For many photographers hearing the words color management makes their eyes glaze over. While it may seem like voodoo at times, it’s really very simple. What you’re doing is calibrating or matching to a know color standard. In the days of film photography, one popular choice was the Kodak Q-13 Color Separation Guide and Gray Scale target. When color in a photograph has to be accurate, you simply placed this object in the scene and photographed it. Since most photo labs and prepress houses had a copy of this standard target they would match the color in the photograph to that standard. After all do you know, how red that dress really was anyway? Because color is so subjective the color target made the process of rendering color a more objective procedure.
Then in 1976 Macbeth produce an alternative, the ColorChecker. Unlike the Kodak target, of nine color swatches and twenty grayscale patches on separate target charts, the ColorChecker was a 9 x 13 card with 24 swatches both color and grayscale. These swatches were also made of fade proof and scratch resistant dyes which maintained their color integrity over time. The ColorChecker could be used in photography, prepress, video and later the web. It has survived the transition from so called analog media to digital, and is an integral component of modern color management today.
Photographers often hear about the importance of calibrating their monitors and printers. Even if you don’t make your own prints, you might have heard about getting an ICC profile from your lab for “soft proofing”. Yet, many photographers aren’t aware of digital camera calibration. It’s easy and can be inexpensive to free. At the heart of this process is the ColorChecker. Over the past four decades the ColorChecker is now the new color standard for digital capture. Companies like X-Rite, who now own the patent for the ColorChecker, and DataColor have solutions for camera calibration. Both solutions work in the same way consisting of hardware and software components. Even Adobe has free software for calibrating your camera, the DNG Profile Editor.
First, you make a full frame photo of the hardware component, which I’m sure you’ve guessed is a variant of the ColorChecker. It’s a good idea to make this image under the lighting conditions you normally use such as daylight, strobe, or continuous lights, either tungsten or LED. Next you run that file, which is a RAW file, in the software. If you shoot JPEG it is possible to export the JPEG in Lightroom to a DNG, but this file may not play very nicely with the profiling software. Once the file is in the software, it analyzes the image and generates a profile for your camera under those lighting conditions then exports the file into either Lightroom, Photoshop Camera RAW, or Aperture. Then, the next time you open a photo for RAW conversion you simply select your camera profile preset and continue to process the file as needed.
Even if you only shoot JPEG and are not that concerned about camera calibration, looking at that image of the ColorChecker in your workflow can give some new insight on what you camera, phone, and monitor are actually doing. If you are interested in calibrating your camera then check out the X-Rite Color Passport or the DataColor SpyderCHECKR 24 or SpyderCHECKR (which uses 48 swatches). Keep in mind that the software for these products can be a free download, so you’re really paying for the ColorChecker component of the package. If you don’t have the ColorChecker color standard it is worth getting one. If you have a ColorChecker or access to one, go to the support download section of X-Rite and/or DataColor register and get the software. If you’re a geek at heart, you can get Adobe’s version for Windows or Mac at Adobe Labs.