Getting Your Perfect Color in Photo and Video
by Dave Mobbs – November 25th, 2016
By X-Rite Coloratti Master Frank Doorhof
Everyone can agree that color brings out emotion. Don’t get me wrong, I love black and white photography (and sometimes even in films) but color brings out so much more… when used correctly that is. This blog explains the steps required to get your perfect color in Photo and Video.
Close your eyes (well don’t if you’re reading!) and imagine a concrete box on the bottom of the ocean. There are no windows. Inside, there is a diver. They turn on a light. What color is the light?
The correct answer is of course; the same color the light would be on land. This is for the simple reason that the light source is there, in a concrete box with no windows.
However, if you watch the 1989 movie “The Abyss” you’ll notice they made the choice to make all the lights blue. When you think about it, isn’t that what you would expect? We’ve all seen pictures from scuba divers which have blue-ish hues, but if you’re that deep, there’s absolutely no light filtering anymore, it’s just pitch dark. So why are the lights so blue in the movie?
Now think about Titanic. Don’t you immediately remember those nice warm hues and tints? Remember the harsh images in the opening of Saving Private Ryan – the juttering movement and the desaturated colors? Now picture the Matrix. There are clearly different tones inside the Matrix and in reality. Think about Sin City and those amazing red color details amongst the black and white. Color is used in these films to evoke certain emotions. And the list goes on and on.
In movies, tens of thousands of dollars are spent on a process called color grading. This means getting the colors accurate.
So what are accurate colors?
The first thing to understand is that there are rules for colors within photography, and video. There are certain color spaces.
In video, these are for example, REC709 (HD) and REC2020 for the new HDR 4K, and many in-between. X-Rite’s i1 range for professional video supports all these color spaces. For photography we can determine three main color spaces, namely sRGB, Adobe RGB and ProPhotoRGB. What do these color spaces represent? Without being too technical, they exist on 6 points.
RGB (The primaries)
CMY (The secondaries)
This chart only shows you a simplified, 2 dimensional representation of the colors – only the saturation and hue (also called x,y). There is, however, a third factor and that’s the luminance of the color (Y). So in essence, every color has 3 coordinates for being in the perfect space/location, x,y,Y. In EVERY color space there are fixed locations of where the colors need to be, but this depends on the output of the display. Which takes us to…
Color Calibration – getting accurate colors
Going against what some people might tell you, there’s NO reason to set your camera for a certain colorspace when you shoot RAW. All settings in the camera, ranging from contrast/brightness/color balance and colorspace, are ONLY for the JPGs. And we all shoot RAW (I hope).
In order to get accurate RAW files, you can use a tool like X-Rite’s Colorchecker Passport Photo for photography or X-Rite’s Colorchecker Passport Video for video. By shooting color charts in your session, you can later run the software provided for your chosen processor to create a custom profile for your camera/lens/strobe combination. And it’s as easy as…. well, exporting a JPG. The only thing you have to remember is to activate the profile and sync it to all other photos.
Now if we know where are the colors are supposed to be, and we know where the colors are now, we could of course create a correction file right? This is called a “Profile”. We have ICC profiles and DCP profiles. We have a profile for our camera, but what about the monitor? This is where you would use a colorimeter, such as X-Rite’s ColorMunki Display. You hang this device on your display monitor, press the start button and the wizard driven software will easily take you through the simple steps to calibrate your monitor.
In short, all you need to remember is:
- Use a ColorChecker at the the beginning of your shoot.
- Use a calibrated monitor (calibrate at least once every 4 weeks and first let the monitor warm up for 30-40 minutes).
- Use the profile you want to work in.
I personally replace my calibrator and ColorChecker every two years, and my tip is that you DON’T leave them exposed to sunlight!
So we have accurate color, but how does this help me get great images that evoke emotion?
How to get perfect colors from accurate colors
This is where it gets fun. When we do all the above, we have accurate colors – but is that what we want?
Remember my examples from the movies? If all movies were shot with simply accurate colors, it would be boring. ALL movies are tinted in one way or another. In other words, the colors are changed from accurate to perfect. What’s the difference?
So why bother to calibrate if I change everything afterwards?
And that boys and girls, is the kicker. If you create a look that you love, it’s often a combination of curves, color adjustments, clarity, vibrance etc. If you ensure your base is accurate, you can run the same “look” and get the same results from every image. It doesn’t matter where or how you shoot it – that’s the power of a calibrated and color managed workflow. Plus, if a client likes a certain look, you can easily recreate it again on any other day.
Harnessing the power of color can make your images stand out and say something more than what the actual subject says on its own. When we look at art over the centuries, it’s always about storytelling. Look at Caravaggio, a master in showing you certain colors, like red, that really pop. Now look at Rembrandt. Look closer to home – I love comics like Batman. A good artist can make characters come alive by proper use of lighting and color.
So if you want to stand out as a photographer, start bringing that storytelling back in your images. It’s as easy as just adding a tint to something to enhance the “feeling/mood” of that shot.
Photography, as they say, is painting with light, but it doesn’t stop there. Light can have different colors. Our job as photographers and story tellers is to make the images as good as possible but also to use the tools to evoke emotion with colors. A good calibrated workflow (monitor, camera files, printer etc.) all help to make it easier to really create the look YOU want. And trust me there are a gazillion variations of red. Dive into the details and change small settings, often hardly visible, to really get the look you want.
If you have everything in order, your photography and videos will not only evoke emotion and capture people’s characters better, but you will also find out very quickly that your workflow is much more accurate and most of all a lot faster. I hardly spend more than 5-10 minutes on any of the shots in this post – most of my time is actually spent in creating the look after. Good luck.
X-Rite is offering one lucky entrant an all expenses paid, 5-day workshop masterclass in the Netherlands at Frank’s studio. Go to – xritephoto.eu/frank for more information.