In Photography

How to Use a Gray Card for Custom White Balance

How to Use a Gray CardOne of the most important elements of a photo minus light and exposure is white balance. A gorgeous subject in gorgeous light can be completely ruined by bad color. And bad color is not always an easy fix in post processing. So, how do you get perfect white balance every shoot? Let me show you how to use a gray card for custom white balance.

Haven’t quite got a handle on white balance? Read Everything You Need to Know about White Balance.

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What is a Gray Card?

It’s a card that is gray, ha! On the more serious side, it actually is….but its so much more than that.  The gray card is neutral gray in color and is 18% reflective. Color-wise, the gray is neutral, which means that it reflects the same amount of red, green, and blue light (it doesn’t lean more toward any one color over another). This means that it is the exact depth of color correlates right in the center of the meter at “0” when talking about exposure. Therefore, a gray card can be used for 2 things. It can be used for setting exposure and for setting custom white balance. Let’s learn how to use a gray card in a few easy steps!

Why Should I Custom White Balance

As photographers, we should strive to make our SOOC (straight out of camera) image as perfect as possible. This includes making sure that the exposure is perfect, the light is interesting, and that the color is good. Making sure our white balance is perfect in camera leaves us less to do on the back end….color correcting an image can be simple, or a nightmare. So being efficient can save money!

When I learned how to use a gray card, the majority of my frustration with white balance dissipated. There are still adjustments that need to be made here and there (my taste is a little less warm than some gray cards provide) but its a vast improvement over auto.

How To Use a Gray Card

  1. First, buy a gray card. Not all are created equally, so make sure you buy from a company that checks the cards to ensure they are calibrated. I like the X-Rite Colorchecker Passport (this can do way much more than just set a CWB!) and I also have the X-rite Mini Gray balance Card. The WhiBal Pocket Card is also a good one.
  2. Position subject. It’s important to have your subject in the light that you’ll be talking photos. When you change lighting scenarios, you’ll need to take a new CWB reading. How To Use a Gray Card
  3. Set Exposure if you are comfortable setting your exposure already, you can go ahead and take a reading off of your subject. If not, then using spot metering, spot meter off of the gray card, and set the meter to “0”.How To Use a Gray Card
  4. Fill your frame with the gray card and take a photo of it in the light where your subject is. If its a person, have them hold the gray card for you. If your camera can’t grab focus, switch your lens to manual focusing and snap a quick picture, then make sure you turn it back to autofocus! 
  5. Set your Camera to Custom White Balance you may need to look at your manual to see where this function is.
  6. Go to Custom White Balance in your camera menu. Most cameras will ask which picture you want to use as a reference. Choose the one you just took of the gray card.
  7. Shoot Confidently! Your custom white balance (CWB) is set! You just saved yourself a bit of time in post processing!

Custom White Balance


  • Take a look at your camera manual and memorize how to use a gray card and set your custom white balance. Each camera differs. One feature that I love about Nikon is that with pro and pro-sumer models, CWB is easily set with buttons on the exterior of the camera, making setting CWB even easier. Look for such features on your own camera. The few seconds it takes to get it right in camera will save minutes of editing time.
  • If you don’t have a gray card, find a white sheet of paper and practice setting your CWB with it. While it may not be perfect, it will likely be better than auto.




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