ColorRight Review – Custom White Balance Gets Easy

by on August 12, 2008

in Reviews

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.

ColorRight Performance

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

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

Florescent Light

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

ColorRight sells direct from their site for $89 each – click here to go to ColorRight’s purchase page.  Update: ColorRight is also available on Amazon.com here.

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{ 30 comments }

1 Me August 14, 2008 at 1:52 am

Your “auto” results seem inferior to any DSLR I have experience with (primarily Nikon and Pentax…we’re considering switching to Canon for work, but haven’t). The pure yellow kitchen alone has to be a filter, because any camera presented with that will tend to reduce the yellow to a huge degree, assuming it’s the light. That image alone is pure shenanigans.

Plus, I can’t see how a single filter, that does nothing to interact with the complex software of a modern DSLR, will magically create a proper white balance. Perhaps it works, but it seems a bit strange. Yes, on most cameras you have a preset white balance that is set based upon shooting a white surface, and that works ok, but I don’t see how this filter would help that…being on the inside and not being hit by outside light.

Also, you reference a “white card” for color balancing. That’s flat out wrong. You don’t color balance with white. The traditional method is actually a gray card, I believe either 15% or 18% (depending upon the camera type). Or something like a Macbeth color checker. Color balancing with pure white doesn’t work as well.

2 Eric August 14, 2008 at 7:15 am

@Me – I’m sorry to disappoint, but the yellowish kitchen was solely the result of AWB on a Canon Rebel XT. I assure you that no shenanigans were involved.

I didn’t add a filter or make any post-processing adjustments to white balance on any of the images presented above. I think the yellow kitchen is a prime example of just how poor cameras can choose the proper white balance.

I didn’t really know what to expect with the device when I received it for review. After I used it though, I really did say “wow”.

I don’t really understand the “how” of how the device works either. But it works.

And, it’s not really a “filter”. It looks like one, but you just hold it over the end of the lens while you take the sample “setting” shot- just like you would take a shot of a white object for custom white balance setting.

Finally, setting the white balance via a white card is what the Canon Rebel XT manual says to do. I’ve never done it and don’t plan on going to that trouble – with a white or gray card. This is particularly true since I’ve used the ColorRight device.

I would encourage you to contact the folks at ColorRight for a deeper technical explanation regarding some of your questions.

3 michael August 14, 2008 at 1:54 pm

How does this compare to the Expodisc? I’m not trying to challenge you, rather I’m looking for an accurate comparison.

4 Eric August 14, 2008 at 2:45 pm

@michael – I’d love to answer the question for you; however, I’ve never tried the Expodisc. I’d be glad to give them a side by side comparison if Expodisc will send me a review sample.

Maybe someone else, who has tried both, can chime in on this one in the mean time.

5 dan August 14, 2008 at 4:43 pm

its called photoshop raw image dialouge

USE IT.

you dont need any fancy filter. use your color temperature in the raw image dialouge and you’ll be fine without spending on a filter.

6 Theo van Stratum August 15, 2008 at 8:12 am

Hi,

I use the ExpoDiscs and as far as I can see this is just a copy and they work the same. The only difference is that the ExpoDiscs can be used as an in camera incident meter, which can be a big advantage.

Theo

7 Dianna August 18, 2008 at 1:41 am

This looks great. But, how is this used with a Nikon 300 2.8 on a D200?

8 Dan Ferguson August 18, 2008 at 8:30 am

Why don’t you give the EZ Balance from LastoLite, or the Balance Right from ShootSmarter a try – it is quick, easy to use and dead on in EVERY type of lighting conditions. It also works with both Nikon (Grey side) and Canon (white side) !

9 Sara Frances August 18, 2008 at 8:39 am

My recent comparative test of 10 different white balance devices (results to be published soon) put the Colorright disk at the top of the pack. Yes the Expodisc was one of the somewhat less successful devices tested. The physics of light and response to light by contemporary camera sensors is such that, particularly with the correction of excessively yellow capture, you actually cannot fix everything in post. Prove it for yourself by watching the histogram move significantly toward underexposure, when yellow is neutralized in Raw or Lightroom. Use of Auto WB+ “fix it later” is a gross misunderstanding of capture. Most regrettably, this procedure automatically lessens your control, your commercial grade accuracy and your artistic possibilities – and definitely boosts perversion of files in terms of color cross-over and both luminance and chromenance noise. Both white cards and grey cards are equally valid for balancing, though certain cameras prefer white, according to manufacturers. 18% grey cards, appropriate for film, is less valuable than light grey for digital. Cards and targets, however, are harder to use and less accurate in many cases than the Colorright. A Macbeth checker is used for reference of colors in commercial work, and for assistance in tweaking colors relative to one another in post, but is not a camera white balancing device. Of course Canon users have a far easier time of white balance, because it is necessary to cover only the center circle etched in the viewfinder to set WB. Inventiveness easily gets around the concerns of large diameter lenses or Nikon setting difficulties. Colorright hangs around your neck, so if you have it with you always, you’ll use it more often. Consistent use of custom WB will boost the quality of your capture at least 100%.

10 Jay_S August 20, 2008 at 10:36 am

Looks interesting and can vouch for the technology having used an Expodisc. For those debating the AWB kitchen shots being yellow, that image is not that uncommon at all, even with the most expensive DSLRs. For the “fix it in the Raw processor” comments, yes, it “can” be done, but the neutral point is subjective and requires memory of what you saw. It can be done with Levels, but that process it also lengthy. The goal is to take images that are white balanced to begin with. Any form of custom white balance (including the old standby styrofoam coffee cup) is most times better than just leaving it in AWB. The reality is time vs. accuracy. It isn’t always convenient to take a reading. If this is as quick as it claims, your photos will benefit. Just two cents worth of thoughts.

11 Eric August 20, 2008 at 12:05 pm

@Jay_S – Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts.

I just received a review sample of the Expodisc and will begin working on a review for it shortly – after I finish with a couple other products. I’ll be sure to do some head-to-head comparisons as well for those of you interested in how they stack up against each other.

12 Paul August 20, 2008 at 12:48 pm

I agree with Dan… do we need this device? I just adjust the temp when I open the RAW file in ACR/PhotoShop CS3. Maybe if you are shooting hundreds of shots out to a JPEG for quick distribution and don’t want a lot of post-processing work, this would be a helpful tool. But if you always open the RAW (as I do… I don’t even shoot JPEGs), you can get your WB in seconds.

Seems like a neat device for special applications.

13 Jay_S August 20, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Paul,

I truly used to think that, and in fact still do use AWB and try to adjust with LR (or pick your Raw Processor) in many cases. If you have never tried custom White Balance though, you should really give it a try, even if you pick up an inexpensive 18% Gray card to work from. The issue with ACR, LR, Aperture, etc. is that, depending on the shot, there may not be a neutral gray to work from or, if using a “white” source, the intensity of the white can skew the whole image. If you have something like Lightroom, pick up the WB selector, scroll over various parts of an image, and see just how much different the image can look just using various “shades” of white. It is a question of just how accurate do you want to be on Color Balance. For most shots, outside, sunny day, etc. will AWB work, yes.. but even those shots would benefit some from a Custom White Balance. If you do weddings, portraits, indoor events like stage or theater, etc. the difference is fairly substantial. As I said, there is a process using Levels and finding the first “black” and corresponding “white” to get you there, but it is a lot nicer (and quicker) knowing that what is coming in is already balanced. :-) I’m not endorsing this product, as I’ve not tried it, just the Custome Color Balance process and tools like this one. Try any one of the tools .. you may find you like it! :-)

14 InfernoX August 20, 2008 at 7:32 pm

RAW is always better. it just takes longer to get it to look perfect. when you adjust the white balance, it just uses post processing built in the camera. the RAW file is an exact copy of what the censor picked up, including all the under exposed and over exposed frames (at least on the cameras i tried)

15 Dan September 11, 2008 at 9:37 am

If you do a “Custom White Balance”, use your LIGHTMETER and know your equipment (test,test test)! You WILL be dead on everytime! I shoot in jpeg – my exposures are always within 1/10th -2/10ths of a stop. I have enlarged these “Lowly” jpegs up to 20X30 with awesome results. Why suffer profits and waste time in Photoshop when you can start out with excellent files and have a great workflow?

16 Rich September 22, 2008 at 8:45 am

…or you can just hold a piece of paper over the lens…

…Or just edit the white balance of one photo in Lightroom/Aperture and copy/paste the setting to all the others. Probably faster than putting something over your lens…

17 Frank September 22, 2008 at 12:50 pm

… or, save the cash and use the top of a coffee can (platic top). Does the same thing and will get you very very close, if not dead on.

Frank

18 Mathieu Gentile September 23, 2008 at 8:31 am

Hello!
Using a Nutella(R) cap in front of the lens work just as well! ;-)
It is a lot cheap though!
Best regards,
Mathieu

19 sacha September 25, 2008 at 8:28 am

This could be a time saver for raw people. Under some outside/flourescent conditions where auto wb fails, wb can sometimes take 30-35 seconds to set right. With a card, you take a quick snap, use it for a reference, and do a final wb teak. I usually prefer a tad of warmth. For JPG shooters, you really have to use a card to calibrate. WB adjustments on 8bit files, usually can only be adjusted so well. Yes, a pringles, or coffee can might work ok. Especially, if you are only using it as a base reference for an additional tweak.

20 Diane Arbus November 27, 2008 at 1:22 am

@Rich

Finally!! I was waiting for someone to say that when I was going through the comments. :D

I don’t think people know enough about all the functionality and ease of use their photo software provides them (specifically, Aperture, LightRoom).

And yes why believe in this magical hocus pocus when you can easily do the same thing with a home made option???

No offense but doesn’t this post have the uncanny resemblance to an advertorial? Come on, there’s a little too much gushing over this piece of glass without a more critical analysis.

21 George Slusher December 4, 2008 at 7:51 am

A question: since this uses REFLECTED light, it “works” only if the scene is relatively neutral, overall. If the scene has a REAL color cast–like you’re shooting against a colored wall–it will try to take OUT that color. (The ExpoDisc has the same problem when used with reflected light–it’s supposed to be used with incident light–you put the camera at the position of the subject.)

FWIW, 18% gray cards are terrible for white balancing. They’re seldom really neutral (most I’ve seen have a decided blue cast) and they’re too dark. They’re meant for setting exposure, not white balance. “White” paper has a similar problem–most “white” paper is really somewhat blue, in order to appear more “white” to our eyes. (Anyone remember using “bluing” in laundry with whites?)

Sara Frances makes good points, except for one thing: as InfernoX pointed out, the camera’s white balance setting does NOT affect a RAW image. The best mode with RAW is a reference color that you know, like a WhiBal card that is very, very close to neutral. One click and the white balance is instantly set.

Jay_S has good advice, but, again, if you can have a reference in the same light as the photo, RAW processing can work nicely. Lightroom, Adobe Bridge, Canon DIgital Photo Professional, etc., can make the same correction to a series of photos in one action.

For RIch and Frank: those are cheap, but they’re NOT neutral. Put them in the same photo with a truly neutral reference and you may be shocked at how far off they are. Our eyes automatically correct for many lighting conditions, so white paper and Pringles lids appear neutral, but they’re not. (White paper is especially not neutral in transmission; it’s designed to look white in reflection.)

22 Bob March 30, 2009 at 2:21 am

Just an FYI – if you have an Olympus, you hold down the custom WB button (function button set to it) and shoot a small grey card that you can just pull out of your pocket. That’s it. It’s now set. No menus, nothing more, the camera is now ready to go.

I update the WB on a regular basis during shooting because it takes about 1 second. The WB is dead on practically every time (certainly near a 100 percent). Never really understood why these gimic products exist, but maybe it’s different on non-Olympus cameras or something and there is a market. The explanation of how complicated it is to set custom WB on a Canon (needing a menu) certainly explains a lot.

One package of grey cards cost less than ten bucks and cuts up into twenty or so pocket size cards. Basically, if you sense a change in light, reshoot the WB and you never have to deal with it in post processing or otherwise. WB is really a non-issue when you keep it up to date.

I will mention, good article though with real content.

23 daniel April 16, 2009 at 3:44 am

bonjour, votre offre m’intéresse !! mais le problème c’est mon anglais !!!
pourrais je s’il vous plait recevoir la même chose mais en français EN FRANÇAIS
en vous remerciant d’avance.
sincèrement daniel

24 Chris Webb June 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm

All of this is great. However, I’m sitting in a photo blind, waiting for wildlife. There are three cameras, with three long telephotos pointed in three different diections. The white balance in each direction changes constantly. At dusk and dawn, it’s even worse, especially with long telephotos. White balance in these situations is my greatest challenge. None of the “Colorrite” type devices are large enough to use with a 300, 400, or 500 fast prime lens (plus I can’t walk outside the blind every few minutes to get a new reading…the critters are not dumb). I just bought an old Minolta ambient light meter, and maybe that will help. Then again, Canon 50D is much “warmer” than 40D or 1D MKIII. It’s a real challenge.
Suggestions are welcomed…..

25 Agi September 5, 2009 at 9:08 am

Well, I bought one of these when Photography Bay advertised it as being on sale, stupid or not! I live in the UK, so the company who makes this thingamajig charged me £17 for postage and packaging, gulp, but wait, UK Customs slammed me with an extra £14 of import duty to release the package because the company marked on the package “gift”. So I was stuck, either I refuse the package and try to battle with an overseas company for full refund which can be rather iffy, or I take it and save myself the hassle. I opted for the latter. And thus all my supposed savings have evaporated! If you are ordering from the UK or the EU beware that you will be liable to pay excise duty on this imported item.
Have a good day, as they say on the other side of the pond!

26 Keith October 6, 2009 at 5:53 am

Make it youself…find a screw-on clear lens and place a round 2cm or 3/4″ sticker in centre, doesn’t need to be exact. Spray paint black and remove sticker…voila! Another way is drill a lens cap with correct dimensions.

27 Lars November 11, 2009 at 2:36 am

Plenty of these on ebay for just a few bucks. No need to spend $89 for this one.

28 ossme November 11, 2009 at 3:50 am

it is helpful when you are shooting a sport match with 100s of shots.

29 Connor December 28, 2009 at 1:18 pm

@Me My Canon Rebel XT and my Canon Rebel T1i both give that yellowish tint on auto when I shoot indoors.

30 alexander January 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Re the Colorright, yes, it really works, and the results “look” right. This is a nice review.
You do understand it is “fluorescent”, though ?
Thanks for your efforts.
Alexander
Sydney
Australia

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