David Saffir: Tips For Portrait Photography Part 3: Color Management
Dec 2012 18

Now that you’ve successfully your set together, it’s time to think about getting every possible bit of performance out of your equipment, and create images that sparkle from start to finish!

There’s several tools available to you in color management:

  • In-camera white balance pre-sets
  • In-camera custom white balance
  • A gray balance tool
  • Camera calibration

Most digital cameras have a number of white-balance pre-sets. These include “daylight”, “flash”, “cloudy”, “tungsten”, and so on. If you wished, you could set the camera to “flash”, and fire away.

There’s a catch, however – each one of these settings corresponds to a color temperature, which may or may not match the color temperature produced by your lighting setup. Here’s a table which illustrates a portion of what the camera might do in this circumstance (image courtesy of Nikon):

So, each of these is locked in – they are standardized pre-sets, but they almost always will differ somewhat from real-life conditions.

Next, you could use an in-camera white balance. This feature is initiated on many digital cameras by pressing a button, or series of buttons, and taking an image of a gray target. A Datacolor SpyderCUBE is ideal for this – fill the frame, take the image, and voila! (check your user’s manual for details).

It’s interesting to note that setting in-camera white balance in this way can also improve the quality of the on-screen preview.

You can also use the SpyderCUBE as a gray / white balance tool. You can include it in the first shot in a series, and then in postproduction use the White Balance Tool in Camera RAW or Lightroom, or the gray eyedropper in Photoshop, to color balance your image. Here’s an illustration of the use of the Gray eyedropper in Photoshop:

The most powerful tool in the toolbox just might be the SpyderCHECKR. This is a panel, which contains an array of color patches on one side, and on the other side it includes a series of gray patches and gray targets.

The SpyderCHECKR is provided with a dedicated software application. The process is simple: you set up a single strobe (or continuous light) at a generous distance from the camera, at a 45 degree angle to the plane of the SpyderCHECKR. The SpyderCHECKR should be illuminated evenly, no hot or cool spots, reflections, etc. Make sure that the camera sensor plane is parallel to the face of the SpyderCHECKR. (See the software help screens for details.)

Take a correctly exposed image, make some minor adjustments in your RAW processor, and export it as a TIFF. Next, process this image through the Datacolor SpyderCHECKR software, which will produce a camera calibration that can be imported and applied to your images through Adobe Camera RAW, Photoshop, Lightroom, or Hasselblad Phocus.

This tools is particularly useful if you plan to use a number of lens/camera combinations, if you are shooting in mixed lighting, or if you are working to hit exact colors on product shots, packaging, skin tones, and the like. As a final note, you can use the gray panels to set in-camera white balance, much in the way that you’d use the SpyderCUBE for that purpose.

It may seem that the testing, adjustments, and color correction described in this article are challenging and time consuming. Certainly, a bit of practice is needed to master these skills. You’ll find that once these techniques are in place, you’ll produce images that have far better depth and detail, and more accurate color – and in the end, you’ll spend far less time in post-production. That means more time behind the camera, making great images!

Please see other sections of this blog, and the Datacolor website, for additional educational materials on these subjects.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.