HOWTO: Cheap Color Balance Card

Why Care About Color Balance

Color balance in photography is one of those things you know you should be concerned with, but most photographers are not. Color balance with regards to digital photography is made much easier by shooting in the RAW format wherever possible.

Using RAW format in a camera is one of those things that is sure to set off a debate among photographers. While many don't like the added time to deal with the RAW images in their workflow many others point out the benefits you can get by using the format. Luminous Landscape as an article about it called White Balance Follies and Digital Pro Talk has JPEG or RAW - One of the Three Religious Arguments in the Digital World.

I admit, I shoot RAW. Generally for a very good reason: it helps me recover from my own mistakes. Here's a prime example below. This series was taken during my Denver Darkroom Portraits and Lighting class. The light was a mixture of overhead fluorescents and a tungsten hot-light. Notice in the first frame how the skin appears very orange, like she's had a fake tan gone bad. Notice in the second image how the skin tones have gotten significantly better? That's because in the second image I opened it up in Camera Raw and selected the grey card with the white-balance dropper. That's it, that was all I needed to do to color-correct the image. Sure, I could have recovered the image in Photoshop, but then I would have been doing a whole lot of work with colors that I didn't need to, considering the alternative is a single click with the white-balance dropper...

Finding a Cheap White Balance Card

Based on the Flickr post white balance card, I spent some time looking at the Wilsonart Laminate website and ordered 6 samples to test. While waiting for those to show up I also attended the PhotoVision tour when it came to Denver and picked up a 14" Digital Calibration Target. The advantage to using that target is that it not only helps you set your white balance easily, but it gives you a nice histogram-based way of setting your exposure values as well.

The Wilsonart samples finally came so I put them up against the calibration target to see how close they were. As you can see in the image below they definitely are close enough to work.

Samples on top of digital target

The black sample (model number "1595-60 Black") absolutely blends into the black of the calibration target. The white sample (model number "D354-60 Designer White") is pretty close to the white of the calibration target. The grey sample (model number "D90-60 North Sea") is pretty close to the middle grey as well. Measuring with the white balance eye dropper in Adobe Camera Raw I saw that the calibration target grey came out to 4800 kelvin, while the North Sea sample card came out to 4650 kelvin, close enough to adjust your white balance on.

While I do not regret spending the money on the calibration target, especially since it's considerably larger and has a reflector surface on the other side, I think owning a sample pack of the three laminate colors are a great way to have a very cheap, very portable white balance kit you can keep in your camera bag at all times.

Links to the laminate samples:

Huge thanks to Wilsonart for not only making these color samples available, but they also do not charge shipping if you use the above links, they are free.


Ray says: Close enough??? I'm not a professional, but I still don't try to shoot photographs that are close enough. I want them dead on and that means getting my WB dead on. I can't image that those samples are calibrated to nuetral.

Ric says: don't be so cheap.. buy a whibal..

Art says: Got my North Sea D90-60 from Wilsonart Laminate a couple of days ago. Used it today calibrating my Sekonic L-358 meter. Results are stunning. My meter was off by 3/4 of a stop (overexposed.) The Custom White Color balance via the gray card helped me dial in the meter exposure. Happy camper here!

Bishop says: Ric don't be so uppity. Not everyone's nose bleeds cash. The minimum WhiBal is $20. This is free. Great for beginners and also training for the "why" we do things. More than likely ppl do THIS because they don't have a pro kit already. Let them learn the why and how, THEN they can begin to see the difference between free and pro. By then they may be able to afford kits and pro-calibrated. We use sand, LEGOs, and Lincoln Logs before we ever thought to build a real house.

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