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Think of a gray card as a standard - like 24 frames per second.
A gray card, properly exposed, is an established standard or baseline in all of photography - digital or photochemical.
A properly exposed gray card signals that optimal exposure has been achieved in a shot precisely between the brightest and darkest values and that’s why it’s called “Middle Gray”.
Out of 10 measurable tonal values it is number 5.
Leaving 5 steps of brightness to the right (6-10) and 5 steps of darkness to the left (0-4).
Exposure wise, it’s a very good place to start and is much appreciated by technicians far and wide.
The chart shows a one stop exposure progression. The descriptions under each "zone" pertain to Ansel Adam's evaluative and groundbreaking Zone System.
Why does it matter?
Every color timer around the world knows what to expect from a project if the first thing they see is a gray card. They’ll fiddle with it a bit to get the luminance and color correct, and then assume that all the footage that follows will be exposed, filtered and otherwise manipulated by your design. In other words, they’ll leave it alone - not print it up or down or remove any color effect. They’ll also know that they’re working with a professional who cares about proper density and color accuracy and is willing to take the time to shoot a gray guard to provide a point of departure for the dailies.
Without that gray card – a color grader might think that the overly blue, dark day for night look you're going for is a mistake - and they might try to "time" it out.
I speak from experience.
If you’re new at this and people are breathing down your neck wondering if you’re any good – this first set of dailies could be your last if they don’t look like you promised and sold them on.
Shoot the gray card at the proper color temperature with no filtration other than ND's at nominal exposure.