By Ellis Vener
What is better color worth to your photography business? That is the $99 question posed by the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport. But the underlying question is whether you can trust your camera, no matter which make or model you use, to automatically deliver its best possible color rendition. “Best” is obviously a subjective term. What most of us really want is what is known as “pleasing color”—blue skies rendered as a natural shade of blue without a magenta cast, grass that meets our perception of what grass should look like, skin tones that match the subjects’ complexion, and red hair that looks like red hair. (Sometimes we don’t want realistic color, but it is the best place to begin customizing from.)
Every camera model from every manufacturer interprets color differently due to differences in sensor technology, camera processor technology and programming. You may have even encountered slight color rendering differences between individual cameras of the same model. With little effort, profiling your cameras eliminates these color rendering differences.
To get there, we have to make all parts of the photographic process work harmoniously. That is the ultimate goal of color management. By now, most professionals and serious amateurs understand that calibrating and profiling our displays is essential, even if we aren’t working on high-end Eizo and NEC monitors. Those involved in making prints understand the necessity of using good profiles for printers, papers, and inks or lab-produced prints. Even if you choose to work only with JPEGs in the small sRGB color space, you are passively engaged in color management.
The one missing link until recently was at the entrance to the pipeline: the camera. Previously, profiling a camera was a complicated and costly process. Adobe’s free DNG Profile Editor software changed this. The goal of the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport is to bring better color to the masses by making it easy and available at an affordable price. The good news is that the system is easy and works very well.
With the Passport software installed on your computer, set your camera to shoot raw files and photograph the Passport’s scaled-down version of the standard 24-patch X-Rite ColorChecker target in good, even light. You can use either electronic flash or direct sunlight. Make sure the card is clean and glare free. It works best if you bracket your exposures in 1/3 increments as you don’t want to start with an exposure that clips highlights or shadows. Import the files and convert to the DNG format. If you don’t regularly use the open-source DNG raw format as part of your workflow, you only need to do it this time to create the calibration profile. Once the profile is created you can use it with whatever format you choose to work with—manufacturer proprietary raw files, TIFFs, and even JPEGs.
The ColorChecker Passport photographed in sunlight. ©Ellis Vener
If you are an Adobe Lightroom user, after making sure you haven’t applied any development settings, choose the best exposure, crop to include just the Color Checker and go to the Export menu. In the Preset menu choose X-Rite Presets > ColorChecker Passport. When naming the ColorChecker Passport generated profile, make sure to include the camera model, serial number and lighting setup. If you are very fastidious about color you will see that different lighting requires different profiles. For a portrait and wedding studio, you might have one for your standard studio setup and one for event photography where you use a smaller flash. The profiling process takes just a few minutes. After the profile is created, you need to turn off Lightroom and then turn it back on to activate the profile. Now choose the calibration profile you created and you are done, and it’s time to set your white balance.
One way to greatly speed up your workflow is to use the white balance target included in the Passport to create a custom WB in-camera. This works when Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, or other raw-processing software set to use the As Shot white balance setting with your calibratioin profile.
And if you want to tweak the WB for a more pleasing rendition than neutral, the Passport’s Creative Enhancement page includes three sets of targets (below): a set of tinted gray patches for warming or cooling color in 10 precise increments; a set of eight gray squares from white to black to check for clipping or adjusting your contrast curve; and a set of color patches for precisely evaluating color shifts and adjusting hue, saturation and lightness values.
If you do not use Lightroom, the ColorChecker Passport calibration software can also be used as a stand-alone application with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop CS3 and CS4, Photoshop Elements or Bridge. Even better, if you already own a 24-patch ColorChecker, the Passport profiling software is available for free (after you register). In any case, having three really useful targets in a hand-sized protective hard case will make a difference for those tricky mixed-lighting conditions we find when we work on location, or with multiple cameras.
Adobe’s free DNG profile editor works in a manner similar to X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport system but uses different algorithms. The big difference I noticed in my comparisons between the two programs is in what might be called light “Caucasian” skin tones. The ColorChecker Passport yields slightly warmer renditions but otherwise the results are very similar.
On the whole, the ColorChecker Passport is a useful tool for most photographers. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how doing a good job of profiling your camera improves your workflow and your final product. No matter the make or model, your camera is capable of better color, all you have to do is make it so.