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The Anatomy of a ColorChecker Passport


by Jeff Lazell – May 23rd, 2014

Whether you work in the photo industry, or pursue photography as a passion or hobby hopefully you have come across one of my favorite color management tools at least once. The X-Rrite ColorChecker Passport.

ColorChecker Passport.001

Now, I am sure that many if not most of the readers of this blog are familiar with what all these little squares of color are and what they do, but today I thought I’d go over the whole thing from top to bottom in hopes of clearing up any confusion and to provide a resource for those just dipping their toes into the world of color management on the camera level.

The ColorChecker Passport is very simply put a set of calibration cards for you to include in test shots while shooting.

Not unlike a photographer’s gray card. In fact it does include a gray card in the set. This can be used to set a custom in camera white balance while shooting. Of course the procedure for this is going to be different from camera to camera, so its best to just check your manual for instructions on how to do that for your own camera. But in general the process usually involves taking a photo in the light you are looking to calibrate for filling the frame with the grey card and then following the steps in the camera’s menu to set the white balance.ColorChecker Passport.006

Now let’s move on to the two more colorful cards. The way to use these cards is very simple. For every lighting situation you encounter take a test shot including these two cards.

ColorChecker Passport.007

So, if you are shooting in a room lit by tungsten lights include the ColorChecker in the first shot and then continue shooting as you would. Then if along the course of the shoot you move locations, say go outdoors, take another test shot with the checker because the light has cahnged. One test shot for each lighting condition. Also, if you for some reason switch cameras, take a new test shot. Please note though, for the ColorChecker to be fully effective you must be capturing in RAW. You will still of course get some benefits from the ColorChecker if you are capturing in jpeg, but because of the nature of the file a lot of the color information we want to work with is lost in the the compression.

Once you have finished shooting and have moved on to the processing stage you will begin to see just how powerful a tool the ColorChecker Passport is and how easy it is to integrate into your workflow.

ColorChecker Passport.009

The top card is referred to as a creative custom white balancing tool You can use this in any software that allows you to set a white balance by using a dropper tool.

ColorChecker Passport.010

But first up top here we have a set of color patches. These are mostly for reference. Like if you had a very specific red you needed to reproduce, this is most useful for things like product photography.

ColorChecker Passport.011

On the bottom there is also another set of patches for checking your shadow and highlight details. If you set exposure warnings or “blinkies” on your camera or software this can be a very quick reference.

ColorChecker Passport.012

In the middle are the gray patches for setting your white balance using a dropper tool. Both of the highlighted ones above with little bumps in their frame are neutral gray. Clicking there will immediately neutralize your white balance. First and foremost this is intended to be a time saver. No more clicking and hunting trying to find something white in a scene to set the white balance from. And now you can click with confidence, because you know that these patches are and always will be neutral. Every time. The unfortunate truth of using a dropper to set a custom white balance is I think it leads people to belive you have to set the white balance off of something white in a scene. This is actually large problem because it is very rare to encounter things that are actually “pure white” in the world. So, when you set your white balance by clicking on something that isn’t truly neutral you are in a sense stumbling right out of the gate color wise and now that little variance is going to follow you through out the rest of your workflow. Always having a good bit of neutral grey with you makes sure that does not happen.

Now, what are these other gray patches for then?

ColorChecker Passport.007hot

They are for tweaking your white balance, quickly without having to mess with sliders or anything like that. So, say you shot someone and they ended up looking a little pale when you neutralized the white balance? You can just move your dropper tool up to one of the warming grays and there you go.

ColorChecker Passport.007cold

Conversely if you had a scene you wanted to cool down some, you can just move your dropper down to one of the cooling grays.

Again this is all about speeding up the color correction process, it gets you to the fun part of editing sooner. It also adds consistency to your edits, no more vaguely moving sliders until it looks right and because we are working with constants, this step is always repeatable.

ColorChecker Passport.015

Last of course we have the color checker itself. Now, this is a collection of very specific colors that work with the included software and a Adobe Lightroom plug-in to make a custom DNG profile for you specific camera. It is important to remember at this step that setting a white balance is not color calibration. You can have the white balance perfectly set and your camera could still not be correctly rendering certain colors. In fact you could take 3 brand new, identical cameras off the assembly line and they would all be slightly different color wise. This step of the process will correct for that.

ColorChecker Passport Software.001

X-Rite’s stand alone software and Lightroom plug-in uses the colors in this card to run a test on your specific sensor, in your specific camera, in that specific lighting condition. The result is a non-destructive DNG profile that you can then apply to all the files you captured with that camera in said lighting condition. Basically what these profiles do is correct for where your camera’s version of color varies for whatever reason from ICC standards. An added benefit of this is that since you are calibrating to a standard, you can use this method to calibrate multiple cameras to the same standard. Which is to say if you shoot with multiple camera bodies or with other photographers you can now make those cameras all match color wise by making and applying DNG profiles. Also, the more you use the ColorChecker  you will begin to amass a library of profiles specifically tailored to your gear, which will again get you through the editing process faster and more accurately.

Combining the use of a ColorChecker Passport with a properly calibrated monitor will go a long way to solving whatever color issues you may have and give you the confidence to know that you are getting true, consistent color every time you shoot. Adding it to your workflow is not only going to save you time, but it also the color headaches that sometimes come with digital photography. I hope this little run though helped, if there are any more questions be sure to leave them in the comments or check out our webinar archive here.




Learn how you can stop guessing and start knowing with color management solutions from X-Rite at www.xritephoto.com.

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Categories: Adobe Camera Raw, adobe lightroom, Camera Profile, Color Management, ColorChecker | Tags: , , ,

9 responses to “The Anatomy of a ColorChecker Passport”

  1. Diogo Silva says:

    Hello, great tutorials, one question. Do I need to white balance a photo of the chart before using the software to create the color profile? What is the best square to do this? If I only have the bottom chart in the picture (the one for the calibration)

    • Jeff Lazell says:

      Hi Diogo, thanks so much. Glad you find the tutorials on the blog useful. To answer your questions, yes to get the most accurate results its a good idea to neutralize the white balance before creating the profile. To do that if you only have the ColorChecker chart itself is to use the second square from the left on the bottom row (the one right next to white)


      • Steven Kornreich says:

        Jeff, I am all confused, Since I only shoot RAW, I usually just leave my camera preset to Daylight WB, so when I shoot the color passport and open it up in LR5.x are you recommending to first do a WB on the second square on the bottom of the chart in LR then run the export process to generate the profile?


        • Jeff Lazell says:

          Hi Steven, yes I recommend neutralizing your white balance before exporting the file to generate the profile. If you have the full ColorChecker Passport you can use the top card to set the white balance as described in the post. I only mentioned setting it off the second square because another user asked about what to do if he only had the bottom chart.


  2. Derek McCabe says:

    I wish X-Rite would make a ColorChecker Passport plugin for Final Cut Pro to allow white balance correction in video. Works great for PhotoShop and stills, butlets see a workflow for video as well.

    • Jeff Lazell says:

      Hi Derek, thanks for mentioning this. As of right now you can use the included gray card to set custom white balances on the fly when you are shooting video, that should save you some time when you are correcting in post. But as for a full plug in and workflow I am going to pass this comment on to my R&D guys. We always appreciate hearing directly from our customers on what their color management needs are.

  3. Dear Jeff,
    DNG Profiles can I only use with LR, right? I have LR in my CC Suite, but prefer Capture One for developing RAW pictures. How can I use ColourChecker Passport with this Professional Software?

    • Jeff Lazell says:

      Thomas and Joe, thanks for your comments. As Thomas said DNG profiles can only be used in software that accepts them like LR and PS. Capture One uses ICC profiles which is different and therefore it does not accept the profiles the ColorChecker Passport out puts right now. You can of course still use the white balancing card to set custom white balances, but the rest of the work flow would be very similar to how the ColorChecker Chart has been used for years. Basically you would use it as a set of constants to go from when color correcting. I am going to get together another article on this blog to explain it better, but for now try this post from Capture One themselves on the concept as a starting point: http://blog.phaseone.com/tweak-the-default-color-look-of-your-camera/

  4. Joe Gunawan says:

    I have started to use Capture One more and more in place of Lightroom. What would be the best workflow for me when shooting RAW file in to Capture One and wanting to use the Passport Color Checker?

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