperature of your speedlight is. Then just dial that white balance temperature into your camera. Of course with all of the different modifiers this also changes the WB temp so if you are in and out of many different light sources everything changes often and Auto WB is where you'll need to be and there is no way around having to dial in each set of photos WB individually. I'm guessing your shooting events or weddings?

2007-07-07 09:59:41
Why I am not able to set the custom white balnce with a EZBalance disc when under tungsten lighting?