I must admit. I’m one of those guys that shoots in RAW and only uses the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting. When my DSLR misses the white balance of a scene, I “simply” make adjustments in post processing. Boy did I have it all wrong – until the folks at ColorRight said I had to give their product a try.
What is ColorRight?
ColorRight is a tool for properly setting custom white balance on your DSLR. It looks much like a lens filter with a dark ring and partially see-through hole inside the filter glass. Placing the ColorRight tool over the end of your DSLR and taking a sample shot gives your DSLR an accurate reading of the temperature of the light in your scene. All subsequent shots taken with your DSLR under those lighting conditions will have an accurate white balance.
What is White Balance?
I would venture to say that the vast majority of DSLR users (think about how many Canon Rebel and Nikon D40ish cameras have been sold) don’t know what white balance is or why they should be concerned about it. White balance generally refers to the color temperature of a photo.
No matter what kind of light it is exposed to, the human eye can detect what white is and actually see white as white. Digital cameras aren’t so lucky.
If you’ll notice, most photos that you take indoor under tungsten lights (e.g., your standard GE light bulb) have a very warm color to them. These photos appear rather orange in overall color tone.
Likewise, photos captured under florescent lights are cooler, that is they have a sort of blue/green tint to them.
These phenomena relate directly to how your camera sees and interprets white. As you can probably guess, your DSLR’s perception of white is a little off in both of these circumstances. Accordingly, when your DSLR properly sees and interprets white, the captured image appears more true to the colors your own eyes originally saw when you took it.
In-Camera White Balance Options
Take a look at the options in your own DSLR for setting white balance. You’ve probably got settings like AWB (for auto white balance), Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, White florescent, Flash and Custom. With AWB, your camera tries to guess at what the white should look like in the scene. Sometimes it gets close; however, most of the time it misses by enough to be significant, which requires post processing adjustments to correct – or you just end up with a picture that doesn’t look quite right.
The other situational settings like Daylight, Cloudy or Tungsten are merely presets at a predetermined color temperature setting. For example, in my Canon Rebel XT, the Daylight setting is 5200 degrees Kelvin and Shade is 7000K. No matter how a daylight or shade lighting situation may vary, the best the presets can give me are these specific white balance values.
Back in the film days, we simply lived with these numbers. We chose our film based on color temperatures and maybe added a filter if our lighting drastically changed. Digital cameras make it so much easier to get your color right. It’s just too bad that so many of us don’t take advantage of the benefits of this technology.
How Does ColorRight Work?
Frankly, I don’t understand all the things ColorRight does to make my color right. The good thing is – I don’t need to.
I’ve seen several different methods over the years for setting custom white balance. My Canon Rebel XT manual tells me to take a white card and use it as a control image. This is something I’ve never tried. I’m just not going to carry a white card in any camera bag – large or small.
Also, as I said earlier, I’ve been a big proponent of making white balance corrections in Adobe Lightroom or some other post processing software. While it’s nice to have the ability to fine tune the white balance, you really shouldn’t be forced to applying white balance adjustments to every single image you capture.
ColorRight offers a compact solution to bulky white cards and time-consuming post-processing that I’m willing to live with. I’ve taken the ColorRight device with me in my pocket on a number of informal outings.
Whenever the light changes, I pull out the filter-like device, switch focus to manual, change my camera setting to the custom white balance capture setting and snap a shot at my intended subject. I then choose my white balance setting and assign the test shot as my custom white balance.
All of this takes about 10 seconds – after I learned where the settings were in my camera. It’s funny how much more capable a camera feels when you learn something new.
Included with the ColorRight device is a small card which shows you the simple four step process to properly set your custom white balance. That’s it. Just four steps.
I was prepared to spend some time digesting literature in order to wrap my head around all this mumbo jumbo. It took about 30 seconds from the time I unpackaged the ColorRight device and read the card until I got it right – the first time.
I cannot express the simplicity and accuracy of this device enough. For those of you who never use custom white balance, the “wow” factor you get out of your first image will blow you away. For those of you that use a white card or try to snap your white balance off some guy’s white t-shirt, I’m sure that you can see the potential that ColorRight could have in your shooting.
ColorRight offers two different flavors of the device – true neutral and portrait, which is a little warmer to help with skin tones.
I tested ColorRight in a variety of lighting situations. I shot these images with a Canon Rebel XT and Rebel XSi. What follows is a rundown of those situations along with a few sample images demonstrating how ColorRight handled the situations versus an in-camera preset or auto-white balance.
Tungsten light gives AWB the most trouble. Invariably, images shot under tungsten light with AWB engaged result in a very orange appearance. However, tungsten was also the first lighting under which I used ColorRight. Wow. I’ve never seen a preview image on my camera’s LCD that was shot under tungsten light that had accurate white balance.
Tungsten with AWB
Tungsten with ColorRight
Images shot under florescent light with AWB engaged came out a little too warm. Again, a few seconds per image in a photo editing program can resolve this issue. This can really suck when your editing hundreds of images though.
ColorRight handled this just fine on the front end – the ColorRight image accurately represented the lighting of the carpet, walls and cats in the image below. A few seconds for the test shot and in-camera setting can save hundreds of seconds of software edits after downloading images to the computer.
Florescent Light with AWB
Florescent Light with “Florescent” Preset
Florescent Light with ColorRight
Late Day / Near Sunset
If you’ve got direct sunlight on you at this point, the light can be very warm. This hour or so window is typically referred to as the Golden Hour. This light can add a nice warmth to your photos, assuming your camera gets it right.
After the sun drops below the horizon though, the light turns much cooler. Light that looked great for your portraits a few minutes earlier becomes much less flattering all of the sudden. Getting back to zero on the white balance can make great use of the soft light that remains in the day.
Late Day with AWB
Late Day with ColorRight
Flash lighting is generally much cooler than the existing light that you are shooting in. As you can see in the sample images below, AWB really over-compensated and left me with a very warm image. ColorRight, however, got it right.
Shooting with a 420EX flash on a Canon Rebel XSi, I took my sample image just the same as I otherwise would have. The flash fired and I think you can clearly see that this produced a very cool sample file to assign as my custom white balance. The final image turned out just right based on the ColorRight device. (Note to self: While I used the neutral version here, I probably would have been better served using the “Portrait” version of the ColorRight device for a little bit of added warmth.)
Flash with AWB
Flash with ColorRight
Bounce Flash Sample File Assigned to Custom White Balance
Where It Needs Help
When it comes to color accuracy, I’ve got no complaints. ColorRight delivers beyond my expectations. My only real complaint has to do with ergonomics. The glass in the device fits in a metal filter ring. While it’s obviously held in place and is constructed well, it feels a little awkward pulling it out of my bag or pocket and holding it in front of the lens.
As I was finishing up this review, I received a new version of the ColorRight device, which included a lanyard attached to the ring. This enabled me to hang the device around my neck for quicker access to grab a white balance sample. Granted, I’m not going to carry this around my neck on family outings; however, I can see that it would be very advantageous for wedding and event photographers in fast-changing lighting conditions.
Again, this is a minor gripe on how I hold the device. It takes nothing away from the quality and performance of ColorRight. I mention it only as a minor quibble and I would not call it a deal killer by any means.
UPDATE 11/10/09: I broke the glass in the first version of the ColorRight that I tested by leaving it on the outside pouch of my camera bag while flying. The latest version of the ColorRight has been updated to feature a plastic ring and inner surface, which makes it more robust and unlikely to break.
Consider the advantages that something you throw in your pocket and pull out to precisely adjust white balance whenever your lighting changes. There are plenty of gadgets that you can spend lots of money on in photography. ColorRight is one of the few that walks the walk and delivers on what it promises.
Every serious photographer should have one of these in their camera bag. You can read more about the uses, specs and reviews over at the ColorRight website.