Many photographers don’t realize that the colours recorded by my camera when I make a photograph are different than the colours recorded by another camera in a photograph made at the same time and place. This can even be true with the same brand and model of camera. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case but the reality of manufacturing differences and imperfections make it true. When your camera captures an image of a scene the reds will look red and the blues will look blue, but they may not match reality.
If your focus is on the natural world and you are documenting various flora, fauna and geography, it isn’t always crucial that the blue on the bill of a Ruddy Duck exactly matches the hue of the actual bird. But, you probably want the colours your camera captures to match what you saw with your eyes. However, if you are outdoors commercially photographing architecture, products or people, it is critical the tones of colour that your camera captures exactly matches the actual colour of your subjects. Companies want “their” corporate colours to match the photographs produced and when you are tasked with creating portraits or capturing someone’s wedding it is often even more critical that the skin tones and clothing colours are accurate.
It wasn’t until recently that there were tools available so that the colours your camera recorded were accurate. Currently, these tools are limited to the Adobe world of image processing tools including Photoshop (Elements and CS5) and Lightroom, but I’m confident that it won’t be long before Apple’s Aperture team comes up with a similar solution.
To get your camera to produce the same colours your eyes see, you need to obtain something called a colour reference card or target. These targets are made by companies like Datacolor with their Spyder line of products and X-Rite’s colorchecker products. These cards have a number of spectrally engineered colour patches that work with software to create profiles for your camera in combination with a specific lighting conditions. These reference cards are sometimes included with a colour calibration product or they can be purchased separately at a cost of about $100. The colour targets can also provide for accurate white balance in your images but that’s a topic for another day.
To create the profiles that you’ll use with Adobe’s Photoshop or Lightroom image processing software, you’ll want to take photographs of the colour target under different lighting conditions. Typically these would include daylight, cloudy, tungsten and fluorescent lighting conditions. You can even create profiles for lighting conditions consisting of two lighting conditions. You then import the photographs onto your computer and convert them into Adobe’s DNG (digital negative) RAW file format. Drop those DNG files into the software available from Datacolor, X-Rite or Adobe and in a few seconds you’ll have a brand new profile for your camera. Save it with a useful name indicating the camera and lighting conditions and when you next start your photo processing software you’ll find the new camera profiles you created ready for your use.
Now when you process your images in your photo processing software, you can apply the camera profiles to the images that are representative of the lighting conditions the images were made under. When you look at the before/after examples I’ve provided, you can see that although the colour shifts may not be immediately obvious, they are significant upon closer examination; the blues and oranges with my camera show the most significant differences.
I’ll be the first to agree that some photographers take a lot of liberties with their interpretation of reality and colours. However, when it is important to get the colours processed accurately there are now easy to use and affordable tools that can help any photographer produce consistent images with accurate colour.