Color Calibration is essential to improving final image quality.
When you delve into the technical side of photography for the first time or two, it can quickly become confusing and overwhelming. Hyperfocal distances, crop factors, fields of view, f-stops vs t-stops, subject distance and “lens compression”, focal planes, sensor sizes, pixel pitch and pseudoscientific DxOMark scores. The simple hobby of taking photographs can quickly become much more than a hobby if you let it. We can progress from looking at an image for it's composition and beauty, to pixel peeping and measurebating overall tonality, bokeh quality and microcontrast of lenses.
I admit that during my first few years of photography, I didn't really care for the technical aspect of it. Working in post production, I hadn’t really understood the concept of why Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom and Capture One had camera profiles. The concept of profiling your monitor and choosing proper colour spaces were completely foreign to me. I was just taking pictures for the sake of creating images. My thought process was:
“If I just shoot in RAW instead of JPG, I can change the sliders in Lightroom or ACR. I mean, my eyes won’t lie….I can just choose the auto feature and then fine tune those White Balance and Tint sliders until my eyes see what’s the best, right?”
I felt this way for quite some time. Once I decided to carefully let my left my left brain take over a few aspects of my photography, I saw changes quickly happening to my overall quality of photographs. Colors became more accurate and richer than they used to be. Images sent to labs for print were now 100% accurate to what I saw on my screen during the editing process.
For a basic understanding of colour, the following link is useful for photographers. It goes over RGB and the numerical values, bit depth, different working spaces and how to properly define your space within Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.
Now that that’s out of the way, if we understand the above article, we are halfway there to better images.
A properly calibrated monitor is able to take the documents working RGB profile and accurately represent it to you on screen, in real time, no matter if you are working in sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB, or any other variant.
Stock monitors aren’t accurate. What you will see on an uncalibrated monitor isn’t displaying a proper representation of what the document colour actually is. For me, colours had a slight magenta cast and all of the deep blacks were washed out. The faded Instagram look was prevalent on all my photos! For some photographers, that's a cool look....but not me.
Every monitor needs calibration. Each monitor should also be maintained on a regular basis, as colour output tends to shift and change over time.
There are many options to calibrate your monitor, but I have found that the X-Rite Colormunki device is the easiest way. The X-Rite software will create a display profile (ICC for Mac or ICM for PC) and save it to your computer. This file is then utilized within Windows or Mac as an aid to tell your computer “This numerical value for this color that your monitor wants to display really should be shown like this to be accurate”.
An easy way to think of it is the calibrated ICC/ICM profile is really just a colour translator. In addition to helping display proper colour, this device is also able to continually monitor ambient light in your editing office to maintain correct monitor brightness in relation to changing ambient conditions. It seems gimmicky, but I feel it is necessary.
Monitor Display Settings:
As seen in the below photo, we are able to view our display colour management settings and see that our monitor is utilizing the correct display profile that our X-Rite (or brand of your choice) calibration software has created.
I tend to notice on forums that most people are trying to set their RGB working spaces in Photoshop as their monitor display ICC/ICM profiles that they created. A Working Space isn’t a Monitor Colour Space…..A WORKING SPACE IS NOT A MONITOR COLOUR SPACE. The monitor colour space is just a translator and is there to tell your monitor how sRGB, Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB Working Spaces shall be displayed to you.
When in Adobe Camera Raw:
As seen in the below picture, we have the option of opening up our individual RAW files and assigning an initial document colour space and bit depth. You have the option of either choosing the default file that your camera recorded or assigning a new one. For me, all JPEG's are either shot in sRGB or Adobe RGB. All RAW files on my camera are different, in the traditional sense that they have no colour space attached to them. It's just data...and you don't have a colour space until you interpolate/process/demosaic the data. The total gamut a RAW file has exceeds the largest space, ProPhoto RGB. Upon importing to Adobe Camera Raw, we have the option of converting the RAW data into the colour space that we want to use.
When in Photoshop:
Edit --> Colour Settings:
As seen in the below pictures, we have a more in depth ability to select and assign our colour settings, if it wasn’t already completed in Adobe Camera Raw.
Working Spaces – I prefer AdobeRGB and ProPhotoRGB
Colour Management Policies – I like to select "convert to working RGB". Any photo file that is imported will be converted to the default working space that is set above….in this case, ProPhotoRGB. Depending on your situation and where you import your images from (web, camera, etc), your selection may vary.
Output – If you are saving a .tiff, .jpg, etc. I recommend using the “export as” function and embed the current colour profile, as opposed to using the “save as” function.
Alright! Now that we have a great understanding of colour, monitor calibration and working spaces….we are almost there! Is there anything we can do in camera to make sure that we have the best colour representation possible? Absolutely!
Camera and Lens Calibration:
Your cameras internal ICC/ICM profile is engineered. Beyond that, most photographers don’t utilize any additional devices to create custom colour profiles....and they really should. I have hired photographers myself for personal portrait shoots outdoors, a wedding, etc. None of them used a color checker device during our sessions and I really wonder how much their images would have improved if they did. Mixing different colour temperature ambient light sources with flash or shooting natural light in many different conditions throughout a day can make it very difficult to keep identical colour representation and skin tones in your image. (even if you gel your flashes). Post processing becomes heavy and then we tend to spend more time behind the computer and not the camera.
For example, consider two different shots, within minutes of each other:
Scenario #1 - You and your client are outside in the woods for a portrait shoot. It's late afternoon with the sunset creating a nice golden light. You are shooting with a single strobe in a 5' octabox that's just out of frame and held up by a voice activated light stand (your assistant). You pose your subject in an open area of the woods, and the ray of sunlight is acting as a side/rim light. Your strobe acting as a key light. On your camera is a nice telephoto prime and you are shooting ISO 100, F1.8, with the shutter speed around 1/200 to make the ambient light a nice balance. Take the shot, looks good, move on.
Scenario #2 - 5 minutes later, and the sunlight is still peering through the tree breaks. You walk with your model just down the path in the woods, see a nice canopy of trees and leaves and a tucked away spot in the shade. Nice! This is a good spot for some foreground and background bokeh....Alright, let's do this! Set up the shot....it's in the shade now. No more golden light...just ambient bouncing around and imposing a green colour cast. We still want to shoot at F1.8....still at ISO 100. This time, we want to drag the shutter and set it to 1/60 to let a little bit of shade ambient light creep in as we use the flash as a key light.
How do we retain proper skin tones and colour on our subject between shots?
- We can gel our flash.
- We can change our in camera white balance to different settings between shots.
- We can make an excuse and say to ourselves "I want scenario #1 to give the subject a warm tone, and scenario #2 a cool tone"
As a paying client, I've had a photographer deliver images to me from 1 photoshoot in 3 different locations. The white swatches on my shirt changed from white, to blue, to orangey/yellow between shots.
"Colour Matters. Clients Notice."
If we as photographers care about our clients, our quality and our image, maintaining proper colour accuracy is required. There are a few different companies out there that promote products for white balancing and color correction, but this one is the smallest and easiest for me. I can take the first picture in a new lighting scenario with the ColorChecker in the frame and then continue the rest of that image set as I normally would. Anytime the lighting (ambient or flash) changes, just take that new first frame with the ColorChecker.
The following youtube links are my favourite for accurately describing what this device can do:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d5xSdin2GM (Joe Brady - Studio and Outdoor Portraiture colour balancing)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Soe5zIm5bCA (Mark Wallace - Fixing colour issues in flowers)
That’s it for this one!