Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How To Get More Accurate Color in Your Images

Note about the absence of recent blog posts: I took a bit of a blog hiatus over the past month and a half. We had an family emergency that warranted a very long holiday trip so I just put things on hold for a time. Never fear...I'm back! 

This is going to be a two part post. The first part is geared towards anyone who owns a digital camera, amateur photographers, or anyone who is a consumer of photography. I think that about covers it...

Have you ever ordered anything online and when you received the item, the color looked nothing like it did on your screen? This often prompts people to return the item since it wasn't what they expected. However, what I'm going to share with you today will explain how the issue could possibly be on your end, in a way that the company has no control over.  

As a photographer, it's extremely important for me to have control over the color management in the image-making process from the moment of capture all the way to the final output, whether that's a screen or a print. For the image I've captured to become reality, the colors captured by my camera and eventually represented in a print need to be as close as possible to the reality in front of my camera. I continually stress this to my clients and in this post I'm going to demonstrate this and I'll also explain how you can get more realistic colors in your own images with one tiny step.

I recently needed to submit a new headshot to a company for which I freelance. I have a good bit of experience in making self-portraits so I decided to just set it up myself. After I had my location set up with the lighting and background I wanted to use, I set the exposure settings on my camera and then began to think about my color management workflow. What's the first thing anyone with a camera should do in order to get the best color for the lighting conditions?

1. Set the WHITE BALANCE on your camera.

If you're thinking, "What's the white balance????", you should probably pull out that camera manual and check it out. There are settings on pretty much every digital camera that allow you to set the white balance to things like cloudy, sunny, shade, fluorescent, flash, etc. Maybe you already know about white balance and you're just like, "Oh, I just set it to Auto-WB" and let the camera figure it out. Here's point #2:


Here's the reason: when your camera is set on auto white balance, it remeasures and adjusts the white balance for every single frame. If there are even slight changes in the light (such as outside on a partly sunny day), you are going to get variations in the color on all of your images.

Back to my headshot (and why you might want to rely on a professional for the absolute best quality color prints)....

I set my camera to the "flash" white balance setting since I used studio strobes. However, I also have some other tools to help me get the best color. One of those is the X-Rite Color Checker Passport. This thing is so very cool. Before I get to that, though, let me show you an image from my camera, with the white balance set at flash, but before the rest of my color management workflow:

The color is not so bad, but I know that the purple color of my dress and the turquoise color of my necklace are just not popping like they did in real life. So, I photographed my Color Checker Passport...

...then I imported that image into my editing program (I'm using Lightroom 3) and by a wave of my magic wand (read: a quick button click in Lightroom), the true colors of that palette and everything else in the image show up...

If you click on each image to enlarge, you'll see a dramatic difference in the purples, blues, and reds, not to mention a difference in the background and my skin and clothes. 

Of the various poses and outfits I photographed that day, here is the final image I chose as my headshot, originally white balanced with my camera set to flash, but then processed in Lightroom 3 with the corrected color palette:

Side-by-side comparison of the two images:

White balance set to flash, no further color correction
White balance set to flash + color correction

Check out the color of my clothes and background, and even the color of my skin from the first image to the last one. Now, I cannot guarantee that you are seeing what I see on my screen for one last reason. I have a color calibrated monitor that accurately displays color (I use the X-Rite ColorMunki). THIS is why that thing you ordered that I mentioned at the beginning of this post looks nothing like what it looked like on your screen. This is one more piece of my color management workflow that is not available to the average friend, brother, father, or cousin who has a good camera and takes good pictures. I have specifically invested in these tools because of the importance of getting the correct color in my color photographs. Finally, there are a few more pieces of that puzzle that affect the color of the final print that I can control if it's part of my own color management workflow. If my work is taken to Costco or somewhere else to be printed, it's more than likely that the color in my photograph will not look like it should.

In closing, set your camera's white balance to start getting more accurate colors, and then be sure to rely on your professional photographer to get the very BEST color images and prints.


Tessa said...

YAY I am so glad your postings are back! This was is very very helpful, I have a ColorChecker but I often forget to use it. I might have to set up some self-portrait shots to practice, as you did. What did you use as your background? Any suggestions for shooting your own headshot? Thanks Leslie for another great post.

Leslie McDaniel said...

Hey Tessa! You have one? I didn't know that. I often forget to use mine, too. It's mostly useful in a studio type situation. As for the background, I can show you when you come over. I have a few random cloth pieces - this one is actually a curtain panel I found on sale a long time ago. Suggestions - I use a remote and this time I tethered my camera to my computer so I could see what was happening better. Even though the cropping on my chosen image bothers me a bit with the necklace at the bottom, I liked my expression on this one best. I just try all sorts of body positions and facial expressions and then when I find one that's complimentary, I stick with it. I can show you some more tips, too, about positioning your body (shoulders, head, neck) for the most complimentary pose, too.

Tessa said...

Yes, please show!!! Maybe we can practice using our ColorCheckers in Livingston on Thursday. I'd love to see your cloth pieces as well :) I look forward to many more great posts.

Leslie McDaniel said...

This blog entry was featured on the X-Rite blog today: http://blog.xritephoto.com/