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Most of us wouldn't want a blue dog, red horse, or purple parents, but we've all had them at one time or another in our cameras. Like wearing polka dots with plaid, the light balance and your subject were just a bad match. This is where custom white balance comes in handy.
Virtually all DSLRs and most point-and-shoot digital cameras have a white balance function. For many, it's the setting that's left on Auto, since that's easier than dusting off the camera's manual and reading a few confusing pages. In reality, white balance is just an advanced version of color balancing. This is something you may already be doing if you've ever switched to the tungsten or fluorescent settings. White balancing just takes it a step further.
Digital cameras record the light extremely accurately and faithfully; sometimes too much so. If you've ever noticed how blue the shadows get in photos taken at dusk, you're on the right track. The fact is that every type of light gives your photo a different hue, whether it's the bright blue of noonday sun or the amber-orange of sunset. Our eyes, which have a kind of auto white balance, adjust for this, but the camera doesn't; not without some help.
Left: Without Gray Card Reading. Right: With Gray Card Reading.
Auto is fine for very average situations: sunny day, green grass, red brick, all rendered "naturally" on Auto. It's when you to push it to extremes that you begin to notice the difference. The Incandescent setting removes some of the red in the photo, while the Fluorescent setting pretty much does the best it can with a notoriously unmanageable light source. This is a perfect example to illustrate the value of custom white balancing.
Some cameras have one generic setting for basic fluorescent light and some have settings for various versions of them, but we all know how many types of fluorescents there are. Since you usually don't know the type, unless you have a ladder handy, you can scroll through each one, take a photo, evaluate the test, and tweak the results, but you'll probably be taking 15 shots by the time you're finished.
The good news is that the solution is simplicity itself, as is its aim—accurate and natural color. Most of the materials that you'll need are probably the least expensive items that you've purchased since you got into photography. Vello makes a White Balance Card Set in 3 sizes: Large, 10 x 7.9", Medium, 5.1 x 3.9" and Small, 3.25 x 2". The smaller sets have a handy, removable lanyard to wear around your neck. Each kit comes with a white card, black card, and an 18% gray card for average exposure. You can use the black and white cards to establish absolute white and black in Photoshop, too. Also available is a Universal White Balance Handheld Disc that you use in front of the lens to adjust white balance.
When using the cards, you'll be taking a reflected reading, meaning light bouncing from the card. Prop the card up or have someone hold it. Tilting it to avoid glare or hot spots from the light or lights in the room will yield a more accurate reading. If you're using a strongly colored surface to support the card, you might want to use the black card to cover the area under the white card it so it doesn't influence the reading. Fill the camera frame with the card and de-focus your lens. Turn off your autofocus if you have to. Being out of focus minimizes inconsistencies in the light falling on the card. Then all you have to do is take the shot and save it as a custom setting that you can use any time you're in that situation.
Another way to use the cards is to include them in a test shot of the whole scene, then balance the color in post production and apply those settings to the rest of the photos.
Perhaps the easiest method involves the Universal White Balance Handheld Disc mentioned above. Simply set your camera to custom white balance and turn off your autofocus. Stand near your subject and point camera and disc back towards the light illuminating your subject. Place the disc in front of the lens and take your test shot. Whenever you're in a different lighting situation just take a new test shot. The disc has an ergonomic handle, weighs next to nothing, and works with lenses up to 95mm in diameter.
Once you start custom white balancing and getting superior results, you'll wonder why you waited so long to try it. As advanced as your camera's generic settings are, why settle for acceptable when Vello's white balance tools can give you exceptional?
For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.