Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Color Matters

I don’t profess to be an expert on color rendering.  You can stop reading now if you are hoping to delve into the science of how colors are captured on your camera’s sensor, differences between RGB and sRGB, monitor calibration, and the like… Much has been written about all of these topics, so I’d encourage you to seek out those technical resources if interested.

I had an “aha” moment recently when a friend of mine came to me with a request to shoot images of a fabric sample (more on the “aha” later).  My friend is in the business of providing natural fur products from the shearings of Angora goats for mohair and Alpacas.  The sheerings are then woven into a 100% cotton backing and then custom die provides for the variety of products their customers desire.  My friend’s challenge was having photographs on their website that looked like their actual products.

How na├»ve I was when I started… “Sure”, I said…this should be easy.  I’ll just shoot a few frames in the sun, and shoot a few in the shade—they can pick the one they want and voila, project done.  The problem was that when I got my images back into Lightroom, they all looked a bit different from each other—and when I compared the images to the sample in my hand, there were difference there too.  How could this be??

I know, white balance…you’re already ahead of me.  I knew this going into the shoots.  What I didn’t really appreciate is that the color of an object is different under different lighting, nevermind the photographic side of that discussion…just looking at the fabric in sun was different that looking at it in shade.  A red apple though will always look red to you…your brain will just tell you that the apple is red, regardless of the warmth or coolness of the lighting.  But which red is red?   Reminds me of the old joke of the accountant on an interview, who when posed with the question of what 2+2 was, responded, “what do you want it to be”?  THIS was the “aha” moment!  I realized that color perception is in the eye of the beholder, and that your brain adjusts to perceive things the way it EXPECTS to see them. 

So I took my photographic project to the next level and borrowed an 18% gray card from a friend.  Again, much could be written about this, but suffice it to say that I used the card to more accurately adjust the color temperature of my images when shot in sunlight and in shade with the hope of minimizing the ambiguity.  The adjustments I could make based on the gray card were a big help.  Instead of just going with my camera’s assessment that the “daylight” color temperature I shot in was 4650 degrees Kelvin, or guessing that it should be slightly warmer or cooler, the gray card helped me calibrate it more precisely.  My end results were quite good—by the definition of looking the same on screen as the sample in my hand.

For 99.9% of my photography, the preciseness of the color temperature rendering has not been important.  I’ve made adjustments and enhancements to my images when capturing, or in post production, and the results have been quite pleasing, and to my viewers, quite satisfactory.  It’s near impossible to you (or me) to look at one of my sunset images and determine if the shade or orange or pink in the sky is exactly what it was if standing there…and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter that much, because I’m not trying to convey that scientific precision…I’m trying to convey a story or an emotion through the art of photography.

But with my friend’s fabric, there is no story to be told…they want to show the color of their product that will show up on your doorstep.  My only question for you…is your doorstep typically in the sun or in the shade???

(photo metadata:  1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 200, focal length 52mm)

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