DIY: Making Your Own Gray Cards

Sep 27, 2011

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

DIY: Making Your Own Gray Cards

Sep 27, 2011

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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DIY: Making Your Own Gray CardsMost cameras are capable of creating ‘acceptably good’ white balance on your photos. And even if they’re failing, you can make a pretty decent guess for what you think the white balance should have been in post production.

But what if you want to take the guesswork out of the equation, and get perfect white balance every time? The professionals use something called a ‘gray card’ (or ‘grey card’, depending on where in the world you learned to write English). The name says it all: it’s a gray piece of card or plastic that you can use to balance your photographs.

Finding yourself a gray card

Does that sounds a bit high tech? Well, it really isn’t – and the great news is that you can use just about anything that is neutrally coloured. Of course, without advanced colour calibration equipment, it’s hard to find something that’s actually perfectly neutral. For our purposes, however, you don’t need to do that: anything that’s just about gray will do. Why? Because once you have your photos balanced consistently, it’s easy to make sure they are all well-balanced.

DIY: Making Your Own Gray Cards
The silver on the Macbook Pro is relatively neutral, and can be used as a grey card

You can use anything that is neutrally coloured, but we would recommend using something that’s light gray – it gives the camera the best colour reading, and it makes it easier to do your balancing in post production, too. The lids on coffee cups tend to work pretty well, and personally, I’ve been using my Macbook. The matt, light silver material is relatively neutral, and since I tend to bring my laptop on photo shoots with me, it’s always there when I need it.

Printing off a gray card

If you know what printer you are going to be using to print your images, you could create your own gray card as follows:

  1. Open up a photo taken with your camera in Photoshop. This ensures that the correct color profiles are in your image file.
  2. Delete the image, and fill the frame with 18% gray.

DIY: Making Your Own Gray Cards
To get 18% gray, open the colour selector in Photoshop, and choose a
saturation of 0%, combined with a brightness of 82%. That’s the correct
color!

  1. Send the file to your printer, and take it with you on shoots.

The Apple iPhone 4 has a great camera, but it's struggling with white balance. By using a grey card, I can ensure that the money is well-balanced. This is the before shot
The Apple iPhone 4 has a great camera, but it’s struggling with white
balance. By using a grey card, I can ensure that the money is
well-balanced. This is the before shot

The key thing here is that your ‘gray card’ may not be perfectly neutral, but the important thing is that your printer thinks it is neutral – so if you colour balance your photographs to this particular card, your images should come out neutral when you print them next. There may be some difference from printer to printer (some printers may print out slightly warmer or colder images), and this is why gray cards printed on one printer aren’t transferrable to another.

It could be argued, of course, that if you’re serious enough about white balance that you are going to use a gray card, then you may as well buy a set of gray cards that are definitely perfectly colour balanced, but having a home-made set of cards is much better than shooting without anything, so it’s a great place to start.

How do you use a gray card?

By using the known neutral grey as a sample, I can ensure that the photo is perfectly balanced
By using the known neutral grey as a sample, I can ensure that the photo is perfectly balanced

Whatever you’ve decided to use as your gray card, the way you use it is pretty simple:

  1. Set up your lighting
  2. Place your ‘gray card’ in the shot
  3. De-focus your camera a little and take a photo. This ensures that you capture the colour, and not the texture, of your gray card
  4. Remove the gray card, and take photos as usual. Every time you change the lighting, go back to step 2.
  5. When you’ve imported your photos into your favourite software package, use the gray card as a ‘sample’ to set a custom white balance.
  6. Copy the white balance across to all the other photos in the set – or until the next time you’ve photographed your gray card.

You can now sit back in the knowledge that all your photos have the same white balance. If it turns out that it is still slightly off, you could adjust it further, and then copy that white balance profile across to the other photos in the shoot.

Author Bio

Haje Jan Kamps writes books about photography, and has created an affordable set of gray cards, just in case you can’t be bothered making your own.

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Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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17 responses to “DIY: Making Your Own Gray Cards”

  1. Keith Lawrence Avatar
    Keith Lawrence

    When using this gray card method and shooting RAW, does it matter what the camera white balance setting is when you take the shot, or can it just be fine tuned in post?

    1. Kim G Avatar
      Kim G

      When you process the RAW file, it lets you set the white balance regardless of what the camera setting was at the time. (At least in Photoshop). However if you choose one of the presets (Daylight, flash, “as shot,” etc.) then that preset will apply. The “as shot” will use whatever the white balance was in the camera when the shot was taken.

      If you are using Photoshop to process the shot of the gray card, you can use the eyedropper tool on the part of the image containing the card and that will automatically set your white balance.

      Hope this helps.

  2. ali Avatar
    ali

    It will helping me a lot….keep it up. Plastic card printing

  3. Helladog Avatar
    Helladog

    18% grey and white balance grey cards are different. One is for metering, the other for white balance. They’re not interchangeable.

  4. Kim G Avatar
    Kim G

    This is a phenomenal post! I just was googling around to try to find the “recipe” to make perfect 18% gray in Photoshop, and I found this page. I not only got my recipe, but found a very interesting backdoor sort of way to profile a printer.

    Kudos!

    Kim G
    Boston, MA

  5. sam Avatar
    sam

    has anyone try using the sekonic L358 to white balance? is the gray/silver color similar to the MacBook pro?

  6. Anton Zuykov Avatar
    Anton Zuykov

    offering to make your own gray card at home without proper calibrating tools is like to say that you can create a calibration profile of the monitor by simply eye balling the monitor. Both approaches will not give you ANY reasonable results.

  7. micky Avatar
    micky

    A white person with a tan? Or a white person in winter time with little sun exposure? This is a little vague and teetering on racist. :/ I just want to take better pictures.

  8. Tom Hannon Avatar
    Tom Hannon

    I found that if you set the white balance using the grey card at awb then switch to manual wb the camera uses the last wb setting. I tried it and it seems to work.

  9. Michael Hammor Avatar
    Michael Hammor

    You would think that someone that writes books about Photography would know that a grey card is for exposure not white balance. You have to use a calibrated white card for balancing. Balance is about Color temp, not exposure values.

  10. Baabak Sghfn Avatar
    Baabak Sghfn

    just google 18% gray card and read ffs
    this article is absolutely bullshit
    gray card reflects 18% of light and its for metering light, not correcting color.
    this happens when a none educated self-confident idiot writes an article

    1. Guilherme Mauricio Avatar
      Guilherme Mauricio

      Most underrated comment. Thank you.

    2. Guilherme Mauricio Avatar
      Guilherme Mauricio

      Also, how to make sure the paper he’s using doesn’t reflect any other colour cast?
      I recently found out paper has “added” fluorescence. That makes paper as a basis for any sensitive colour calibration a total bullshit.

  11. Kim G Avatar
    Kim G

    Be thankful you have beautiful, colorful money. Here in the USA it’s monochrome monotony.

  12. John Avatar
    John

    I’m afraid I cheated. I asked Google the question everybody else did but requested ‘images’. When I found a good one I downloaded it and then opened the saved image in PaintShopPro 9x. Then opened a new file in a separate window to use the dropper sampling tool to create three cards: Black, White ND 18% Grey. Save and print – job done. PS This also works in the Paint desktop app. I am on windows 10, if that helps but it should work on any OS really.

  13. Natanya Howry Avatar
    Natanya Howry

    There is no one “white person” skin color, they range in skin tone from nearly albino to medium.

  14. Egor Avatar
    Egor

    This has a #767676 color code