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How to Use a Gray Card With Lightroom To Nail Your White Balance Every Time

It’s been about five years since we covered this gray card technique here on the blog, so…I think we’re a bit overdue, especialy since this is a technique I use so often in my own workflow to get my white balance right on the money.

Using a Gray Card
A ‘gray card’ is just what it sounds like — a  card that’s 18% gray that we use to help us set a really accurate white balance. These cards are so handy that I include a perforated tear-out gray card in my”Lightroom Book for Digital Photographers” (so if you have my book, turn to the last page and tear your gray card out). If you don’t have my book, you can pick up a gray card from B&H (here’s a 12″ collapsable one I like by Impact for around $29).

Anyway, here’s how you use it with Lightroom.

Once you get your lighting set, you’ll need to take one photo with the gray card clearly visible in the scene. In this case, we’re doing a portrait shoot so hand your subject the gray card and ask them to hold it so its in clear view (I usually have them hold it up near their face, like you see above). The card she’s holding here is the tear-our card from my Lightroom book. Once she’s holding the card, just take one shot (that’s all it takes).

Import the images into Lightroom
Import all the shots from the shoot into Lightroom. Get the White Balance Eyedropper tool (from up in the toolbar along the top left — it’s the one that looks like an eyedropper 1/2-filled with gray), and click it once directly on the gray card shot (the first shot you imported) and BAM! That’s it! Your white balance is set for this shot (as seen above).

Applying this white balance to other images
Now hold the Command-key (on Mac) or the Ctrl-key (on Windows) and click on any images in that filmstrip that you want to have exactly same white balance settings (the same one as the gray card image you just corrected), as seen above.

Now click the Sync button at the bottom of the right side panels. This brings up the dialog you see above left. This lets you synchronize all the changes you’ve made to the image with the gray card, with those other images you just selected, but since in this case we only adjusted the White Balance, click the “Check None” button (on the bottom left), and then turn on the checkbox for White Balance (and I always leave Process Version turned on so I’m using the most current math behind the images).

Just One More Click and You’re Done
Now just click the Synchronize button and it instantly applies the same gray card white balance setting to all your other selected images, as seen above (I pressed “g” to switch to the Grid view so you can see how the new white balance was applied).

There’s an even quicker way
If you know right up front that you want to change the white balance for all the images in your shoot to match the one where you subject is holding the gray card, then your workflow is slightly different (and much faster). Step one is to Select all your images, then turn on Auto Sync (it appears where the Sync  button used to be at the bottom of the right side panels.

Step two is to click on the photo with the gray card it in; click the White Balance eyedropper on the gray card itself, and voilá — all the selected images are immediately changed to that white balance.

Well, there ya have it. Hope you found that helpful. 🙂

-Scott

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43 comments

  1. Sam 17 January, 2020 at 15:31 Reply

    To save money I just printed a grey card on photographic paper and laminated it. It’s got 6 different colour values of grey and it has never let me down.

  2. Zia 26 December, 2019 at 21:39 Reply

    It is confusing. LR and PS uses 50% gray for white balance but Scott is telling to use Gray card that is 18% and not 50%. I have color checker passport and when I use different gray patches for AWB, my white balance value changes. So it makes sense to me to use 50% gray card if LR and PS uses 50% gray for white balance..

    • Scott Kelby 13 January, 2020 at 08:49 Reply

      From X-rite: “… film cameras, dSLRs cameras, and video cameras are all formulated to produce proper exposure when exposed to produce an 18% gray tone.” That’s why if you buy a gray-card from a camera store, it will be 18% gray, and that’s what we use to set a proper white balance. Hope that helps.

    • Burt 13 January, 2020 at 18:38 Reply

      Actually, either 18% or 50% is fine for setting White Balance. It could even be 90% or 10% if you wanted. As long as the color is a neutral grey, then LR will properly set the WB when clicking it.

      You can’t use random grey % for setting exposure, but it works fine for White Balance.

      In fact, when I am shooting street scenes, if the color looks off, I often just find a white tablecloth or white shirt or similar and click on that. Most of the time, that fixes my WB instantly. (When it doesn’t, then I have to manually play with temp and tint to get a pleasing result)

  3. Adam 23 June, 2015 at 16:00 Reply

    I do not understand why the photographer did not use AWB or manual white balance settings under the shooting. Using Lightroom and gray card for some kind of micro correction it is ok but I like to shoot with a correct wb setup to see what I will get later. It is very trivial and easy to set up wb on each camera.

    • Burt 13 January, 2020 at 18:35 Reply

      Not always that easy. Sure, in the specific studio situation mentioned that is trivial. However, I was doing a survey of building paint colors in our town last week. Some walls were in the shade, some in the sun, some under artificial light, some under a combination thereof.

      Rather than trying to come up with a custom WB for each image, I just shot the wall with a grey card in the image. Each image was slightly different, but each image became calibrated with one keystroke (‘w’) and one click (on the grey card). I zipped through all 90 images in less than 2 minutes, and had every one of them calibrated and ready to compare / contrast as the project needed.

    • Burt 13 January, 2020 at 18:41 Reply

      Doesn’t matter. Set it to deep purple if that makes you happy. As long as there is a grey card, then one keystroke (‘w’) and one click (on the card) will set the proper WB.

      You can only use the trick of syncing the photo WB though, if the lighting did not change. So, if in the studio, with the same lights on every shot (same color lights, not necessarily the same number or position of lights), then that trick works fine.

      If doing street photog, where each image might have different lighting, then you cannot just sync the images after doing one. Each image there will need to be processed separately.

  4. John 16 March, 2015 at 07:50 Reply

    Is it not a good idea to have a colour chart too, as a further reference?
    Might just remind you that you have not calibrated your monitor for a while.

  5. Susan From Vermont 15 March, 2015 at 15:55 Reply

    Love Lightroom, love your tips. I bought the LR 4 book and it helped me learn how to use it. Now I am trying to add Photoshop to my skill set. Problem is, I found your PS CC book to be directed more toward people who understood a lot of things already! I had to find out what “Bridge” is, and had trouble figuring out how to open Camera Raw. And there was not much in the book about how to use layers. There were other things, but don’t want to make a list!

    Naturally, I was disappointed after my positive experience with the LR book. I am hoping you will see this (no response to my comments on your facebook page), and offer some suggestions. I certainly don’t want to have to buy another book!

  6. Bill Lovegrove 14 March, 2015 at 13:01 Reply

    Which of your many books has the grey card? A search didn’t bring up the title “Lightroom Book for Digital Photographers”.
    Thanks

  7. Heather Ogg 13 March, 2015 at 18:03 Reply

    For shooting tethered, I’d like to know how to take a Gray Card reading first, and then have all the shots I take during the shoot load into Lightroom and apply the WB edit. Thanks!

  8. Mosley Hardy 13 March, 2015 at 10:15 Reply

    Yet another “Killer” tip Scott! It’s worth mentioning that (like all things printed) gray cards age. If you use a gray card that’s a bit on the “vintage” side and your white balance doesn’t come out looking neutral, it may be time to replace your gray card.

      • Jeanne 27 March, 2015 at 09:26 Reply

        Thank you for the information on that superior product, John MacLean. However, there are 2 gray patches under the green one. Should it be the left or right one? 🙂

        • lyle 5 April, 2015 at 21:13 Reply

          On the 6×4 grid half, either of the 2 center grey patches in the center of the grey scale row will work; the darker one I think is the real intended one (?). Adjust LR so your white value over the white one is somewhere around 95%, and on the black one it should be about 5%. Then click the white balance eye dropper on either of those 2 center grey squares. Individual R-G-B over any square on that row shouldn’t vary by more than a couple %.

      • Burt 13 January, 2020 at 18:43 Reply

        X-rite is just a more expensive grey card…

        Yes, it also gives you lots of color patches, so you can use it in tricky situations to pinpoint specific colors. However, in 99% of the time (and 100% of the shoots I have done) a grey card is perfectly fine, and an X-Rite card (which I also have) is just a nuisance — smaller target square to hit when you need to do so in LR…

  9. Sharon 10 March, 2015 at 23:29 Reply

    Thanks for the tip. Have you considered adding a ‘pin’ button for Pinterest on this site? I like to collect tips and tricks and Pinterest is a nice way to compile them all in one place. Cheers.

    • Jan Buencamino 18 March, 2015 at 11:01 Reply

      Hi Sharon,

      you may add up a plugin to your browser (if you are using Chrome) just go to “chrome store” and search for pinterest and follow the simple instruction.

      hope this will help.

  10. Paul C 10 March, 2015 at 12:23 Reply

    Great call. Many years ago, when my previous employers shut down their darkroom they told me to take any (minor) resources I wanted…. the grey-cards were one of the better finds. Really makes a difference. They also help as my uncalibrated monitor is a little cool.

  11. Rick Foy 10 March, 2015 at 08:12 Reply

    I have maybe a stupid question since I am new to the photography side but I am more of a video guy. Why not just set the white balance in camera before the shoot? That way you would have a some what decent raw shot of the image before color correcting.

  12. Kathleen D 10 March, 2015 at 07:32 Reply

    If you were shooting a party would you need to take several grey card shots pointing in different directions as the light may vary or would one shot be “good enough”.

    I love your LR tips Scott!

  13. Kathleen D 10 March, 2015 at 07:29 Reply

    If you were shooting a party would you need to take shots of the grey card facing different locations in the room as the light could look different in different areas? Or would one grey card shot “be good enough”?

    Love your LR tips Scott!

  14. Jim Lucier 10 March, 2015 at 06:19 Reply

    Scott,

    Good tip but I tend to set white balance in camera (D800e) using a gray card.
    I use a colorchecker passport in my first photo to set color profile in Camera Calibration.

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