Do You Need to Carry a Gray Card?

A classic 18% gray card. Do you need one in your camera bag? (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

A classic 18% gray card. Do you need one in your camera bag? (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

AWB-Auto White Balance-has gotten really good in the current generation of digital cameras. They do an excellent job of reading and deciphering most lighting situations that you’ll encounter. So does it make sense to carry a gray card to custom-adjust light balance? Should you learn how to use this old-school device, a true relic from the old Ansel Adams Zone System?

Well, the answer is complicated….it depends! It depends upon the kind of shooting that you do, and how fussy and technical you want to get with your photography. If you like to shoot first, and ask and answer questions later in Photoshop, as in, “I can fix anything in Photoshop,” then no, you probably are not gray-card material.

On the other hand, if you really care about the color in your images, and/or have situations that you shoot in in which color fidelity is really important, then you should carry a gray card and learn how to use it effectively.

I’ll address this post to the second group of shooters.

So when do I pull out a gray card? Basically, in a few specific situations. I do a fair amount of photography in the Louisiana Superdome, and like a lot of domed stadiums, the light inside is some weird mix of sodium vapor, tungsten and maybe even metal halide. In other words, it’s a mess! Relying on Auto White Balance in this location can lead to some strange results. The most common is that the purple in LSU’s school uniforms will usually translate as a deep Royal Blue, using AWB. This is a good case for a gray card exposure. Pulling out a gray card and shooting a quick exposure of it before the start of the game can save you lots of grief later, as I’ll explain below. (Alternatively, if your camera allows, you could shoot a “custom white balance,” but that’s an article for another day.)

Another place I use a gray card occasionally is in photographing artwork. My wife is an artist and I shoot copies of her paintings for her. The gray card is a great way to ensure accurate color reproduction in the copy.

How does a gray card work? This may be oversimplifying, but think about your modern digital camera and its light meter as a computer with a lens on the front. That light meter/computer has algorithms built in for dealing with most lighting situations you’ll encounter, hence the Auto White Balance setting. But when the lighting is mixed, the camera will have a harder time making a correct decision about the light balance. When you pull out your gray card, you’re including a known 18% gray value in the exposure. When you balance this in Photoshop (as explained below), or Adobe Bridge, you give the program a known neutral starting point, from whence all other color values can then be properly calculated.

Below is an example of a mixed-light situation that combines lamp light (in this case, a compact fluorescent source) with evening daylight. Where you place the gray card will have a lot of impact upon your final results. See below.

Here compact fluorescent from the lamp light mixes with early-evening daylight to create a mixed-light situation. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Here compact fluorescent from the lamp light mixes with early-evening daylight to create a mixed-light situation. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Carry a gray card with your camera gear. Then, when you find yourself in a mixed-light situation-a shooting environment in which different, incompatible light sources are hitting your subject—pull out the card and shoot a frame of that first. Go ahead and shoot the photograph.

Here’s the easy workflow for jpeg photos:

When you get ready to process the batch of photos from that situation, open up the gray card photo first.

Select the middle eyedropper and click it on your gray card. You'll see all of the color in the photo realign around the neutral tones of the card. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Select the middle eyedropper and click it on your gray card. You'll see all of the color in the photo realign around the neutral tones of the card. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Go to Levels and select the middle (gray) eye dropper from below the Options button on the right.  Click on the gray card. You’ll see the colors in the photo clean up like magic!

DON’T CLOSE THE LEVELS WINDOW YET.

To the right of the Preset pulldown at the top of the Levels window is a small icon for Preset Options. Click this open and choose “Save Preset.”

Choose the scroll icon and when it opens, select "Save Preset." (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Choose the scroll icon and when it opens, select "Save Preset." (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Give it a name you’ll remember.

Now open up another photo from the shoot.

Open Levels. (Cntrl-L on PC, Cmd-L on Mac)

From the Preset pulldown menu, select the preset you made.

Hit OK and voila! It will apply the same toning adjustment to your current photo.

That’s it! A gray card is another nice little tool to have in your box of photo tricks…learn to use one and see what it does for your photography!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

18 Comments on "Do You Need to Carry a Gray Card?"

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  1. David Joachim says:

    Andrew,
    Great tip. I often use my camera’s custom white balance, but have never used a grey card for color reference. It was common in still photography and cinematography to shoot a grey scale and a color bar, but that was primarily for lab timing purposes. A gazillion years ago, before I owned an incident light meter, I used an 18% card for averaging exposure. The Edius non-linear edit system WWL uses has a grey area system for correcting existing bad color in video. Its success depends on how bad the inherent color is, however. Nothing beats getting it right in the camera.
    David

  2. Your last sentence contains wise words indeed!

  3. ola Thorin says:

    I think your explanation of the use of greycard ias a bit dubious. As you say, the graycard is a vital part of Ansel Adams Zone-system. BUT , that has nothing to do with white balance or color correction at all! The 18% graycard has the value of wich every exposuremeters are callibrated. Therefore you have a steady ground when you callibrate your exp.meter and the developing of your negatives.
    It is true that a greycard can be of help when callibrating the colors, but the whitebaklance normally goes from..white!
    In the case with mixed light sources, sometimes a perfect whitebalance is just not possible, becouse some lamps like mercury and sodium vapor doesn`t have the whole spectrum of visible light, you can never reack a perfect white. ( Without changing the lamps)
    Best regards; Ola

  4. I don’t disagree with you about white balancing using a white card—that’s another valuable technique for mixed light situations that I use, usually in stadiums with funky combinations of lighting, when white balancing in the camera. But the grey card does work–give it a try, using the method described, which, remember is a Photoshop technique, essentially. A white card does not work as well here because as you know if you’ve tried going to levels and clicking using the white eye dropper, you get a pure white (no data in the pixels) result. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Thank you for the information. I have a popup gray card thing which is always in my camera bag. It is great for awkward lighting situations.

  6. Bayou Bill says:

    http://www.ppmag.com/web-exclusives/2008/11/product-comparison-white-balan-1.html

    Anyone care to comment on the devices reviewed at this link? The one in the bottom left of the photo appeals to me, though the Melitta brand is a little pricey.

  7. Rae Merrill says:

    Interesting discussion. In the days of film the grey card was used primarily for measuring exposure but with digital you don’t really need to do that. Glad to see it being used for colour adjustment although again in situations under your control you can make adjustments then check on the screen and adjust from there. In situations outside your control such as stadiums and theatres then measuring the colour balance is pretty much redundant because you cant control the lighting, you simply have to work with what’s there.

    Hope this makes sense.

  8. I sat through a session with a Canon tech rep last week on the Mark IV. For white balancing, he recommended using a grey card for situations like the stadium I describe above…

  9. CAM says:

    According to my understanding:

    when working in YMCK colors (for print) you can use the exposure card to reference the colors in photoshop to the 4 individual colors.

    when working in RGB mode (for digital web images), all you need is 18% grey (it automatically includes the Red, Green and the Blue. easy way to adjust your colors.

    18% Grey = RED, GREEN, BLUE

    is this correct?

    here is a exposure card
    http://www.digitalimageflow.com/DGK_2010_files/2010_product_image_DNG2.png

    i took a picture while holding the card, now I am only trying to find out how I can adjust the colors in photoshop using the eye drop tool to reference to those colors.

  10. You could open this image up in Photoshop, go into Levels, and use the middle (midtone) eyedropper, lower right, to set gray. The other colors will fall in line around the neutral, which is what you want. The card you’re using looks like it’s really designed for calibration in CMYK printing, which is a different animal from the discussion in this post, although of course related.
    Hope this helps!

  11. carson says:

    Thanks for additional tips. I do use gray cards specially in poor lighting condition. Those are great help.

    Carson W.

  12. Roz Harris says:

    I’m glad I came across this post. I used to be the “I can fix anything in Photoshop” kind of guy, but I started to realize that I was spending too much time trying to fix pictures, whereas I should have spent more time getting the picture right in the first place.

    Thanks for all this info!

  13. Bob Diamond says:

    Would this work on a regular digital Point & Shoot too using Photoshop as the editor?

  14. Walsworth Farrington says:

    Hello Mr. Boyd,

    In the example of a mixed-light situation that combines lamp light (in this case, a compact fluorescent source) with evening daylight. Where you place the gray card will have a lot of impact upon your final results. Where should you place the grey card?

    Thanks,

    Walsworth

  15. You have to experiment to see where the best mix occurs. Each situation will be a bit different but you’ll be able to see your results immediately on the LCD screen.

  16. Keri Gibson says:

    Thank you so much for explaining this to me. I am a photography major at AIO in Pittsburgh, and had no idea how important a gray card can be to photography!

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