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Using a White Balance Card or Gray Card

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Understanding the concept of a white balance or gray card.

The white balance card can be used two ways. The first way is to use it to calibrate the white balance in camera with the custom or preset white balance setting so the camera captures accurate color. You do that by filling the frame with the white balance card or gray card and do a preset. The card has to be in the exact position of the subject you intend to photograph, and under the exact lighting you will be using. The preset value you save in the camera will only give you accurate color under those conditions.

The second way is to photograph the white balance card or gray card within the scene and use that frame to create a custom Curve in Photoshop to correct the color on all images captured in the same lighting with the same white balance setting in camera. I have a good article about using the Digital Calibration Target to get accurate color when photographing artwork. The concept of using a custom Curve requires a full version of Photoshop because Elements does not have the Curves tool or let you create actions.
There is a good movie on X-Rite's web site about using the X-Rite Color Reference Chart (formally called the MacBeth Color Checker) to get accurate color when photographing. The concept in the movie is the same as the second way to use the white balance card. Most important is the bottom row which has the same black white and gray values as the other calibration devices.
If I'm working with artists doing their own photography and having trouble getting their color accurate, I suggest they include a white balance card or gray card in the first photograph they take that day. Examples of the different types of reference cards are shown below. Each image is a link to purchase it.

Digital Calibration Target

WhiBal card

X-Rite (MacBeth) Color Checker

X-Rite White Balance Card


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