studio color management system

So why do you even need color management? Well, if you do product photography you need to reproduce your clients products accurately. If you photograph people you need nice skin tones. Even if your photos have random, crazy, vibrant, whacked out color then you need color management if you want your prints to look like they do on your monitor. Everyone can get great results once in awhile but the methodical photographer will get great results consistently and repeatedly.

daylight photo color management system

A couple things were on my mind when it came time to write today’s review. One was the requests I’ve received lately about sharing tips for obtaining better white balance. There’s a future prophotolife video on tap to explore that. Another thing on my mind has been “the big picture”. That was mentioned in yesterday’s post about what the client really needs. So before we roll out the video I’d like to give you an advance look at the overall color management support system we use at my studio, Daylight Photo in Cincinnati, OH. These are the products we rely on to make sure our images reproduce accurately on everything including 4-color ink-on-paper, website, print and electronic billboards and specialty trade show applications. White balance is the vital first step in getting accurate color but it’s just part of the picture (yep, pun intended).

Proper color definitely starts with an accurate white balance. The first thing that’s really needed (and not pictured here) is your camera owner’s manual. Are you already familiar with all of the options for white balance (be honest, now)? It’s all in the manual. It never hurts to go back to basics to check out the fundamental building blocks. I’ve been doing this for (mumble-mumble number of) years and I still go back to basics because it makes me a better photographer.

A. The next step up (from the manual you already have) is a good ‘ol coffee filter (cost: $0.02). For the really cool way to use a coffee filter as a color meter there’s no better resource than this DIY at The coffee filter can bail you out as an incident color meter in tough situations like school gyms, open shade, etc. Just wrap that rascal onto the front of your lens, point it at the light source and shoot an exposure. You can either set your camera to a custom white balance based on that shot or use that digital file later to neutralize color balance when processing out your RAW files (you are shooting RAW files, right?). This trick has bailed out many a news photographer. A white styrofoam coffee cup can also do the trick in a pinch.

B. QPCards (101 Digital Reference Card, Set of Three). These are cool little things that most product photographers have in their bag somewhere. They have white, neutral gray and black patches (and a 40 millimeter ruler) on each card. The are durable plastic(ish) material and have a tape strip on the back so you can stick them onto anything you’re photographing for a quick exposure – no assistant needeed. We set them just off to the side of a set, barely peaking in (as long as they are in good light). A set of three cards will last for years with care. I carry one in my wallet…what a geek.

C. Color Confidence by Tim Grey – “The digital photographer’s guide to color management“. The foreword to this book, written by Photoshop guru Katrin Eismann (see her speak if you get a chance), says it bluntly: if you don’t color manage your workflow then every time you throw away an 8″ x 10″ print because the color isn’t right, you’ve thrown away a $1 bill. This book is technical but it isn’t intimidating. I really like that. It starts with the nature of color and progresses to how we make our cameras, computers, monitors and printers all see the exact same way for repeatable results, not only with our own equipment but so that this accurate color travels with each file to other professionals (printers, agencies, etc.) that we deal with. I hope you’re not disappointed when I tell you that getting a good print isn’t black magic, it’s a science. This book helps de-mystify the whole process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as fun as reading the Sunday cartoons…but you’ll be a much better photographer with each chapter.

D. The X-Rite Color Checker Chart (formerly GretagMacbeth). This is the industry standard color chart. For every critical shot we take a frame of this chart to set our white balance on one of the neutral grey squares. Yes, the white balance will be more accurate than with the QP Cards, in my opinion. It also costs way more and is more fragile and will eventually discolor with age (it’s made of paper) and need replacing. But it’s the best…the industry standard as far as color. It’s also used (with “E”) to create custom color profiles for our cameras. The default color settings on DSLRs are set for things like “portrait” and “vivid” and they do a good job. But even the neutral settings determined by the manufacturers aren’t as color accurate as we’d like sometimes. So we make custom color profiles using our cameras, our lights, our lenses and this chart.

E. The monitor, printer and camera profiling system. ICC profiles are the industry standards for color consistency and we create our own ICC profiles for our monitors, printers and cameras using this beautiful piece of equipment and software. Our monitors get calibrated every month, new brands or types of printing papers get profiled as we buy them and each camera is profiled just once for the life of the camera. With this setup our monitors all match each other and every printing paper we use from cheap contact sheet papers to gallery prints will all match in both color and density all the way down the line (to the limits of the papers capabilities). If it looks good on our monitor it looks the same on our prints and will print the same for our client (as long as they are also color-managed). Okay, it does cost around $1400.00 so it’s not a casual purchase. If you’re shooting for commercial clients it’s a great purchase and if you’re shooting strictly for fun but want your prints to be accurate to your monitor then it’s also a good purchase. If you haven’t choked on the price and have read this far then I’ll let you know that for around $140 you can do accurate monitor calibrations using the .

Macbook, Macbook Pro, iMac and iPod Sale!

Not shown: Monitors. We’re still using old school CRT (LaCie ElectronBlue IV) monitors for the most part. They work well and are within tolerance so that’s what we’re going with. At the moment I’m working on an Intel iMac with LCD screen that does a fine job. For the video editing I do and our portrait prints it’s super…but Bob the perfectionist prefers the CRTs or investing in one of the way expensive LCD options. We’ll run with the CRTs a little while longer.prophotolife mug cafepress

That’s it for color / white balance goodie reviews, I hope it’s a help. If you’ve read this far it means you’re serious about photography, so how about sending me an email with “I read it” in the subject line and I’ll pick a faithful reader to receive a lovely logo’d gift?

Thanks always for reading,
Jim T.