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Considering Color Management with The X-Rite Color Checker Passport

By David Flores

Color management in digital photography is effectively the supervision of color from input to output. A camera captures color, a monitor displays this color accurately, and a printer outputs what's on screen. Seem simple? It's not. Plagued with a lack of standards and countless variables, color management is among the most confounding, perplexing, and difficult concepts to master in digital imaging.

To begin with, not all image sensors are built alike. There is a world of difference between the 14-bit file of a Canon 5D Mark II and a 16-bit capture from a Hasselblad H3DII-50. The Nikon D3 varies bit depth from file to file, depending on the rate of continuous shooting. Bits aside, dynamic range, sensor filtering, and internal processing differ not only from brand to brand, but also from model to model under any given masthead. Monitors and printers clash, as well. The glass covering Apple's 24" LED Cinema Display and the matte finish of a 21.1" Eizo Color Edge Monitor won't perfectly match the output of a given printer model and a given paper selection.

So in a world of digital imaging without color standards, does anything ever get done? Yes! In fact, a whole lot gets done. Digital pictures are taken constantly. They are published in monthly magazines, daily newspapers, and up to the minute on web. The color looks great in all of these portals, and much of this is thanks to strong measures put in place by photographers, editors, and printers. These imaging professionals create and manage content based on high, self-imposed standards and practices. This is the key to understanding and mastering color management: Know what you want to do, and do it. By developing your own prescribed standards and matching an appropriate workflow, you too can create images with brilliant, breathtaking, consistent color. The first step to developing a standard: Get to know your tastes.

Enter: The X-Rite Color Checker Passport

Do you prefer warm or cool tones in portraiture? Should the palette of a landscape be expressed by natural light only? Is there a specific color in your subject matter that viewers should feel particularly drawn to? Taste and preferences are the building blocks of a personal style. Over time, a personal style becomes a photographer's signature. Consistency in this realm is paramount, and this is where the X-Rite Color Checker Passport comes in. Powerful, yet easy to carry, the unit combines 3 sets of imaging swatches that allow a reference for in-camera consistency and accelerated post-production.

The first thing to stand out about the X-Rite Color Checker Passport is its size. True to its moniker, the unit isn't much larger than a standard American passport, and fits easily into a pants pocket or camera bag. This is particularly handy for the photographer on the go. Oversized color checkers have been around for years, but with increasing airline restrictions and higher fees for checked bags, this compact design is a welcome feature.

The X-rite's build quality is exceptional. A hard plastic clamshell protects the fold out contents from the elements and impact damage. The swatch pages themselves are framed in a similar hard polymer allowing the Passport to be unfolded in a freestanding position. This is particularly helpful in catalogue and small product photography, but also offers advantages for discerning photographers that work solo. It's also worth noting that the swatches themselves have a quality, durable finish. This is in contrast to virtually every other color checker on the market. Because contaminants such as moisture, grit, and oil can alter the density of a given color, it's always best practice to avoid touching a swatch with your fingers. However, accidental contact isn't something that can always be avoided especially when working quickly. The X-Rite Color Checker Passport seems to hold up better in this department than its big brothers and sisters. A quick wipe down with a micro fiber cloth, and the swatches are instantly restored to their intended color grade.

Calibration, Simplified

Before using the X-Rite Color Checker Passport, make sure that all lighting (natural, strobe, constant, or some combination) is set up properly for the shoot. Select a suitable exposure. This doesn't have to be perfect, but should be considerate of depth of field and desired movement. With lighting set and exposure selected, several reference photographs should be taken with the Passport in frame. The first photo should include the White Balance Target. This allows for an in-camera custom white balance eliminating color casts and managing mixed light effects for easier capture and processing. The second reference photo should include both the Classic and Creative Enhancement Targets. These reference images can be used as a baseline for adjusting lighting and exposure settings on site, or can later be translated into a custom DNG color profile using the included X-Rite software. By providing a quality assortment of color swatches and scales, the Passport offers a quick reference to true colors, color gradations, and density scales.

Two freestanding configurations of the X-Rite Color Checker Passport


Tools of the Trade

Properly capturing color begins by customizing the way a subject is illuminated. The included White Balance Target is a spectrally flat, neutral card that reflects light evenly from edge to edge. Whether using natural sunlight or a combination of tungsten and strobe, a custom in-camera white balance offers consistency from shot to shot within a given setup. Consistency is key. A solid custom white balance provides an excellent baseline for capturing your images.

The Classic Target and Creative Enhancement Target are unique in aiding both capture and post-production work. The Classic Target assembles 24 individual swatches for evaluating a variety of colors in-camera. The same set of swatches is also invaluable for creating custom color profiles in post. Working with multiple cameras or formats? Using a custom DNG profile simplifies uniformity in post when producing a larger body of work. This is helpful for everything from editorial spreads to an ad campaign. The custom DNG profile can easily be applied across cameras of varied brands and sensor sizes with the included software. The Creative Enhancement Target builds upon this by adding greater control of color shifts and fine exposure. The highlight and shadow scales make excellent references for selecting optimum exposure in-camera, but really shines when resurrecting highlight detail and opening shadows in post.

As you might imagine, the White Balance, Classic, and Creative Enhancement Targets are best suited for a RAW workflow. But JPEG shooters can also benefit from the tools of the X-Rite Color Checker Passport. The actions for balancing color and exposure remain the same, but with greater limitations in post-processing. There's no one way to approach a photo assignment. A true imaging professional can work comfortably with both types of files. RAW capture is uncompressed and provides maximum editing flexibility at the expense of swollen file sizes. JPEG shooting is compressed for easier file management, but requires a more precision oriented approach to capture with significantly less headroom during editing. Photography is about making strong choices. Remember the color management mantra: Know what you want to do, and do it. Let this lead your workflow and inform your approach with the task at hand.

The X-Rite Color Checker Passport is an excellent tool for creating custom color profiles and maintaining color and exposure consistency from capture to post-processing. Compact and lightweight, the unit offers amazing functionality and fits easily into any photographer's kit. The scale of the swatches is adequate for most small to midsize product photography and headshot to half-torso portraiture. The included software integrates nicely with Adobe Lightroom and plays well with both Mac and PC. I did manage to crash the pre-release software on my Snow Leopard-driven MacBook Pro a few times, but I assume that this should stabilize with the actual release. In sum, the X-Rite Color Checker Passport is an excellent value for image makers that demand a high-quality reference for capture and post-production. Know your tastes and preferences. The Passport is a great tool to showcase your color choices consistently, from the first frame to the last.

David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is a member of the B&H Creative Content Team.

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