From Start to Finish: How to Get More Accurate Color From Your Images

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A camera's LCD screen can be quite misleading when viewing your images. Often, when you import your images onto your computer they don't look anything like what you originally shot (that is, if you were working with RAW files). In order to get better color out of your images, you'll need to follow a couple of steps. And once you've reached the end, it will be like night and day.

We talked to four of the leading industry professionals to talk about how they get better color. Here are their tips from start to finish:

Lead image is Beached by JCNixonPhoto via the B&H Photo Flickr Group

Software Mentioned

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Photoshop

Nik Color Efex Pro 4

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Capture One Pro

X-Rite's Color Checker Passport

John Paul Caponigro swears by the Color Checker Passport, which involves a totally different type of workflow to get better colors.

X-Rite's Color Checker Passport can be used to quickly deliver more accurate color in two ways. Incorporate both into your workflow, and you'll quickly get improved color, achieving the best starting point for further creative enhancements.

Create a Camera Profile

The X-Rite Color Checker Passport can be used to make custom profiles for your individual camera. While camera profiles are generated with the same target, the resulting exposures are not used to set white balance. Instead, they are used to deliver significantly improved color rendition and saturation, providing the best starting point for any color adjustment strategy you choose. Camera profiles are created with the X-Rite software supplied with the Color Checker Passport, stored, and later applied with your choice of Raw conversion software, typically Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom.

For optimum results, exposures used to generate camera profiles need to be made under the light (color temperature and spectral distribution) that subsequent exposures are made in. Using two exposures of the target made under different light temperatures, you can create a dual illuminant camera profile that can be used for all exposures made under a wide range of color temperatures. Single illuminant profiles are recommended for exposures made under very warm or very cool light temperatures—below 3600K (golden hours) and above 6800K (twilight).

Profile your camera once, and you can use those profiles for all subsequent sessions.

Set White Balance, White Point, and Black Point

Shoot the Color Checker once at the beginning of each shooting session, and you can use that exposure as a target for all exposures made under the same light. The exposure of the target doesn’t have to be perfect. Just, roughly fill the frame with the target; it doesn’t even have to be focused. To use the exposure of the target, use your choice of Raw conversion software to open it along with other exposures you’d like to apply the same measurements to, click on the appropriate color patches (black for black point, white for white point, gray for gray point), and sync all of the files. It’s that simple.

Shoot the target once before each session in different light temperatures.

You can find more practical color management tips on my website.

Neutralize the Color Temperature and Work from There

      

Photo by Joey Quintero; shot during an
Impact Lighting Event in the B&H Event Space

The first thing that Matt Kloskowski of Kelby Training does is work in Lightroom. But his editing takes different courses, depending on the look that he wants to achieve. Here's his method, in his own words:

It all starts in Lightroom for me. Usually, the first thing I do is grab the White Balance Eye Dropper Tool and click on something in the photo that should be a light gray. If the person is wearing white (or there's something white or gray in the photo), it's usually a no-brainer.

If there is no obvious white/gray point, sometimes I'll have to click around a few times, but I can usually get pretty close with the Eyedropper Tool. (We've got a whole tutorial on doing this method, right here.) More times than not, this simply neutralizes the color in the photo and—to me at least—leaves it feeling a little lifeless. For my portraits and most of my landscape work, I tend to like a warmer look to the photo, so I'll usually fine-tune the Temperature slider a little to the warm side.

Every once in a while, as I make my color adjustments in Lightroom, I'll find that everything looks great in the photo, except for the faces of the people. Sometimes they tend to get red. Instead of battling this with color adjustments that affect the entire photo in Lightroom or Camera Raw, I'll let it happen, knowing that it's a really quick fix in Photoshop. In Photoshop, I add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer.

I switch over to the Red color in the Hue/Sat dialog and reduce the Saturation a little. This pulls back the reds in the faces, but also the entire photo. You can always brush on the layer mask to paint the red back into places that need it. 

I'm also a total plug-in junkie. I use Nik Software's Color Efex Pro 4 all the time. A few of my favorites that are color-related are:

- Detail Extractor: I use this not only to get an extra amount of detail and grit in the photo, but also to give it that slightly desaturated look that you see a lot today. Throw in a little vignette, and it's one of my most-used recipes in Color Efex Pro 4. 

- Brilliance/Warmth: This is my go-to filter for landscape photos. I can't really explain what it does, but I know I love it. It just adds that little bit of extra saturation and warmth to my photos to finish things off. 

                

Photo by Matt Kloskowski

- Silver Efex Pro 2: Okay, I'm cheating here. This one isn't in Color Efex Pro, it's actually another plug-in from Nik Software. It's their black-and-white plug-in, and it is THE ONLY black-and-white choice that's out there if you're serious about B&W conversion. Sometimes getting good color is knowing when to remove color. In this example I didn't think the color added anything to the photo, so I just took it away altogether. Their presets on the left side are probably the best place to start, and give you lots of different ways to visualize your black-and-whites.

Matt isn't the only one that thinks that colors should be neutralized. John Paul Caponigro seems to agree.

Keep Your Editing Environment Neutral

Color influences color. Surround one color with another color and you’ll experience the color differently. You can’t measure this change in the physical world, because the change takes place inside your eye/brain. Simultaneous contrast is a perceptual adaptation that you can’t turn off, but you can be aware that it’s happening, understand how it’s influencing you, and minimize its effects.

How? Surround yourself with neutral colors. Neutral colors produce the least contamination and the least adaptation. Also, medium gray values produce the least brightness compensations of all neutral colors.

You may be tempted to make the appearance of your computer desktop colorful and lively. That’s fine for many non-color-critical tasks. However, when you’re adjusting color, make your desktop neutral. Unless you do, you won’t be able to see accurately the color you’re adjusting. On a Mac, go to System Preferences, click Desktop & Screensaver and click on one of the provided neutral grays, or make your own desktop image and select it. (Or download the free desktop on my website.) If you don’t want to change your desktop, use Full Screen mode to hide the desktop and surround your image with a neutral color.

Walls and decorations of any significant area should be neutral in appearance too.

Vibrance and Saturation

                                      

Rising by Christopher F. Photography via the B&H Photo Flickr Group

The next thing in Matt Koslowski's process it to increase the Vibrance slider.

This usually does a really good job of pumping in just enough color saturation into the parts of the photo that need it, while leaving the skin tones alone. If it's a landscape or travel photo, I may even try the Saturation slider too. It's a bit heavy-handed so you'll have to go easy with it, but it can really breathe some life into a photo quickly if used sparingly.

Adjust the Blacks

Moose Peterson is all about the black levels in his images. He often underexposes by a minimum of -1/3 stop, even down to 3 stops. Here's Moose's Mantra:

- Blacks make for better color

- Blacks make elements look sharper

  • - Blacks add mystery taping into the viewer's imagination
  •  
  • - Blacks from underexposure protects some highlights
  •  
  • - Blacks make for more drama and romance

Most editing programs have a specific slider dedicated to this. But Moose actually says that you can "bring all this magic to your photography by buying nothing, learning nothing—just underexposing..."

Photo by Moose Peterson

Contrast

                                                    

Photo by Jeremy Cowart

If you're a Capture One Pro user like Jeremy Cowart, then you like to be very experimental. "I don't know what magic sauce they have dumped into their engine, but it's magic for sure. I've never been able to get tones and rich color like that from any other RAW processing software on the market. And I have other pro photographer friends that have done comparison tests (even recently) and agreed with me," says Cowart.

Jeremy usually likes boosting his contrast up by around 30%, and then tweaks the white balance and exposure settings.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo Video Pro Audio

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I think the most important thing missing from this post is that you have to start with a an accurate, calibrated monitor otherwise you are never seeing true color, tone, and contrast to begin with.   And not all monitors are created equal so get a good one ie: eizo, nec, lacie and buy a colorimeter to keep it calibrated.

Yes this would work for static shooters, but I shoot dirt motorsports under extremely challenging lighting conditions. Example, I recentently shot a race event that started with a partly cloudy mid-afternoon sun ending with tracklights consisting of lights of varying tempertures. On one spar there were 6 fixtures and at least 4 different temps adjacent to each other. On top of this I had to shoot with availablle lighting due to the track dust. The best solution I have come up with is to shoot WB (K) adjusting in the field for a semi-neutral balance then eyedroppering on a mid-gray to get close. Also the vinyl wraps on some of the cars are just impossible to work around due to the properties of some of the neon colors....come out as pastels, go figure.