Buy a gray card

Gray cards allow you to set the right white balance, while at the same time they help the camera guess the right exposure, shutter speed, aperture and gain. Doing color correction in-camera with a gray card creates no artifacts & it’s more accurate that when using digital color correction on post. More information here.

While gray cards are mostly used indoors (very good to calibrate exposure on low light among other gains), you can certainly use them outdoors too if the light conditions are weird (e.g. snowy surroundings, shooting under shadowy trees, cloudy days). Buy an “18% percent” gray card for $4. The smaller ones (more convenient to carry, but not as good for outdoors) cost $2. I made a video to show off the capability.

Here’s how you use them:
1. Place the camera at the place you will be shooting from.
2. Place the gray card vertically (without an incline, facing at the lens) on the spot you will be shooting at. If outdoors, place it as far as you can, as long as it still fills the frame when you zooming-in to it.
3. Put the camera into the non-automatic mode, and select the “Custom white balance” setting. All Canon camcorders allow for custom white balance (even the cheapest ones), but most of the cheaper non-Canon cameras don’t have this feature. If that’s the case, then you can’t use a Gray card, you need a camcorder that’s more serious than a toy (sorry, I had to pick at JVC).
4. Zoom-in all the way to the gray card to fill the frame (nothing else should be shown in the LCD screen or viewfinder but a dark gray color). At that point, set the custom white balance (according to your camera’s manual).

That’s it, shoot using that setting and enjoy true whites that are not yellows or reds. If the lighting conditions change (e.g. you moved from a very shadowy tree to a less shadowy place, or if the sun changed position a lot, or if you moved to another room), you will have to redo the four steps above.

7 Comments »

Jim wrote on February 12th, 2008 at 12:04 AM PST:

Nice door, thanks for sharing, seriously, I wonder how the gray card works? If we are white balancing, we are telling the camcorder that gray is white are we not?
I had a 4 hr shoot tonight, got home at midnight. I appreciate all the help it is helping me to get better


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on February 12th, 2008 at 12:10 AM PST:

The information you seek is on the first link above. ‘nough said. 😉


A. Photographer... wrote on February 12th, 2008 at 9:32 AM PST:

Your efforts in cinematography are great, but you need to learn the basics of photography – learning how to use a gray card is one of the first things you learn on a decent photography course, not something your find out about after months (years now?) of producing videos…


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on February 12th, 2008 at 12:35 PM PST:

What do you mean? I am producing videos only since last May, but my husband is a prosumer photographer for years now and he has been a good teacher. I’ve been using a gray card for a while now, it’s not my first time. It’s simply my first *article* about it. And besides, most of my tutorials have to do with software technicalities around video, not about art or photography techniques. I am a software person most of all, which is why I can help in that domain.


Kevin wrote on February 12th, 2008 at 1:57 PM PST:

Yeah, gray cards are nifty. Warm cards are also a nice thing to have in your inventory.


Vito wrote on February 14th, 2008 at 1:13 AM PST:

Eugenia or anyone else: Why is the larger gray card better? Anyone ever try the 18% gray cloths, which seem handier and easier to carry around?


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on February 14th, 2008 at 1:39 AM PST:

Read carefully. I suggested the larger gray card to be better for *outdoors*. For indoors which ever one you buy does not matter. But for outdoors, where usually you focus into the infinity, the farther away you can set the white balance, the more accurate it will be as the sensor will accumulate more light between you and the card. The larger the gray card is, the farther you will go from the camera to set the white balance, as you will be able to still fill the frame after you zoom in. Capito? 🙂


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