**This photography tutorial was posted on the ever-growing CM forum; however, we think it’s so rad that we just had to share with you, too**
Like Goldilocks on the hunt for the perfect bed to nap in, we photographers are working to achieve the perfect exposure in our images. Sometimes they’re too dark, sometimes they’re too bright, but with a few quick tips, you can get your exposures just right!
I help teach the Mastering Manual Exposure photography workshop and wrote up this tutorial on how to use your grey card to determine, not only the correct exposure for your image, but also the correct meter reading for your subject’s skin.
I like to try to make things simple… to take guess work out of things if I can… and this helps to do that.
All you need is a grey card. I have the Lastolite Collapsible Grey Card. I love it because it folds down small and easily fits in my camera bag, but opens to a nice 12″ size.
You can also use a white piece of computer paper, folded over into 1/4s (just to make sure it is totally opaque), but I recommend looking into a grey card because they are super helpful for setting your custom white balance.
Step 1: Meter your fray card to zero
Anywho… first, I determined what the exposure would be for my ‘scene’ and the light that shone on it.
I just held my grey card in the spot my subject’s face would be and metered off of the bottom, light corner to 0 because I was casting a bit of a shadow on the other areas. (If you’re using a white piece of paper, meter to +2.)
Please don’t judge my compositions or my subjects’ expressions…. this was all just for exposure’s sake!
Step 2: Move your subject into the gray card’s position
Next, I had my middle son sit in that spot and hovered my camera focus point over the lighter cheek (camera right).
Step 3: Observe the meter reading
The metering reading is just your subject’s exposure number.
As soon as the focus point was positioned on his cheek, I saw my meter move up to +1. THAT is his reading! I didn’t have to adjust any of my settings to take my shot, because I had already metered FOR that LIGHT off of my grey card.
Next, I had my oldest son come sit. I changed my aperture to 2.2, so I used my grey card again, dialed in a 0 meter reading off of it.
Then, hovered my metering focal point on his camera-right cheek and it came up as +1, too! This doesn’t surprise me that he and his brother would have the same reading, because they are very similar in coloring.
Same with my littlest! He’s a +1, too!
This test showed me that wherever my boys are, if I spot meter off of their mid-tone skin (not off of a shadow) to +1, they will be properly exposed.
Just to give another example…
Kaden went outside and I followed him…. metered to +1 off of his cheek and here you go. The lighting is unflattering though rendering a highlight on his nose and shadows in his eyes, so I moved him over to under our awning…
Metered off of my grey card to 0 and also went ahead and set my custom white balance, too. I have a bit of a shadow on this particular image, but for the sample I took for my custom white balance, I was very careful to NOT cast a shadow… that will throw off your white balance.
And here he is… when my focus point is hovering on his camera left cheek, the meter jumped up to… you guessed it… +1!
(Gotta love this smile!)
Next he ran upstairs to watch his daddy cleaning gutters. I thought this would be a good chance to show you how I do this in a more ‘likely’ for me, shooting scenario since I rarely take photos like those above.
As he was standing here with his arm resting, I was able to come close to the window, hover on his nose and adjust my meter to +1. Another really good option would be to meter off of the bright white window sill to +2.
I wouldn’t want to meter off of his cheek right here because it is in a shadow, and if I metered it to his +1 reading, his arm and profile would be overexposed.
I didn’t reset my white balance for this set, so he’s a little magenta-ish, but I did re-meter since he moved into different light… to +1 off of his cheek camera right…
Next, I came downstairs and thought I’d try this out with capturing my mom playing a game with my oldest. I held out my grey card over their board, metered to 0 off of it, and also reset my white balance.
Not flattering light, but you get the idea. Here, I hovered my metering focus point on the apple of his cheek under his eye, just to see what the reading is… came in at +1 1/3 because it was a brighter highlight, which is fine… I didn’t adjust any of my settings though since I knew the exposure was already dialed in from when I metered off of the grey card.
The lighting stayed the same so I didn’t have to re-meter/change my settings for this next shot. I’d already dialed them in.
You can see that my son’s face is darker now though because he is obviously looking down and is essentially shadowed. I’m fine with that.
If I metered off of his face to +1 as he is looking down, that would bring up the exposure by +1 on the entire scene and I don’t want that.
There you have it… I hope this helps!
And I want to just say this… you’ll hear the suggestion to know how to meter based on the zone system, by being able to observe where the subject/object’s tone lies in relation to middle grey. That is a fabulous, very practical and useful goal.
But it takes practice and time, and using a grey card like this will help get you to that goal by training your eyes to be able to see a tone and predict what it’s meter reading should be. Take out the guess work when you can.
I encourage you to meter off of the grey card for the light in the scene, and then hover your metering focus point on something within that scene and observe what your meter reading moves to so now you recognize what that object’s meter reading is.
So, if you’re not sure of what your subject meters at, bring out your grey card and use it to help you. Do this, too, when you aren’t even caring about the shots you’re capturing… just do it for practice. I promise, it is actually pretty fun!