Archive for October 4th, 2006

Anatomical 18% gray card

Any SLR user (advanced) who shoots in “M” mode must have surely come across the term “18% gray”. So what exactly is this 18% gray and how does it affect exposure?

Mostly all cameras have an in-built light meter, which are calibrated for 18% gray i.e. the reference point for a camera’s light-meter to determine exposure are the surfaces that reflect 18% of the light that if falling on them. It is similar to a thermometer: At room temperature the thermometer stay at 94-97 deg i.e. the mercury in the thermometer remains stable during these temperatures. As the temperatures rise above this point the mercury starts reacting and shoots up the meter depending on the temperature it has been subjected to. So a reference point for a thermometer are the points at which it stays stable. Depending on this you can say if a person has a fever or if there is a drop in temperature. Similarly a camera”s light-meter is calibrated for, surfaces that reflect 18% light, or in other words, surfaces with 18% reflectance. So the mid-tones in your frame are rendered as surfaces that reflect 18% gray and deflection from this point results in an over or an under-exposed picture.

For instance if you compose a picture with your SLR camera in such a way that the frame is filled with any black material, the famous example is when you shoot a black cat. Place a black cat on a leather couch which is also black in color and then compose and shoot the picture with the whole frame filled with the black cat and the background, the black couch.

The results will be surprising you will see that the camera will fail to understand the shades of black and your picture will have a noticeable layer of gray on it. This is because of the camera calibration to 18%gray. Since the light-meter cannot find any mid-tones it renders the whole picture as gray. Similarly you can try this with your frame filled with only whites and you’ll see that the results are more or less the same.

So, how do we expose correctly for black cats ūüôā or rather when your frame is filled with same colors? The answer is very simple: “Use an 18% gray card/surface to determine the exposure”.

How do I take the reading for a good exposure? You can place the 18% gray card next to the subject of interest. Zoom in with your lens (or go closer) and now focus the gray card, adjust your shutter speed such that the light meter indicates perfect exposure. Now remove the gray card, zoom out and recompose your frame with your cat or whatever it is, DO NOT CHANGE YOUR EXPOSURE SETTINGS (let the reading be the one that you took off from the gray card) and then shoot et voila you now have a better and most realistic colors and shades of the picture as opposed to the one that the stupid light-meter has decided for you.

So now where do I get a gray card?

You can pick them at any of your local store for a few dollars.

What If I don’t have one or If you forgot one at home?

Most of the camera bag manufacturers (LowePro) provide the adjustable partition strips inside the bags with gray color. you can just strip on these and use it as your gray card. Alternatively an average human palm is supposed to reflect 18% gray so you are never out of options.

Tricky situations can be encountered when you are shooting a landscape with hills, clouds, flowing water, rocks and the green valley. Obviously, one cannot walk up to the hill place your gray card, come back place it on the water and then on the greens, take readings and shoot. The solution for this is quite simple and also complex

keep reading this blog for more on exposure techniques.

Good day people!