How, When, and Why To Use A Gray Card

Are you learning to shoot in manual mode? Do you get frustrated when trying to figure out how to expose for your subject?

A gray card may not be an everyday tool,  but in some situations it absolutely does the trick to get exposure correct.

So what is it anyway?

A gray card can range from a $2.00 piece of paper to a $100 system. I use the 12 inch Lastolite Ezybalance Card available for under $30.

Why would you use it?

Your camera doesn’t see in black and white. Your camera records tones ranging from black to white. Take a look at your camera’s histogram and you’ll see this grayscale range. Blacks are to the left and white on the right.

Right there in the middle of the white and black is middle gray. Middle gray is the color we want to expose for to ensure all of our colors are represented in their truest form.

A gray card finds middle gray, helping you to determine the correct exposure in a given situation.

How do you use it?

Yes, we skipped step 4!

Here are those same five steps in a bit more detail.

  1. Place your gray card in the same light as your subject at the same angle.
  2. Point your camera at the gray card. You can focus on the center, but it isn’t necessary.
  3. Adjust your meter until it indicates a “correct exposure” by lining up the indicator to the middle.
  4. Remove the gray card from your scene if your subject will allow it!
  5. Ignore your light meter (it will bounce all around as it continues to read the light) and shoot.

When can you use it?

You can use it in almost any situation when you want to get your exposure correct.

I use it when:

  • my subject is a difficult to meter color
  • when I want the best results possible
  • when I have time
  • when I’m shooting for someone else

You’ll be surprised at how much a simple extra step can change your photographs. You won’t need to use it for every photo, but when you really care about your results it can make the difference you are looking for.

Have you used a gray card?