I am teaching a series of workshops in Singapore. I had an “aha” moment during one of my recent classes. Purely by accident, I did what a good teacher is supposed to do. I took something that I knew well and I reconfigured that same information into a new format. The new approach made it so people who did not know the information could easily comprehend it. The expressions of “oh” and “aha” from my students showed me that I was on to something pretty useful for most photographers.
We were talking about how I think photographers should meter the light, not the subject, in order to get a good exposure setting. A good exposure setting (or meter reading) produces a good digital file and yields an image with the dramatic quality of light the photographer saw in the scene they were photographing. If the subject is darker (or lighter,) the fact that it reflects back less (or more) light is the thing that makes the photo so dramatic.
I tell students to start by looking for something that is middle gray that is in the same light as the subject they are photographing. They should use that as a starting point in figuring their exposure setting. I also point out how well-worn asphalt is middle gray. It usually is just the type of middle gray that all meters are programmed for. If you point a typical light meter at something white (or black) it will under (or over) expose that same thing because light meters are just dumb machines. They will leave whatever you meter off of middle gray if you just point the meter at the subject and use the given setting.
They loved the idea of well-worn asphalt as a nearly universal “gray card.” Then we were talking about what to use if there was no asphalt. I ran through a list of options including zebras (or football officials) both of whose alternating black and white stripes average out to middle gray in the “eyes” of most light meters. My wife, who is from India, has skin that is middle gray in tone, though not necessarily in color. In both cases the key is using a spot meter setting or filling the viewfinder with nothing but the middle gray tone in order to get the right reading. Then we went on to talking about the idea that some things can be middle gray in tone, though look quite different in terms of color.
So as an experiment, I created the color sets that you see below. On one side of each set is a color and the other side is middle gray. The first three with the strong colors are especially interesting, to me.
That is because even though they look very different in color, once you take away that color, they are all three are remarkably similar in terms of tone. They are all very close to, if not exactly, middle gray in tone. To appreciate this idea, look at the color sets below. The color version is first and the gray scale one second.
The way to really learn from this is to go out and photograph some things that you think are solid pieces of middle gray, in tone, though not necessarily in color. Photograph them so close that all you see are the colors. They do not even need to be in focus but they do need to be properly exposed. Then de-saturate them (remove the colors) so you have only gray. You may be surprised at how well (or badly) you do in finding things that are middle gray in tone (though not necessarily middle gray in color.)
As a photographer, knowing how to do this important. Sure, you can carry a gray card with you, but that is one more thing to carry and one more step to take in photographing. And yes, well-worn asphalt is a great thing to use in lieu of a gray card. But you cannot find well-worn asphalt everywhere in the world (which in some ways is a good thing!)