(You need to check that the software you are using supports custom built profiles before using these techniques.)
It’s common practice for photographer’s who share or print their images to profile their display monitor and printer. This ensures that the print’s colour appears as it did on screen. Also, people viewing the images on their own computer, if it is also correctly profiled, will see the same colours and tones. Of course, that is where it all falls down – the average Internet user won’t have a profiled system and what they see on their screen may differ considerably from the original. There’s not a lot you can do about that.
But we can go a step back and also profile our cameras, to ensure that processed images properly reflect the scene we saw with our own eyes.
Cameras, cameras, cameras…
In an ideal world, if I take the same view with different cameras, all of the pictures would:
- Look identical
- Look like the scene
This is not an ideal world and different cameras, especially from different manufacturers, interpret the scene in their own way, resulting in images that look almost, but not quite, like the scene as we saw it. I have also noticed that different lenses, even on the same camera, produce different colours and tones. Some lenses are rich and warm and some are distinctly cooler.
What this means for us photographers is work. We have to spend time at a computer, not just enhancing our images but correcting them to make them look right.
Most software, especially RAW development software, comes with built in profiles for most cameras and lenses. However, and it is a big however, these will always be sub-optimal for two reasons:
- Variations between cameras
The camera you hold in your hand is not the one that was profiled. It probably wasn’t produced in the same batch as the one being profiled. And, whilst it may be very, very, very similar to the one that was profiled, it won’t be quite the same. This is also true of your lenses. I also suspect that digital cameras change over time – with use electrical equipment is ‘run in’ and performs better. Ask an audiophile – they will ‘run in’ their equipment for hours and hours before it produces optimal sounds. What is true of noise can also be true of light.
Speaking of light, you can absolutely guarantee that the light sources used to produce the built in profile will be different from the one you are shooting in today. Light is changing all the time and your camera may well reproduce colours differently depending on the light.
Now, all of these factors can be fiddled with in software, but that takes time. Lots of time. Time that could be better spent?
A better solution would be to profile your camera’s colour and white balance at each photo shoot. If there was a way to compare how your camera is performing against a standard then, in theory, your images could be automatically corrected to ensure that they reflect the scene as you saw it. And this is 100% possible by doing two things:
- Take a white balance image at the start of the photo session and set your camera’s white balance to Custom, using this image. (If you don’t know how to do this, look at your camera’s manual under White Balance for details. You’ll need a white balance ‘filter’ to do this. Your camera must also support Custom White Balance.)
- Take a picture of a Colour Calibration card.
(You may need to do this several times per photo session, especially if the light is changing or changeable).
A Colour Calibration Target
There are plenty of these available but beware of cheap imitations. It is paramount that this target is 100% accurate, otherwise you’ll be profiling your camera against the wrong colours and will be adding to your problems, not solving them.
Here’s a few I would recommend:
The X-Write ColourChecker Passport. It has the advantage of having a colour and white balance target and a compact size – it fits into your pocket. It also comes with software for building colour profiles.
The X-Rite ColorChecker Classic, color Rendition chart This is much bigger and less portable.
These filters go on the front of the lens and, when you take a picture, it is just a grey image. Your camera, if it supports custom white balance, can then use this as a reference to get the white balance correct. There are many cheap and cheerful versions of these available. But I would go with a professional one, they cost about £35 GBP, to ensure accurate results.
You go to your location, or studio, and the first thing you do is take a white balance image and set your camera to Custom White Balance, using this image as a reference. Then you position your Colour Profile target in the light you are going to be shooting, and take a reasonably close up image of it. If the light changes, you need to repeat these steps.
When you get home, you need to use software to build a profile from the Colour Profile image. X-Write’s software can be downloaded from here.
This profile can then be installed into, for example, Lightroom, and used instead of the built in one.
All being well, using the custom profiles will ensure that your images look ‘right’ the moment you preview them on screen. If you are shooting JPEGs then this technique is even more worthwhile. JPEGs cannot be aggressively corrected afterwards. But RAW shooters benefit as well – the white balance and colours will look right immediately. You can then concentrate your efforts on enhancements and not corrections.
The Photo Ninja Advantage
The biggest downside with building custom Colour profiles, one for each session, is that you will end up with hundreds of them. My research indicates that using them in Lightroom is possible but not easy. Luminar has better support – you just select the RAW Develop filter and then install and select the profile. It’s fine for a handful but less good for anything more.
Photo Ninja, however, was built to process colour profile images and it only requires the image with the colour chart in it.
Rather than describe it all in detail, which Ninja’s excellent help system does, I’ll show a profile being built.
A key thing to remember is that Ninja supports these Profile Charts:
Once the profile is built and saved, Ninja places the profile in the folder that the image is in and automatically uses it for every image in the folder. Nice. Provided you organise your shoots into a reasonable folder structure, this almost becomes a set it and forget it operation.
Ninja can also produce camera specific profiles to use for every photo shoot but these have the aforementioned disadvantages. They won’t be taken in the light you are currently in and your camera’s characteristics might change with time…
I think the effort spent in creating session specific colour profiles and white balance reference images is worth it. It cuts down on time spent working on the images later on and the photos look far more natural as a result.