It's pixel peeping time again. And today's question is: How accurate do the colors in our pictures have to be?
Compare the following two images and then tell me which of the two is more accurate.
Hard to tell, right? Both images are based on the same RAW file from a Canon 5D Mark II, managed in Lightroon, neutrally white-balanced using Lightroom's WB eyedropper on the middle grey patch in the lower of the two rows of grey patches in the color chart on the top. Both files were then exported to JPG with sRGB profile embedded. The only difference is that the top image uses the camera profile that Lightroom assigns to camera images by default ("Adobe Standard"), and the second image is based on a custom-built camera profile based on the ColorChecker card present in the image.
(Note: Lightroom's "Camera Profiles" are not the same as ICC profiles)
The differences between the two images are subtle indeed, the camera and the Adobe Standard profile that gets applied in Lightroom do a remarkably good job, especially with a custom white balance. In fact I'd happily use this outcome for all sorts of professional projects (and have actually done so in the past) - as long as the spectrum under which those pictures have been shot is at least somewhat daylight-ish. With daylight-ish I mean an as full as possible spectrum, one that you'd get outside in the shade at 3pm on a summer's day. Not one that you'd get from a yellow sodium light at the side of the road.
So the question is: why would anyone want to use a camera profile if the output is as good as it is?
Let's first take a look at what profiling does. Consider the color chart in the image below.
In the lower half it shows four rows of color swatches, and all of these are very precisely manufactured to be of a very specific color. Whenever you take a picture, there is an analog process involved where photons hit light-sensitive cells that accumulate a charge based on the amount of photons, and are then read by circuits and converted to numbers. These numbers are then read by software, magically converted into other numbers and finally interpreted as colors and translated into brightness levels of individual red, green and blue pixels on a screen. Or converted into various amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink and squirted onto paper. It seems like a miracle that in the end we get to see our pictures at all.
But I guess you get the idea, it's a very complex process with quite a few areas of variability, and in order to make sure that we get consistent results, a profiling process can be of great value.
So back to the color swatches. The manufacturer knows pretty much exactly what color values the individual swatches have. If you shoot a picture, it's very likely that your camera and the attached software don't interpret the colors exactly the same way. Blue tones might be a bit more violet than you saw them, greens might be a bit less vivid and reds might be slightly over-pronounced. In an every-day snapshot type of situation this is no biggie, in the analog world, this is even the norm, because every film you choose will have different color and contrast characteristics, but we're in the digital world here and what if you want to get just that little bit more accurate?
Here's where the profiling software comes in. It looks at the picture, finds the swatches (that have been shot with your specific camera under specific light conditions and therefore look slightly different than expected) and it can easily tell that the blue in your picture is different from what it should be and the green is too bright and the red is too dark and so forth. Based on this information the software builds a profile, which in fact is just a lookup-table with mappings from wrong to right color.
All in all this used to be a tedious process that required a great deal of care, expensive software and hardware, and could only be afforded by the professionals who had to get color exactly right, for example in areas like product photography.
Enter ColorChecker Passport by x-rite. After reading up on it and receiving a few recommendations I've finally spent the 100 bucks for this little gadget, and I must say I pretty much instantly fell in love with it.
The chart comes in its little rugged plastic case, so the delicate color swatches are well protected, and it can be swiveled so you can set it down and it will stand by itself.
And if you are a Lightroom user, the process couldn't be easier. In fact this solution is built around Lightroom and RAW and it won't make much sense on its own.
All you have to do is install the software (make sure you download the latest version from their website) which adds an export plugin to Lightroom. Then during your photo session (which ideally takes place under consistent light conditions) you shoot a well-exposed reference picture of the ColorChecker chart and that's all you need to think of during shooting.
After importing your pictures into Lightroom find the one with the ColorChecker, and export it using the ColorChecker export preset. Within less than a minute the software will analyze the picture, find the ColorChecker automatically, create a new profile and prompt you to restart Lightroom to make it aware of the new profile.
Now all you do is switch to the develop mode, select the newly created profile from the Camera Calibration section and you're mostly set. For more accuracy you can also white-balance based on the grey swatches in the upper chart, the bottom middle one is neutral, the ones to the right create warmer tones, the ones to the left make the image slightly cooler.
Still sounds difficult, but after working with it for 5 minutes it was second nature.
This is the first camera profiling solution that I can envision using regularly because it's not only fast, it also almost seamlessly integrates into my existing Lightroom-based workflow.
Move your mouse over this picture to see the differences the profile can make:Is the difference so big that I'll from now on use it everywhere I go?
Absolutely not. It's great to get that extra bit of accuracy where it's needed, and it's definitely quick and simple enough for me to use, so it'll be more than just a paperweight (believe me, I have too many gadgets that I don't really use because they are either too complicated or because they don't add enough value to my photography). It'll clearly help me get better colors in some situations where the light spectrum is difficult, but on the other hand there are many light situations that I don't want to correct for, many of them for creative reasons, so that's where I will happily leave it in the camera bag or at home. And this is true for both my personal projects as well as customer projects.Is it as accurate as the bigger and much more expensive systems?
Probably not. I've never had the need to work with one of those, and with the type of photography I do, I doubt that I ever will. But under light sources with an uneven spectrum (fluorescents for example) it's clearly more accurate than just using the good old white balance and it renders very pleasing colors. It's a logical next step that is lightweight enough in its approach.Is it for everyone?
No. It only makes sense if your workflow is RAW + Lightroom. There it integrates nicely and takes a lot of pain out of the camera profiling process.Will you be a better photographer if you use the ColorChecker Passport?
Let me ask you this: Has buying that new lens made you a better photographer? How about that new camera body you got for yourself last Christmas?
In short: nope.
Photography is still about capturing wonderful moments, telling stories with your pictures and making an emotional impact.
And I would even go further and argue that getting more accurate and neutral colors in your pictures can do both, help the story and the emotion or be completely in the way of telling the story that you want to tell.
Try to imagine the following images perfectly color balanced - I bet you most of them would lose their impact right away.