How to Use a Grey Card for Photography

Let’s face it, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending hours capturing a beautiful scene, only to find the colours look dull or have an unwanted colour cast in post-processing.

Enter the grey card, a photographer’s secret weapon for achieving accurate colour reproduction.

What is a Grey Card?

Imagine a business card sized piece of plastic or card that’s a neutral 18% grey. That’s your grey card! It reflects a consistent amount of light, acting as a reference point for your camera, ensuring consistent colour temperature across your photographs.

A hand holding a grey card for photography
Image: A grey card

Why Use a Grey Card?

Cameras often struggle with interpreting complex lighting situations. Mixed light, shade, and even rapid changes in cloud cover can throw off your camera’s white balance, resulting in unwanted colour casts.

A grey card steps in as a reliable colour reference, ensuring those whites truly appear white and colours look natural.

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When is a Grey Card Most Helpful?

Here’s when your trusty grey card becomes a lifesaver:

Imagine a portrait scene with natural light streaming through a window and studio strobes filling in the shadows. A grey card ensures a neutral white balance reference under these conditions, preventing colour clashes.

Shooting outdoors on a cloudy day is a photographer’s challenge. Light can change dramatically within minutes. Using a grey card throughout the shoot provides a consistent colour baseline, saving you time and frustration later.

Maintaining consistent colour temperature is crucial in studio setups with artificial lighting. A grey card offers a neutral reference point, letting you achieve precise colour reproduction.

Portrait of a blonde model stood next to lightsPortrait of a blonde model stood next to lights

How to Use a Grey Card: A Step-by-Step Guide

1. Make sure the surface of your grey card is clean and free of dust or marks that could affect its neutrality.

2. Firstly, place the grey card in your shot, illuminated by the same light as your subject. Ideally, the card should be where your subject would be, ensuring it receives the same lighting conditions.

3. With your camera set to manual white balance, take a picture of the grey card filling the frame as much as possible. This image will be your white balance reference for post-processing.

4. Now that you have your reference, remove the grey card and continue photographing your subject under the same lighting conditions.

5. During post-processing, use your photo editing software’s white balance tool. Select the eyedropper tool and click on the neutral grey area of your reference image. This sets the white balance in your editing software, ensuring accurate colour reproduction when applied to your other images.

Bonus Tip: Some cameras offer a custom white balance setting. You can take a picture of the grey card directly in-camera and use it as the white balance reference for subsequent shots under similar lighting conditions.

A woman holding up a grey card to face the camera

How Do Grey Cards Help with White Balance?

By capturing a neutral grey reference under the same lighting as your subject, you establish a true neutral point. This allows you to adjust the white balance in post-processing, ensuring colours appear natural, with whites looking clean and crisp, not yellow or blue-tinged.

While a grey card sets you on the right track, sometimes a little extra white balance adjustment might be needed in post-processing. Most editing software allows you to fine-tune the white balance settings.

Here, you can use the eyedropper tool to click on a specific white area in your image and adjust the sliders to achieve the desired level of purity in your whites.

By incorporating a grey card into your workflow, you’ll take control of colour accuracy and achieve a level of consistency that elevates your photographs.

From capturing vibrant landscapes to maintaining consistent colour temperature in the studio, this simple tool empowers you to translate the true colours of your scene into stunning photographs.

How to use the eyedropper tool in Photoshop to set a new white point
Image: Use the Curves tool in Photoshop to set a new neutral white point
a woman dressed up as a skull creative makeup with red backgrounda woman dressed up as a skull creative makeup with red background

Getting Accurate White Tones in Adobe Lightroom

Step 1: Navigate to Develop Module

Once you’ve imported your photos into Lightroom, double-click on the image you want to edit. This will open it in the Develop module, where all the magic happens.

Step 2: Find Your Grey Card Reference Image

Locate the reference image you captured of the grey card in your import. It’s crucial this image was taken under the same lighting conditions as your main subject.

Navigate to the Develop Module
Open the image in the develop module
Step 3: Set the White Balance Using the Eyedropper Tool

In the Develop module, locate the White Balance panel on the left-hand side. Click on the Eyedropper tool (it looks like an eyedropper!).

Press the eye dropper icon and select the grey card
Step 4: Select the Neutral Grey Area

Now, switch back to your main image and zoom in on the reference image of the grey card. Click on the neutral grey area of the card with the eyedropper tool. This tells Lightroom to use this as the reference point for a perfect white balance.

Step 5: Fine-Tuning the Whites (Optional)

While the grey card gets you close, you can further refine your whites for that extra pop. Look at the Basic panel on the right-hand side. Here, you’ll see sliders for Temperature and Tint.

Temperature: Dragging this slider left cools down the overall image, potentially making whites appear slightly blue-tinged. Conversely, dragging it right warms the image, which can make whites appear more yellow. Use this tool sparingly to maintain a natural look.

Tint:  This slider adjusts the green/magenta balance in the whites. Dragging left adds magenta, potentially countering any yellow cast. Dragging right adds green, which can be helpful if the whites appear slightly cyan. Again, use this with a light touch.

Final Adjustments in Adobe Lightroom
Use the Temperature and Tint sliders for final adjustments
Step 6: Local Adjustments for Stubborn Areas (Optional)

Sometimes, specific areas in your image might have stubborn colour casts despite using the grey card. This is where local adjustments come in. Look at the tool panel on the left and choose either the Adjustment Brush or the Graduated Filter tool.

Adjustment Brush: This lets you paint on specific areas where you want to further adjust the white balance. Sample a neutral area from another part of the image (like a white wall or a clean piece of paper) and brush over the areas needing correction.

Graduated Filter: This tool is helpful for situations where a large area of the image, like the sky, has a colour cast. Position the filter over the area and adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders to achieve a more neutral white balance.

Step 7: Remember, Subtlety is Key!

Throughout this process, remember that small adjustments are your friend. Overdoing the white balance corrections can lead to unnatural-looking whites that appear too stark or bleached. Aim for a natural, clean white that complements the overall colour harmony of your image.

By following these steps and using the grey card as your foundation, you’ll be well on your way to achieving those perfect whites that elevate your photographs in Adobe Lightroom.

Grey Card Model beforePortrait of sad girl close-up

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