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Photography

100% Perfect Color in Product Photos With a ColorChecker

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This post is part of a series called Product Photography.
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Have you even ordered something from an online shop that turned out to be a completely different hue? This can be avoided by simply calibrating your camera with a ColorChecker to ensure true-to-life color. This handy technique will save you time and frustration and can be applied to all types of photography.

ColorChecker Overview

A ColorChecker is a small card that contains 24 sample color swatches which help calibrate a camera. The calibration takes place by photographing the card as a target, then downloading the image to a computer. Software installed on the computer will automatically evaluate the color values in the photograph and create a profile based on that image. Once the profile is made it can be applied to any other photo taken under the same lighting conditions. Calibrating a camera sounds technical but it is quite easy to do when you follow the steps.

The ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite

ColorChecker targets come in a two different sizes. I use the ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite which adds a grey card and encloses everything in a case. I like this model simply because it is small and easy to carry in my camera bag. This model also has plugins for Lightroom, making the profiling process quick and simple.

To get the most out of using a ColorChecker you'll use the RAW file format instead of JPEG format. This is because a greater number of parameters can be changed in a RAW file. The calibration software that automatically creates the profiles won’t work with a JPEG file. 

Using a ColorChecker in the Studio

Using the ColorChecker in the studio could not be easier. Set up your lights and subject the same as you would for any project. I always set my camera’s white balance and exposure at this point just to have that ready.

Then, place the ColorChecker target into the frame next to the subject or have your model hold the card. Make sure all the squares on the target are visible.

Using a ColorChecker in the studio

Take a photo. Now you have your reference image. You will use that image later on your computer. For now, you can remove the card from the frame and proceed with your photo session.

Note, you will need additional reference images each time you change light sources, such as if you switch from tungsten light to fluorescent light, or add another light to your setup. Changing lenses can also change colors, especially if the lenses are of different ages or lens manufacturers, so make a new reference photo when you change lenses, too, if you can.

Using a ColorChecker on Location

Working with the ColorChecker on location is pretty much the same as working with it in the studio. However, your light source may change more frequently if you are using natural light or moving through different locations because you might move into the shade or the sun could move behind a cloud.

Place the ColorChecker target into the frame next to the subject or have your model hold the card. Like in the studio, make sure all the squares on the target are visible. Take a photo. Now you have your reference image. You will use that image later on your computer. For now, you can remove the card from the frame and proceed with the rest of your photo session.

When working outside, I often hold the target out in front of the camera and take a photo of it. I also create general profiles for sunny days, shady areas, overcast skies, and evening lighting. I use this set of general profiles in case I don’t have my ColorChecker with me and pick the one that matches the lighting the closest when I adjust the photo in Adobe Lightroom.

Reference images for creating general ColorChecker profiles
These are some of the reference images that I have created for general profiles such as afternoon sun light and evening light.

Working with Multiple Cameras

Calibrating multiple cameras with ColorChecker will make the colors in photos taken on two (or more) different cameras consistent. To get this consistency, a profile must be made for each camera. This is true whether you use two different camera brands or models or if you use two identical camera models from the same brand, such as two identical Canon 7Ds. By creating a profile specifically for each camera your profiles account for slight differences in manufacturing, lenses, flash color, position in a given scene, and so on.

Creating Color Profiles and Using Them in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Now that you have your reference image created, it’s time to use it create a profile inside of Adobe Lightroom. Make certain that you have the plugin software from X-Rite installed and Import your photos. After the import, find the reference image with the ColorChecker target visible and select it. Open the File menu and hover over the Export with Preset option. A sub-menu will appear with all of your export presets. From this sub-menu, choose the ColorChecker Passport preset.

Using a ColorChecker with the Adobe Lightroom Plugin

This brings up a dialog box where you can name your profile. I like to include the camera model and light type in the file name so that it’s easily recognizable later. Lightroom will process the selected image and show a message that tells you to restart Lightroom. Close out of the program and then reopen Lightroom. That is it, you have successfully calibrated your camera’s color profile.  

Now that you have your camera calibrated, let’s see it in action. Open the reference image in the Develop module. Locate and open the Camera Calibration tab in the adjustment panel. Look for the Profile setting on the second line down and click on the word Adobe Standard. This brings up a drop-down menu where you should be able to locate the profile you just made. Click on your profile and watch the swatches on the ColorChecker change. The change can range from subtle to significant depending on the camera and lighting.

Selecting your profile in Adobe Lightroom

Now you can apply this profile to any other image that was taken under this light source. All you have to do is select the appropriate profile from the Camera Calibration tab.   

Creating Color Profiles and Using Them With Adobe Camera Raw

Once you have your reference image created, it’s time to use it to create a profile with the ColorChecker software that we can use later in Adobe Camera Raw. Make certain that you have the software from X-Rite installed on your computer and your reference photos downloaded. Open the ColorChecker program and open the File menu. Select Add Image and locate your reference photo stored on your computer.  

Add an image to the ColorChecker software

Click Open to load the image. As the image loads, the software looks for the ColorChecker target and automatically locates the swatches. If, for some reason, the target can’t be automatically located, all you have to do is click on the corners of the target and the swatches will be recognized. 

Color swatches automatically recognized

Click on Create Profile to build your profile. This brings up a dialog box where you can name your profile. I like to include the camera model and light type in the file name so that it is easily recognizable later. The ColorChecker software will process your reference image and show a message that tells you it has been successful. You have just calibrated your camera.

Now that you have your profile created, let’s see it in action. Open the reference image in Adobe Camera Raw. Locate and click on the Camera Calibration icon above the adjustment panel. Look for the Profile setting on the second line down and click on the drop-down menu. You should be able to locate the profile you just made. Click on your profile and watch the swatches on the ColorChecker change. The change can range from subtle to significant depending on the camera and lighting.   

Using the ColorChecker with Adobe Camera Raw

Now you can apply this profile to any other image that was taken under this light source. All you have to do is select the appropriate profile from the Camera Calibration tab.

Conclusion

Now that you have learned how to calibrate your camera with a ColorChecker, you are on your way to capturing true-to-life color in all of your photos.

You can save yourself a lot of time by creating profiles for your next big project. Having an image with accurate color, straight from the camera (almost) means that you don't have to fuss with adjusting colors in your RAW files. You know, with 100% certainty, that your image is accurate. So long as your lighting was right, you can be confident that the final picture is a faithful representation of the product.

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