18% Gray Card

One of the things I wish I had taken in college was a basic
photography course. My understanding is that the basics of photography
translate well to digital. My only purpose with a camera is to take nice shots
of my work. I’ve learned a lot about shooting pictures from various friends,
one of whom is a photographer. 3 years ago Eric taught me how to set up my
camera in “custom” mode, evaluate my white balance and to use mostly manual
settings and to use my timer settings. I’d been using a tripod for years and
had been getting decent shots but Eric’s help really took my product shots to
the next level.

Then I changed cameras and it all came crashing down. I
stepped up; my new Canon had about 12 different settings. I did everything that
Eric taught me with my old camera to the new but forgot about evaluating my
white balance. Not a huge deal. My photos were never the right color, except
for when we were in our old place- that place, you couldn’t get a bad shot, the
light was so perfect. (Seriously the studio had north facing windows, 2 of them
and was filled until sundown with gloriously bright light.) So moving into our
new place pretty much put out the death bell on my photos. I was editing,
highlighting, fill lighting etc. Each photo that had once taken me 2 seconds to
shoot and 2 seconds to crop now took 3 or 4 steps to get ready for the

Until I did some reading, I rediscovered the “evaluate white
balance” setting on my camera and everything popped into place. I found some
info online about an 18% gray Card. This is essentially a flat gray piece of
card or cloth that is 18% red, 18% green and 18% blue. What you do is set this
in front of where your subject will be, use the evaluate white balance setting
while focus in on only the card and like magic the camera sees the colors
pretty much right. It’s seriously amazing the difference this makes, in both
video and still shots. I bought a 8×10 card from a local photography store, but
these things are all over eBay and the internet. Mine cost $3.50. I cut an end
off and have one in my video camera and regular camera bag, the large piece
sits next to my photo set up. There are some videos on YouTube showing how to
use one. I’ll track one down and post a link. I also found numerous websites
discussing the gray card and it’s virtues as well as a few debunking it.*

Before getting the 18% card using the manual setting on my
camera for evaluate white balance also produced pretty good results. I used a
white index card, focused in on it and then used the EWB setting on the video
camera and colors popped and looked more true. I also tried it out with my
camera and same deal. The 18% gray card though, the results were startling and
pretty amazing.



This photo was taken with my camera AWB or auto white balance. This is the Devil.


This photo was taken after focusing in on the white card and using the Manual White Balance setting. Markedly better. You can see in the fore ground how it’s a touch dark, but it’s nothing that that fill light in Picasa can’t fix.


This is after using the set white balance setting while focusing in on the 18% gray card. Remarkably better and even significantly so over the white card. Still the white in the fore ground is a touch dark but the colors are all true.

I checked out the histograms of all the images in picasa and the difference on the graph is what you see in the pictures. Picture one is a mess, picture 2 is a ton better and picture 3 is very good indeed. I guess  that the next step for me is to get another light and clip it to my tripod as well as a few filters for the lamps so that the light is slightly defused rather than direct.

*I’m not going to go into much about the debunking it
theories, most of the articles that I found with a negative view of the 18%
card dealt with specific brands of camera and what specific amounts of RGB
their sensors could read. In my application a different between 18% and 14%
isn’t going to make a huge difference. Not to mention that most of the articles
dealt with Nikon cameras and since I shoot with a Cannon and a JVC it doesn’t
matter too much. I suggest that you google 18% gray card and see the hits you
get and read a few of the articles.