Product Comparison: White Balance Filters

By Stan Sholik

If the number of products available to pre-capture white balance digital cameras is any indication, professional photographers’ interest in creating a neutral color balance must be very high. There is a good reason for this of course. While professional digital cameras do an excellent job autofocusing and autoexposing, auto white balance is not likely to give accurate, consistent color under many ambient lighting conditions.

White balance isn’t that much of an issue when making RAW captures as it is easy to adjust when processing the files, though it adds work time. When capturing in JPEG, or RAW + JPEG formats, it is important to have as accurate and consistent color as possible to reduce additional processing and saving of the compressed file.

With prices ranging from $8 to over $100, I thought it would be interesting to test a few of these white balance filters under actual ambient lighting conditions to see if they produced an accurate white balance and to examine the advantages or disadvantages to each. One of my photographer friends swears by Mr. Coffee filters for white balancing, and I was curious to see if he was really serious! My store was out of Mr. Coffee brand but had Melitta Junior Basket filters in stock, so I picked up a pack for testing.

Along with the Melitta, I tested five filters designed for professional photographers: the ClearWhite, ExpoDisc Neutral, Lally CAP, Mennon and Phoxle SpectraSnap. Designers of each of these photographic filters took a slightly different approach, and one approach or another might influence your decision as much as the accuracy of the white balance.


Top Row: ClearWhite, ExpoDisc, Lally CAP. Bottom Row: Melitta, Mennon, Phoxle SpectraSnap. Image ©Stan Sholik

The standard ClearWhite filter is a 4-inch square with a small hole drilled in one corner for the supplied neckstrap attachment. One side of the filter is a 1/8-inch piece of diffused white plastic while the other side is a 1/16-inch piece of black foam with a 2.5-inch hole cut from the center. You hold the foam side against any lens with a diameter up to 95mm and make an exposure to set the white balance. I felt a little silly walking around with it dangling around my neck, and it’s a little too large for pockets, but it stores compactly in a camera bag when it isn’t needed. MSRP is $49.95 and it is available from www.DigitalPhotographyKits.com.

Most photographers are familiar with the ExpoDisc from ExpoImaging. In the interest of full disclosure, it is the filter that I have used since it became available. The round ExpoDisc consists of a prism-textured plastic disc on one side and a plastic diffusion disc on the other. Sandwiched between the two are color correction filters. I use the 82mm model and simply hold it in front of the lens with the prism side facing the primary light source. ExpoDiscs are available in various sizes from 52mm (MSRP $69.95) to 95mm (MSRP $169.95) from www.ExpoDisc.com. They also include a neckstrap that I don’t use, but the 82mm fits easily in a pocket.

The Lally CAP takes a unique design approach. It is a piece of gray fabric with elastic sewn into the edge. The Lally CAP slips over the front of your lens (up to about 100mm diameter) and stays in place while you make the white balance exposure. You need to remove most of the ‘flower-petal’ lens hoods in order to use it, but it can be slipped over the lens hood of other lenses. What I really liked about the Lally CAP was slipping it off the lens and just stuffing it into a pocket until I needed it again. It is available from www.LallyPhotography.com/store for $29.95.

There are many variants of the Mennon white balance filter sold under other names but all look and cost the same. It is made in China and consists of two pieces. One piece screws into the filter threads of your lens and the white plastic diffuser snaps on. It is sold as a white balance lens cap that can remain on your lens for protection when the lens is not in use, but I set aside the threaded section and just held the diffusing piece over the lens. Filters are available from 52mm to 77mm for about $5 on eBay.

The Phoxle SpectraSnap is a flat white disc with notches holding a removable blue rubber band. I removed the rubber band and simply held it in front of my lens. It too is pocket sized, but seemed to scratch a little more easily than the others. The scratches seemed to have no effect on its operation however. It also comes with a nice soft black fabric bag that I used to store it between tests. There is only one size of the SpectraSnap available and it is suitable for lenses up to 120mm in front diameter. MSRP is $59.95 from www.phoxle.com.

The giant of the group is the Melitta filter, measuring over 6 inches in diameter and large enough for a 300mm f/2.8 lens. Available at supermarkets in packs of 200 for about $2, I had a hard time taking it seriously at first.

I tested in three different challenging lighting conditions. First was in the morning fog to see if the white balance filters would deliver a neutral gray fog. Second was on an industrial assignment using only the plant’s available light. This consisted of 4000K, 65 CRI lamps about 30 feet off the floor, large skylights and open roll-up doors. Finally I shot in late morning inside a church lit with the new compact fluorescent bulbs in overhead fixtures with light streaming in through stained glass windows. At each location I did my white balance exposure with the lens and filter pointed at the main light source, then captured a JPEG of the scene.
The original captures are reproduced here…

  

  

 

 

  

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

In each lighting condition, the Auto white balance of the D3 gets you somewhere in the ballpark, but not to a neutral. In the church series, the Auto white balance is far too warm, while in the fog and industrial series it is too cool. The ClearWhite nailed the fog and industrial tests, but, as with all the filters, is a little cool in the church. Closest to neutral in the church and providing the most accurate visual match is the ExpoDisc, which also delivered a very neutral fog scene and was only slightly warm in the industrial capture. The Lally CAP is consistently cool in each of the conditions although it does a pretty good job with the fog. The Mennon also was consistently cool, but pretty close in the industrial shot. The Phoxle SpectraSnap was cool in the church, but nailed the fog and was only slightly cool in the industrial setting.

But the surprise of the test is the Melitta. It delivered a perfectly neutral fog and was slightly cool in the others, but no worse that most and better than the Lally CAP and the Mennon!

To pick a winner, I’d say, with the conditions tested here, it’s a tossup between the ClearWhite and the ExpoDisc. But in a pinch, stop by a supermarket and pick up a bag of Melitta Junior Basket coffee filters.

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Comments (28)

CJW:

Coffee filter!? Awesome. That's an idea I can see people running with. Where did you first learn of the trick?

Sounds like you're still happy with your pricey ExpoDisc ;)

Rhet:

Thanks for the test results--it looks like the exposure values varied in some of those photos, not just the white balance, but maybe it's my crumby monitor talking. People who buy Expodiscs HAVE to love them, given the price. I'm still trying to find the best white balance solution, somewhere between coffee filter and Expo...

CSF:

Whatever happened to the good ole gray card?

pam:

I love it! A coffee filter. I like the slightly diffused look it lends to the images. There are probably a lot of household things that could be used for a white balance reading.

The Nikon D3 has a really nice warm balance.

Wyman Bess:

Using the Melitta Filter do you just place it over the Flash ?

Great test, especially since a paper filter that costs a penny did about the same as a terribly overpriced piece of plastic that sells for over $100.

It confirms my belief that photographers are idiots when it comes to gadgets.

Personally, I use the same gray card I used when I was shooting film.

Note to Pam- You make an exposure with the filter over the lens BEFORE not during your session. Here's how it works.
1.You change your auto focus to manual.
2. Set a proper maunal exposure setting for the scene.
3. Place the filter over the lens.
4. Take a shot while aiming at the light source.
5.Then you select "custom white balance" in your menu and then select the white/gray image that you just took.
6.Set your white balance on the back of the camera to custom.
7.Change your auto focus back to auto and shoot your session.
The filter is never on your image when you are shooting your session so it cannot give a "softening effect". Hope this helps everyone understand the process. Cheers!-Carla Nelms

In all three tests, I found white balanced images with Melitta (a coffee filter!) to be most pleasing. Could you perhaps also conduct a test with portraits? A test with skin tones would be wonderful!

Yes, I'm interested in seeing this test with people. Skin tones are tricky. Anyone have any samples? I work in Vancouver as a wedding photographer and we have a lot of different skin tones here.

Thanks for this. I have a photovision target that I am happy with, but it is a pain to have the subject hold it and such every time I move to a different location. Having already spent $ on the target I might just keep a pack of coffee filters in by bag.

colin:

Daniel,
The White Balance filters allow you to take a "colour temperature" reading of the light source and make in -camera adjustments. It matters not if the subject has black, asian, caucasian,North American native Indian, etc. coloured skin.
The temperature of the light source remains constant and that is what you are reading and adjusting the camera for.It is similar to using colour temperature compensating filters when shooting with film.

Thanks Stan for the informative article.

One important thing that I believe was omitted was that the ExpoDisc can be used to set the exposure too. So while it may seem costly, it can replace the need for a hand held light meter. Can any of the other white balance devices be used to set exposure as well?

Thanks for the info!

I have used a coffee filter many times. However, I always point it at the subject rather than the light source, since there can often be several light sources.

I usually use the inverted dome from from my Gary Fong Light Sphere II. In my opinion, it does as good a job as the Expodisk.

Russ

Dealing with white balance can make all of us humble. I think what makes white balance so critical is that no 2 camera sensors are the same. Even sensors of the same camera type. Each one is just a little different. I believe the film manufactures had a tighter tolerance on their film then the makers of these sensors.

I found that when I color corrected my sensor using the calibrate section of adobe camera raw, it gave me a much wider white balance tolerance. I would be interested in finding out if anyone else has had a similar experience.

I used my coffee filter after having brewed some French Roast, and it rendered the scene very cool. But the coffee kept me warm inside so it wasn't a total loss. Just kidding. Thanks for the comparison. I love the coffee filter idea!

Ellen:

Do you open the filter and hold it over the lens?

DogBreath:

I think a short discussion of white balancing strategies is relevant.

Sometimes I'll use an Expodisc, but more often I'll use a Photovision or WhiBal device.

The tools discussed in this article set the white balance in the camera.

A WhiBal/grey card is used to adjust the white balance during post-processing.

Both strategies are effective. Choosing one or the other method is largely a matter of personal choice and workflow convenience.

For portraits...which makes more sense, the Expodisc or Photovision Target?

For portrait and event work the Colorright (not discussed here) and the ClearWhite produce the most satisfactory results in the widest variety of lighting situations. The Colorright is easier to use accurately. Repeatablitiy and consistent usability is the key. The Photovision target is in a class by itself, offering a lot more information the precision photographer will appreciate. It's also top notch for video work, performing better than disks in this application. The physics of light and digital capture easily prove that white balancing in camera produces a significant improvement over an exclusively postproduction strategy. Nowhere is this more obvious and valuable than in portraiture. Anyone who tells you postproduction is equivalent to accurate capture doesn't know their science. For best result, combine and conquer. Yes, the disks are a bit quicker ad simpler to use. But, it is very handy to have a reference card in at least one frame to zero in during post. Not mentioned in the article is Robin Myer's Digital Gray Card. Inexpensive and good. Leaving a Photovision frame in your capture is excellent too. Avoid the cheap devices that change color over time, or vary use to use. After one use and crumpled in your bag, the coffee filter doesn't look too good. Just a fun remedy to be used in a crisis. The most important thought is that all devices get you just so far: the last 5-10% is your personal taste and your inspiration for the image at hand.

For portrait and event work the Colorright (not discussed here) and the ClearWhite produce the most satisfactory results in the widest variety of lighting situations. The Colorright is easier to use accurately. Repeatablitiy and consistent usability is the key. The Photovision target is in a class by itself, offering a lot more information the precision photographer will appreciate. It's also top notch for video work, performing better than disks in this application. The physics of light and digital capture easily prove that white balancing in camera produces a significant improvement over an exclusively postproduction strategy. Nowhere is this more obvious and valuable than in portraiture. Anyone who tells you postproduction is equivalent to accurate capture doesn't know their science. For best result, combine and conquer. Yes, the disks are a bit quicker ad simpler to use. But, it is very handy to have a reference card in at least one frame to zero in during post. Not mentioned in the article is Robin Myer's Digital Gray Card. Inexpensive and good. Leaving a Photovision frame in your capture is excellent too. Avoid the cheap devices that change color over time, or vary use to use. After one use and crumpled in your bag, the coffee filter doesn't look too good. Just a fun remedy to be used in a crisis. The most important thought is that all devices get you just so far: the last 5-10% is your personal taste and your inspiration for the image at hand.

Mike Pieklo:

Here's a tip - for a coffee filter set-up...I purchased for $.99 a 4" embroidery hoop...stretch the coffee filter over the hoop and fasten according to instructions and you have a filter that's reusable, fits into you camera bag easily and conveniently and when dirtied, can be replaced...try any fabric or craft store for embroidery hoops...

pam:

Carl, you misunderstood me and I should have stated it clearer. If you look at the example of the ship the Melitta filter white balance does diffuse the photo slightly. Obviously you can't put it over the lens or you would get nothing but a shot of white. Thanks for the set up instructions though.

Carla Nelms:

Hi Pam, In the most caring and friendly spirit I must say, how can the Melitta filter diffuse the image when it is not on the camera or the flash when the image is taken? It can't. White balance is just a color choice not a sharpness issue. Maybe someone else can jump in here with a better explanation.

Beth:

@pam - it looks more "diffused" in that ship photo because of the current fog conditions. Slightly more fog in front of the ship = less contrast.

Vicki M:

Pam, you put the filter over the front of the lens to take a custom white balance reading. With my camera you set the camera to custom white balance, and with the filter over the front of the lens, you take a picture. The image will be white. Then you go into the menu find that image and set it as your custom white balance. You do not take photos with the filter on, nor do you put it over the flash, unless you want to diffuse the light with it. But that would be another discussion.

Vicki M.:

Pam, you put the filter over the front of the lens to take a custom white balance reading. With my camera you set the camera to custom white balance, and with the filter over the front of the lens, you take a picture. The image will be white. Then you go into the menu find that image and set it as your custom white balance. You do not take photos with the filter on, nor do you put it over the flash, unless you want to diffuse the light with it. But that would be another discussion

Joe:

Found this when researching a replacement for my Mennon that's just a few month's old.

Recently it has resulted in blueish images. Apparently, just like other soft plastics, the cover begins to turn "orangish" over time.

Anyone notice this with any of the others?

Thanks for a well written, no BS article. I rent strobes from time to time and like to white balance them to my camera. I wonder if exposure is a factor in getting a correct white balance? I generally just point the lens at the light source without concerning myself about the exposure.

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