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