Last Updated on February 4, 2021 by Jose Barrios
The bane of all real estate photographers are lightbulbs, they change the colors of everything in a room. If you “white balance” for the outside light coming into a room, everything turns orange, if you try to compensate for the inside lights, then your windows turn blue, as does anything that has outside sunlight hitting it.
You can help your editing process with a simple $10 White Balance 18% Gray Card you can buy on Amazon.
It will not fix your different color temp problem, but it will make your life easier when editing, and it will take the guesswork of figuring out what colors are the real ones.
Auto White Balance is not precise
When photographing indoors with competing light sources (lightbulbs vs sunlight) your camera’s AWB (Auto White Balance) will usually have a hard time figuring out the correct color temperature setting.
My camera is always set to AWB because I personally do not care too much about it due to the fact that I always shoot in RAW mode.
RAW image files allow me to adjust the color balance in Lightroom as much as I please. All I must do is find something gray or white in the image to click on with the eyedropper tool and presto, problem solved!
Keep in mind that JPEG files have the white balance “baked in”, so you are not able to change it with the precision that a RAW file would.
Of course, this will not solve all my color issues, like blue windows or orange ceilings, but it is a starting point to get things right. To solve the blue window problem and color accuracy you need to do Window Pulls and Flambients, but that is a topic for another post.
Some rooms are a color temperature mess
You will come across rooms in your career that are a hodgepodge of colors, all sorts of lightbulbs with varying color temps, the outside light is from an overcast day, and there is just noting in the room for you to easily use as a reference point for the white balance eyedropper tool in Lightroom.
I do not have an easy way of describing these rooms to you, but after a while of editing your own photographs, you will learn to recognize them. They are usually filled with dark colors, very warm yellow light bulbs, and no white or gray reference points.
Here is where a single photo of the room with a gray card in the frame will help you out. You do not need the gray card in every shot, just one.
This one-shot now gives you the reference point you needed to set your white balance in Lightroom.
Gray cards also help with flashes
Not all speedlights and flashes are created equal, and even a flash trigger can trick your camera into using the wrong color balance setting as demonstrated in this video from Nathan Cool.
What Nathan discovered was that aftermarket flash manufacturers like Godox or Neewer try to pass off as OEM parts when “talking” to your camera, and since not all flashbulbs are manufactured equally, the camera would compensate for color balance thinking it had an original manufacturer light connected to it.
He fixed it with a simple $10 hot-shoe adapter that basically makes you flash or flash trigger “dumb”. It stops the camera from communicating with the flash, but it still allows the camera to trigger it.
A side benefit from using this adapter is that now you can use your camera manufacturer-specific flashes and triggers on any other camera. You can now use Nikon flashes on Canon and vice versa.
Gray cards help you get your color just right because flashes, especially aftermarket ones, are not always accurate, but the price difference makes them quite attractive.
Gray cards are a must for color accuracy
Some clients will request that your images accurately reflect the true colors of the property. This is especially true for rooms that have light pastel colors, dark ceilings, or strange lighting.
Gray cards take the guesswork out of your color accuracy. Instead of clicking on different parts of an image in hopes of finding that one sweet spot, you now have a target that will in a single click give you the correct color temperature.
It has been my experience that I will not always remember what the actual colors were in the home when editing the photo in Lightroom. A gray card solves that.
Not all gray cards are created equal
Some gray cards are really expensive when compared to the generic $10 ones. While most real estate photographers will never require the more expensive versions, there are some that will.
Cheap gray cards are usually printed using a four-color process, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black). To the naked eye they look gray, but in reality, they can contain a combination of all four colors.
High-end cards like the X-Rite Color Checker are made with just 18% black ink, no other colors.
Where this difference really comes to light is on video. When using a scope and trying to set your WB the cheaper generic cards will clearly show that they contain colors other than black.
Color reference targets
I would like to briefly mention color reference targets, the ultimate solution for color accuracy. You can usually spot these in professional photoshoots hanging around camera assistants’ necks.
ColorChecker Passport Photo 2
When color accuracy is an absolute must, the only way to go is with a color reference chart like the x-rite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2.
They basically allow you to create custom color profiles for your cameras and lenses, which in turn allow you to produce images that are identical in color even when using cameras and lenses from different manufacturers.
They are great, I own one, but in all honestly, I rarely use it. Real estate photos are not required to be that accurate to start off with.
While not required a gray card is a cheap and handy thing to carry around in your camera bag.
I use it when I’m in doubt if I will get the colors right, and it only takes one picture to use. Gray cards save me time when editing my images and take the guesswork out of remembering what the actual colors of a room where.
So save yourself the frustration, and get yourself an 18% gray card to put in your bag.
“What can I say? I love taking photos of houses.”
Based in Orlando Florida, Jose is a real estate photographer specializing in vacation homes, working for realtors and property managers to make their properties look great. You can visit his site at JoseBarriosPhoto.com.