This article is for artists, and the casual photographer. Some months ago I was working with an artist friend. I was helping them put together a presentation about their recent work for fellowships and gallerist. They had a couple of very accomplished photographer photograph their work. While talking with my friend they made this statement. “I made some adjustments to the work to improve the color, but it looks off now”. I told them to send me all the images files their photographers made and I’d see what I could do. I got those images and made the appropriate adjusts and all was well. It was at this point I realized most artists and those new to photographic craft may not understand the nature of color as it relates to digital imaging. So let’s take a look at it now.
GEEK ALERT: Simply put digital color output is based on measurable standards established by the International Color Consortium (ICC). This organization has work groups that standards for how color is captured, displayed and output digitally. There are physical and software tools to measure and monitor color. The best practices for using these tools all come under the heading, Color Management. Without getting into the voodoo of color management, here’s what you need to know.
First it all starts with the visible light used to make a photo image. In most cases this light is either cool (bluish) or warm (reddish) in nature. Our eyes tend to see things as neutral, commonly termed as Daylight. This daylight however, has variations that are measured with a scale called Kelvin temperature. Neutral daylight has a Kelvin temperature between 5600ºK and 6500ºK. Without going to Geekland, there’s a very simple way of handling this. Simply set your camera to Auto White Balance (AWB) which for most cameras is the default setting. Next place a sheet of white copy paper in the scene or in front of the object being photographed. Of course there are much better ways to do this, but this procedure is the simplest and cheapest way of scene calibration when color is important.
Next is making sure your monitor is calibrated. This is the part that most people trip over. While there are free tools that you can use to “calibrate” a monitor none of them are accurate. Why? Because, they’re using your eyes to”correct” the color cast. See the slideshow accompanying this article and you’ll see why. You really need a Colorimeter for this job. If you’re an artist, have your photographer come over and calibrate your monitor or if you have a pro photo friend try offering them dinner in exchange for calibrating the monitor. If you plan to do your own printing however, buy an entry level system from Datacolor or X-rite for $100 to about $150. It will save you time and money.
Now, here’s why all of this is important. First, that white sheet of paper. When photographing art work like paintings or works on paper, the question is; “What is that color?” How green is that green or that blue? How white is the paper substrate? Is the substrate even white at all? The photographer doesn’t remember a sensitive detail like that. That’s why they use color targets or they’ll set a custom camera White Balance. When the image is in Photoshop we have a second opportunity to set the White Balance and possibly the exposure and contrast. If the monitor is un-calibrated with a green cast, we’re setting the color to be too magenta, the complement of green. If we turn up the brightness and contrast of the monitor directly to see the image better, the adjustments in Photoshop can be either too light or too dark depending on how the monitors knobs or sliders have been adjusted. Then as a result, we wonder why the prints we sent to the lab are too dark and red?
When working with a color managed system the camera, display and printer whether yours or someone else’s, all measurements are based on numbers set to standards not feelings. Yet, once working in that color managed system, you actually can make changes based on feelings. Why? Because now you’re in control, just as you would if you were making a drawing, etching or lithograph. You now can make intelligent choices, based on a controlled system.
Color will always be an emotionally subjective element of art and design. However, controlling color digitally is a very objective affair. If you follow these simple steps you’ll see your color output will be more consistent and accurate.