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Patterns Calibrated

Real Life Applications of the Datacolor Spyder 3 Elite Monitor Color Calibration System and the Spyder Cube Color Management tool.

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“Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.”
Paul Klee

When we entered ABC Carpet, the design furnishings super store at Broadway and 19th Street in Manhattan, we immediately encountered the hot pink signage, (hot pink looked more orange without the color management adjustment as shown above.) that featured a statement reflective of Paul Klee′s devotion to color. As it turned out, the editorial assignment photographing brightly colored carpets and furniture was perfect to exemplify the need and precision of the Cube and Studio Management system. After the shoot we imagined Klee probably would have somehow incorporated the Spyder Studio in his work had it existed when he painted in the last century. The magazine editor even thought adding in the lovable black and white pooch was a nice whimsical touch.

Spyder 3 Elite Monitor Color Calibration

In many cases I’m shooting in underground nightclubs, biker bars or dimly lit locations punctuated by bright stage lights with garish colored lighting gels, and in such situations the harsh and distinctive “off” colors represent a significant and intentional element of the image. Even when the colors are “off,” accurate post production color management is crucial to accurately recreate those “off” colors. What existed in the scene, and what is captured by the camera, and what is displayed on your computer monitor are very often not the the same thing.

In the past whenever color corrections were necessary I usually left that up to my digital technician to complete in concert with the art director or client. This often resulted in considerable expense, $500+ per day, in addition to inconvenient time delays and complications for important clients. Over the past few years the industry has undergone significant changes, in workflow, economics and expectations. In the past photographers shot the film, developed it and sent it to the client. Now clients expect photographers to submitted color corrected, retouched and ready to print images, which means more is expected for the same money. For any one day of shooting I can now count on an additional one to two days of image processing with lower or nonexistent budgets for digital technicians. What this means for the photographer is to stay competitive you need to do the digital processing faster, easier and in many cases do it yourself. This is where the Datacolor system comes into play.

I recently moved studios, from Tribeca to the West Village, in Manhattan. My office in the old studio was in the back of the building, away from any direct light and great for image processing, retouching and color correction. Throughout the day, and even at night, lighting conditions didn’t change much, thus I didn’t worry much about ambient light levels, fluctuations in color balance and color shifts when image processing. My new office, although much brighter and with a better view, is a terror with regard to color calibration and color management. I have a south facing window and depending on the time of day and the weather, I get a vast array of light warm or cool light, diffuse light or direct sun. I also now must contend with Tungsten streetlights shining through the windows whenever I’m doing image processing at night. The light in my office is constantly changing and proving to be an issue when doing color correction work.

I use Mac computers, Cinema Display and iMac monitors in addition to a Powerbook. For my initial monitor calibrations I intentionally calibrated in less than ideal (read bad) lighting conditions,  just to see what the software and device were capable of. I set up the computers near the window and calibrated on an overcast day, and again the following day in direct sunlight. Once I loaded the software it ran easily and quickly without any of the expected baby-sitting required. Now, whenever I re-calibrate, I just set it to run and during those few minutes I work on something else.

The Spyder Elite 3 software and equipment includes an ambient light measurement tool which has proved very useful in this situation. The software incorporates a desktop warning light icon. The icon helpfully changes from Black to Yellow to Red depending on your status. Using this feature I was able to see just how often the ambient light level changes, which proved to be every 20 minutes, with a significant shift every hour. Based on these fluctuations, and since its impractical to do a recalibration every 1/2 hour, the most workable solution is to do a recalibration immediately before I do any Color Management work. This way I’m sure the monitor is calibrated properly and I’ve got a window of an hour or so before I need to recalibrate.

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(L) Original, uncorrected Image                                  (R) Color Corrected Image

During the Editorial assignment shoot, I ran the Cube through trials on various floors and locations within ABC Carpet, at times close to large windows, sometimes deeper towards the interior of the building, under high ceilings as well as squeezed into corners with lower ceilings. We moved continuously throughout the store, resulting in different light sources, color balances and exposures. The idea for the European Design magazine article was to have a goofy looking and distinctly non-designer dog sitting amongst the designer and vintage furniture. Thus we had a perfect situation to test the cube, a dark black, a bright white and numerous colors in between. The dog was very cooperative but it turned out the easiest way to shoot was just to hang the cube from the dogs collar. With lighting conditions changing so often, we shot with the understanding we could always call up a corrected white balance and would simply retouch the Cube out of the final selects. For interior designers, architects and the furniture manufacturers themselves the exact and proprietary colors they utilize are very important to the work they do. Obviously the color balance needs to be correct. Some examples below show obvious differences in color or hue while in other examples the differences are more subtle, either way it is important for the colors to be completely accurate.

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Spyder Cube

Recently I had a number of photo shoots where I tested the practicality and functionality of the Spyder Cube in real world scenarios. My aim was to capture a variety of appropriate examples showing the importance of color management. I shoot many different assignments, most on location and often in challenging lighting conditions. I am regularly blending and supplementing existing ambient light with on-camera flash, and in many cases also using a larger location flash kit, also mixed with ambient. My biggest challenge in many situations is the variety of light sources which result in a mixed and often incorrect white balance.

Practically speaking most digital cameras are not very accurate when capturing color in the Auto White Balance mode, and of course the color only applies to the Jpeg images processed in-camera. To process RAW images properly one must utilize some standards for color. Often photographers would resort to using a white shirt or a black jacket as color samples but that method has serious drawbacks, consistency being the largest issue. In the past I have utilized a variety of color correction and color measurement tools including the old standard 18% cardboard gray cards, small gray scale paper strips (Black, Gray, White), a Pop-Up Fabric color chart, and more recently a rather expensive, very small and somewhat disappointing color corrected card.

There are numerous situations where a tool like the Spyder Cube proves extremely helpful. For example, in addition to my documentary work I regularly shoot corporate portraits for three large international law firms. I’m called in every couple months to photograph new attorneys, or update photos for existing employees. The photos are used for press releases, web sites and annual reports. The lighting set up is relatively straight forward, nothing fancy, but it’s important that each new batch of photos, from each law firm, match the existing photographs. To further complicate the issue there are five other photographers shooting attorney portraits in other cities. As you can imagine with six photographers, shooting in different locations, with different lighting and camera systems the results could be all over the map. The only way to maintain consistency is to include an exposure and white balance calibration tool in the test frames. The system works relatively well but once in a while we get thrown a curve.

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A few months ago I was photographing an attorney who had an eye condition that prohibited the use of flash. I had to mimic the studio lighting with window light and reflectors. With a little trial and error I was able to match the lighting and exposure but the color balance was significantly different. We were using paper gray cards at the time but I always find them rather flimsy, the exposure changes dramatically depending on how they are angled towards the light. I like the three dimensional design of the cube for an accurate color balance and exposure, especially when attempting to match results. One of my assistants would carry around one of the paper exposure cards in his wallet, every time he fished it out you could see the thing had aged. Being intended as a one-use product the paper color tools just don’t compare to the solid durability of the Cube I use now.

During one of my recent Digital Photo Academy advanced workshops we photographed a professional model/Burlesque dancer while testing the Spyder Cube. Photographed at the DPA Manhattan studio we were primarily using natural light coming through large windows, mixed with Tungsten light (model lights in the strobe heads), in addition to the overhead Halogen room lights. Mixed light is always an issue for digital cameras, as it was in the past when shooting transparency film. One of the lessons of the workshop was managing color balance when shooting mixed light, finding a balance between the cool daylight and warm studio lights. The Cube proved very helpful during the post capture critique as an exposure and color benchmark.

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(L) Original, uncorrected Image        (C) Color Corrected Image               (R) Re-touched Image

The Spyder Cube is durable and a practical size, being small enough to fit in a pocket yet large enough to read in a photograph. I’ve already got the thing soaking wet taking photos of my son Luke playing in the kitchen sink, and he thought is was a pretty fun toy. Obviously you couldn’t do that with any of the paper charts out there. The kitchen is fluorescent light mixed with daylight. To further complicate matters the kitchen has blue curtains and the walls are painted off-white throwing the color balance further off target. I usually end up shooting a custom white balance but the Cube handled the situation perfectly. I used the Cube for color correction, setting a corrected White Balance in Adobe Camera Raw. I simply followed the method outlined in the Datacolor online video, using the eye dropper tool and clicking on the brightest gray face of the Cube (which indicates the strongest light source). When processing subsequent images (batch processing), it’s very easy to create a preset color calibration using the Cube in Adobe Camera RAW, once you’ve established your preset you simply apply the color correction to other images.

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Some color shifts are subtle but still easily discernable by the professional eye of a photographer, art director or client. Such instances only require slight color correction, primarily in the whites and skin tones, while in other photographs there are glaringly obvious color shifts. The Auto White Balance systems of most cameras are fooled by mixed light sources, and the various bright colors predominating a scene. Since I shoot a number of editorial and advertising portraits, the ability to capture correct and pleasing skin tones represents a large part of my work and the subsequent color management. The Datacolor system ensures the art director and client are looking at the same photograph I’m looking at.

Note: Photo samples above show original, uncorrected image (Left) , and color corrected and re-touched images (Right). Photos were shot using Canon and Panasonic cameras. Color corrections were made on RAW images using Adobe Camera RAW, or in a few cases on Jpegs processed in-camera then corrected in post with Adobe Camera Raw. All photographs copyright John Bentham 2009.

 


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