Middle gray

In photography, painting, and other visual arts, middle gray or middle grey is a tone that is perceptually about halfway between black and white on a lightness scale;[1] in photography, and printing, it is typically defined as 18% reflectance in visible light.[2][3]

50% CIELAB lightness
(Y = 18.4%)

Middle gray is the universal measurement standard in photographic cameras. To calibrate light meters, whether in a camera or hand held, the 18% gray card was conceived. It is assumed that the measurement taken by a meter gives the exposure for a shot so that some of the light reflected by the object measured is equivalent to middle gray.[4]

In the sRGB color space, CIELAB middle gray is equivalent to 46.6% brightness.[5] In 24-bit color, this is rounded to RGB value (119,119,119) or #777777.[6]


Following the Weber–Fechner law, at the start of the 20th century human lightness perception was assumed to be logarithmic. In 1903, The New International Encyclopædia illustrated this concept by stating that given a black and a white with a luminance ratio of 1 : 60 (  :  ) the geometric mean had to be used to find the middle gray.[7] That is equivalent to a relative luminance of 12.9% ( ).

When Munsell was developing his colour system, he tried to ascertain the relation between luminance and perceived lightness. As early as 1906, he wrote: 'Should we use logarithmic curve or curve of squares?'[8] In 1920 Priest, Gibson and McNicholas showed using both a König-Martens spectrophotometer and an apparatus designed by Gibson where the outputs of two photocells are balanced[9] that the shades in Munsell's 1915 atlas followed a square root curve, which was later confirmed by extensive experiments.[10][11] In Munsell's system, the shades of neutral gray were labelled N1 to N9, with N5 in the middle and 0 and 10 denoting the unachievable ideal black and perfect white.[12]

The Zone System developed around 1939–40 by Fred Archer and Ansel Adams uses a logarithmic scale in order to work well with the analogue photographic process; middle gray is known as Zone V in the scale of 11 zones from Zone 0 (black) to Zone X (white).[13]

From the 1930s onward various lightness curves were proposed, but halfway the 20th century the proposals settled on cube-root based curves. In 1976 the International Commission on Illumination defined the CIELAB color space,[14] an extension of which[15] would become the standard for the coming decades in a variety of applications.[16] Following research in the 80s, in the 90s more and more advanced models of colour vision were developed, the first major step being CIECAM97s; see Lightness § 1933 for details.

Table of middle graysEdit

Below are various "middle" grays as based on various criteria. The shades in the rightmost column will only be correct if viewed on a calibrated monitor; you can check if the 50% luminance level of your monitor is correct here.

Note that LCD screens, even when correctly calibrated, often have a brightness that varies considerably depending on the viewing angle. When using the luminance level checker above, try stepping back and changing your position until the hatched rectangle in the center of the gray field appears to dissolve into the background.

If the hatched rectangle does not appear to be of the same brightness, then the "middle grays" rendered in the table are not correctly displayed on your screen.

Middle gray as defined by CIEXYZ relative luminance sRGB brightness CIELAB lightness sRGB
Adams' Zone V ≈ 3–6% ≈ 23±4% ≈ 25±5% ≈ rgb(59,59,59) or #3B3B3B
Geomean of 60:1 12.91% 39.46% 42.63% rgb(101,101,101) or #656565
18% gray card 18% 46% 49% rgb(118,118,118) or #767676
L*a*b* 18.42% 46.63% 50.00% rgb(119,119,119) or #777777
sRGB 21.40% 50.00% 53.39% rgb(128,128,128) or #808080
Munsell's N5 25.00% 53.71% 57.08% rgb(137,137,137) or #898989
Mac, pre-OS X 10.6 ≈ 30% ≈ 58% ≈ 62% ≈ rgb(149,149,149) or #959595
CIECAM02 lightness Context-dependent; an estimate is displayed here taking the environment where it appears
in the article into account and assuming a neutrally lit surround of 200 cd/m2.
CIECAM97s lightness Context-dependent; an estimate is displayed here taking the environment where it appears
in the article into account and assuming a neutrally lit surround of 200 cd/m2.
Luminance 50.00% 73.54% 76.07% rgb(188,188,188) or #BCBCBC


  1. ^ Stephen Quiller (1999). Painter's Guide to Color: Includes the New Quiller Color Wheel. Watson-Guptill. ISBN 0-8230-3913-7.
  2. ^ Blain Brown (2002). Cinematography: Theory and Practice : Imagemaking for Cinematographers, Directors, and Videographers. Focal Press. ISBN 0-240-80500-3.
  3. ^ Woods, Mark. How to Effectively Use the Gray Card Archived 2014-11-29 at the Wayback Machine. cameraguild.com
  4. ^ Steven Barclay (1999). The Motion Picture Image: From Film to Digital. Focal Press. ISBN 0-240-80390-6.
  5. ^ Geffert, Scott (2008). Adopting ISO Standards for Museum Imaging (PDF) (Technical report). imagingetc.com, Inc.
  6. ^ "Welcome to Bruce Lindbloom's Web Site".
  7. ^ Daniel Coit Gilman; Harry Thurston Peck & Frank Moore Colby (1903). The New International Encyclopædia. Dodd, Mead and Company.
  8. ^ Kuehni, Rolf G. (February 2002). "The early development of the Munsell system". Color Research & Application. 27 (1): 20–27. doi:10.1002/col.10002.
  9. ^ First the photocells are illuminated by lamps and their outputs are balanced without the sample present; then the sample is placed at one cell and the lamp illuminating the other cell is moved further away until the outputs rebalance. For a more detailed description see K.S. Gibson, Photoelectric spectrophotometry using the null method.
  10. ^ Priest, Irwin G.; Gibson, K.S.; McNicholas, H.J. (September 1920). "An examination of the Munsell color system. I: Spectral and total reflection and the Munsell scale of Value". Technical Paper 167. United States Bureau of Standards (3): 27.
  11. ^ Munsell AEO, Sloan LL, Godlove IH. Neutral value scales I, Munsell neutral value scale. J Opt Soc Am 1933;23:394 – 401
  12. ^ A.H. Munsell, Atlas of the Munsell color system, 1915
  13. ^ Jonathan Spaulding (1998). Ansel Adams and the American Landscape: A Biography. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21663-6.
  14. ^ CIE Colorimetry–Part 4: 1976 L* a* b* Colour Space
  15. ^ H. Pauli, Proposed extension of the CIE recommendation on "Uniform color spaces, color difference equations, and metric color terms"
  16. ^ Kenichiro Masaoka, Fu Jiang, Mark D. Fairchild & Rodney L. Heckaman, Analysis of color volume of multi-chromatic displays using gamut rings