Chicago Photography Academy

Last week I finished a 4-week intermediate digital photography class at the Chicago Photography Academy. Although I am glad to have my Wednesday nights back again, there is something enticing about being tasked with photography assignments that pull me out of my comfort zone and get me snapping.

The class was really focused on exposure techniques and quality of light. The instructor had a dry sense of humor (which I appreciate), the classes typically flowed (though I remembered why I hate classes full of random people), and I walked away learning a bit more than I expected. My purpose in taking the class was not to go from novice to advanced (ha!) or from hobbyist to professional (ha!), it was simply to get more comfortable with my camera so that I can capture better images – really, capture the story I’m trying to tell.

Only time will tell how much I actually retained from the class, and whether my images actually improve, but I learned a really (IMHO) cool “trick” during my 4 week class that I thought that I would share because… game changer.

Have you ever used an 18% gray card? I’m pretty sure that it will forever change my (at least indoor) photography. According to Wikipedia:

A gray card is a flat object of a neutral gray color that derives from a flat reflectance spectrum. A typical example is the Kodak R-27 set, which contains two 8×10″ cards and one 4×5″ card which have 18% reflectance across the visible spectrum, and a white reverse side which has 90% reflectance.

If you’re like me and need the layman’s translation for that definition, here is my version though I do not claim to be even the slightest bit technically accurate. Here’s my take…

A gray card is always your neutral. If the world is black and white this is the perfect middle gray. It’s how you can get ideal exposure from your images without really making much of an effort. Basically tune your white balance to the closest available and shoot. You can perfect it off the camera because you used your gray card. Not even kidding. That easy.

Using a gray card tells your digital photo editing software what “neutral” is and you can expand that neutral across any photo in the same location under the same light settings. So, pretend that you take a photo of your child blowing out birthday candles in a dark room where the only light is from the candles and you can’t quite figure out how to get the lighting right on your camera… take a picture of a gray card first and then don’t worry about it. You’ll fix the images on your computer, in Lightroom. No seriously.

I have always been of the mindset that the easier to edit the better and I can tell you that this process takes 10 seconds. Even with 50 images. 10 seconds. Maybe 20. Total.

Remember, this process is about getting the exposure “right”, it’s not about making your images look like they should be featured on the cover of Vogue or Sports Illustrated. Though maybe with practice :).

Let me show you an example. And by the way, this works in ALL lighting. Anything. You don’t have to think about your camera settings all that much for this to work.

It was a gray day and I was walking around Chicago with my camera. I snapped a picture using the white balance set on the “cloudy” setting. Nothing else.

1) Original image – WB set to cloudy:

Lightroom - Original Cloudy

2) Picture of gray card in same light:

gray card

3) Use white balance selector (eye dropper looking tool next to WB section) in Lightroom and click on gray card telling Lightroom what “neutral” is:

Sync WB

Do you see the slight difference in the gray card images? Here’s a closer look.

WB Selector Comparison

Very slight, but there’s a difference, right?

4) Now, keeping that image selected in the tray (like 2 images above), select the other image(s) that you want to have the same white balance.

5) Click the Sync… button, deselect everything except White Balance.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 10.53.38 AM

6) Click Synchronize.


Note: You could have done this across 400 images (for example, if you took hundreds of pictures inside the same room at a party) that all used the same lighting. I told you… seconds.

Now here’s the Doritos truck with WB reflective of the gray card:

With Gray Card

Again, really slight difference in this example, but if you compare some of the whites in the image, you can really see a difference. I was outside on a gray day – the best photo weather, really.

Want to see a more drastic example, taken inside in imperfect lighting conditions? This will convince you that I am not totally crazy.

Our final assignment was to take 2 self-portraits. One that we are in, one that we are not in. Here’s the one that I am in… bad lighting (dust on the mirror) and all.


Here is the same picture with the WB selector (I took a picture of myself holding the gray card at the same time of day, in the same room, and used that).


Dramatic difference, no?

Yes, there are a lot of other tweaks that you can make to the photo, but if you are specifically interested in exposure, this is a surefire way to make sure that it’s spot on. I am going to carry a gray card on me at all times.

Oh, and by the way, your gray card images don’t have to be in focus. The gray card image could have a sliver of gray card showing. You just need enough of the gray card to select it with the WB Selector tool.

Gray card. Get one. For real.

Have you ever used a gray card? Do you think you’ll try one now? If you’re a better technical photographer than I am and you have a better explanation for the gray card, please share in the comments.

Happy shooting.

9 thoughts on “Chicago Photography Academy

  1. So cool!! Teach me please! I totally want to try. I have a vacation in June in Mexico maybe I can use that time away from distractions to play with my camera. Although I better read up on different things to try first.. Please share any other tips you have I should play with!

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