More often than not when shooting in the mixed light of partially-shaded areas, such as under canopy or near water where available light can be a spotty mixture of shadow and highlight, it can be difficult to locate a neutral tone on which to meter an accurate exposure. Seasoned shooters will typically carry a gray card in their bag to combat this common issue.
For those new to metering, our cameras see and relate a white tone as a neutral gray. In a nutshell: when we (spot) meter on something bright, the camera will attempt to bring that tone down to 18% gray, the image will under-expose and we lose our shadow detail. Likewise, when metering on a heavy shadow, the camera will raise the exposure and we lose our highlight detail. Metering on an object as close to neutral, and specifically 18% gray as possible will yield a consistent tone curve and color balance every time.
No gray card? No worries. Turns out our old gray camera bags were designed as such for precisely this purpose. Not having the amenities provided by today’s digital darkroom, when film shooters in the past would forget to throw a gray card in the bag — they could always use the bag itself.
Next time you find yourself shooting in varying light with no gray card on hand, just place the old gray shoulder bag in the same light, spot meter on the neutral tone, re-frame and enjoy the results. Necessary as they are, cards can be easily lost or left behind in a flurry. These days, I don’t go far without the old gray bag.
To learn more about metering, check out Kevin Ames’ recent article on Exposure Tactics: Incident Metering.
If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a note on Twitter.
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