Capturing Great Color

Good color management is simple to implement—with a little attention to detail. This three part step-by-step series shows you how to set up your color workflow to get the best results quickly.

These 3 articles are incredibly thorough. We have been getting many requests to put together the 3 parts of the series into an e-book that folks can print.

Part 3 – Capturing Great Color

In Parts 1 and 2, this series talked about how to prepare your work area and your printer to edit and print great color. In Part 3, we look at how to capture the most and best color possible at the front of your workflow, so you start with as high quality a file as possible before you edit and print. Capturing color in this context means getting a file into the computer, whether using a camera or a scanner. The following section discusses different formats available to record your image, talks about making sure the color of white in your images is managed correctly, and makes recommendations for best capture techniques for best results.

Capturing Great Color

Be Greedy for Good Color

Our eyes adjust so automatically to changing colors and qualities of light, such as the very warm orange-yellow color of a standard incandescent light, that we don’t realize how unforgiving cameras and scanners can be—at least, not until an important set of images comes out with really bad color. Many times, it’s difficult or impossible to completely correct the image quality when captured incorrectly. So, it’s better to shoot it right, rather than make it right later. This is particularly important if your camera records only in JPEG format, as JPEG images allow much less room for error than some other formats.

1. Camera Settings

Camera File Formats

If your camera is like most, it defaults to JPEG format when it starts up. If this is all your camera shoots, fine. Great images are recorded using JPEG every day, and as long as you follow the recommendations further in this post, great images you can create. It’s entirely possible you have multiple quality settings for your camera when shooting JPEG, and I encourage you to set your camera to record maximum quality. Here’s why!

The JPEG compression standard was designed at a time when file size was critical. Color WorkflowComputers were much slower, memory was much more expensive, transmission speeds were much slower — all these factors meant that the smaller a file was, the better. The JPEG compression standard allows a user to set different trade-offs between quality and size. Early digital camera memory cards, which were very small, would fill up very quickly with just a few uncompressed digital files. Adding JPEG compression meant more files could be stored on one expensive memory card.

JPEG compression throws away data from the image when it’s used to record an image, which is why this method is called “lossy” compression, as opposed to “lossless.” The more compression of an image, the smaller the file will be, and the more image information is thrown away. Along with the decrease in file size will come a decrease in quality. You can see in the image shown that as an image is compressed more and more (right to left), the digital artifacts are more and more visible.

Most of the reasons for using a severe, lossy compression method have gone away. Memory cards are much larger and much less expensive, computers are much more powerful, RAM drops in price regularly, as do hard drives. So, if your camera shoots JPEG format, it’s hard to find a good reason to shoot less than the maximum possible quality file in JPEG format, no?

Color Workflo

Pro Tip: After you’ve transferred your original JPEG to your computer, when working in Photoshop, open it, save it immediately in a lossless format, such as TIFF or .PSD for further editing. Note this tip does not apply to working in Lightroom, which doesn’t actually open your file, just saves your edits in an accompanying file. See further in this article for a discussion of non-destructive editing.

Settings for Good Color

Capturing color has two parts in digital capture devices, and each part must be set up correctly. First is the is the color of white that’s recorded by the camera or scanner. The second is the range of color that a particular device will capture. These are both set in the device. We’ll look at the camera settings to be sure of getting best results.

White Balance

BC-whitebalance

Our eyes adjust so automatically to changing colors of light, such as the very warm orange-yellow color of a standard incandescent light, that we don’t realize that cameras are not so forgiving—at least, not until an important set of photos comes out with really bad color. Many times, it’s difficult or impossible to completely correct the color later. So, when facing challenging light sources, it’s better to shoot it right, rather than make it right later. This is particularly important if your camera records only in JPEG format, as JPEG images allow much less room for error than some other formats.

To shoot it right, we need to be sure the camera’s settings for responding to the actual color of light in a scene are correct. When the camera responds to the color of light in the scene, it’s looking at what we call the White Point, or White Balance, of the light in the scene. Some people will may call this the Gray Balance instead. Either way, what we mean is that a neutral white original color is also a neutral white in the captured image, and the color of a neutral gray original is neutral gray in the captured image. When shot this way, not only does the image look more natural to our eyes, but it requires less editing to make it look like the original, and our finished image will be a higher overall quality.

It’s almost always better to shoot it correctly in the camera as opposed to correcting it later, so let’s look at the settings to make sure this happens. These settings are accessed under the shooting menu on most cameras, under the heading of White Balance, or sometimes, Grey Balance.

By default, the camera is set to Auto, and on this setting, does its best to make the light look neutral so you get the color you want. Underneath the Auto setting, your camera shows other choices, either with words or pictographs, such as Incandescent, Tungsten, or a pictograph of a standard light bulb. If you know you’ll be shooting a scene with lighting from this kind of bulb, set your camera here, and don’t rely on Auto. Here’s why!

Color Workflow

When your camera is set on Auto, it tries to find something white or gray in the image, and adjusts the color of the light to make the white into pure neutral white, or the gray into pure neutral gray. Sometimes this works OK, but if there’s anything very bright or solid white in the image, such as someone else’s camera flash, or a strong light source, or reflection, it will appear neutral white to the camera, because it’s so strong in the image—and this strong item will fool the camera, so the recorded color will come out very wrong. This is also true of strong light from fluorescent bulbs.

Some kinds of light just seem to fool the camera in general—candlelight, for example. We want to retain some of the warmth of candlelight, but we certainly don’t want to make our photos appear as if they’ve been shot in an antechamber in hell. Those pinpoint spots of white flame skew the camera’s perception of color. So, in candlelight shots, things that should be white or neutral are much closer to neutral when photographed with the camera set to the specific lighting condition, even though the white items in the photos are so bright that the camera couldn’t correctly auto-adjust the images.

Color WorkflowTo set your camera for candlelight, start by trying the Incandescent (Tungsten) preset. You may need to create a custom setting or a fine tuning of the preset, after you try it.

When we’re shooting in RAW format, we can apply substantial white balance corrections after the fact, in Adobe Camera RAW, which is installed when we install Photoshop, or in Lightroom. We can also use the same tool to correct JPEG images. However, too much correction can damage the JPEG file so it won’t print well, so this is best avoided by shooting the JPEG image correctly instead of correcting later.

One of the best ways to get comfortable with these settings is to take the time to shoot a series of photos of the same scene, using each of the different options for White Balance to see what they do.

Color Workflow

Knowing when Auto will work for our needs, and when we need to set a specific white balance is the first step to total mastery of shooting great color no matter what the scene. Here’s a series shot with different white balance settings on my main camera to illustrate the point. Each one gives a very different result, most of them far from matching the original! It’s important to master these settings for best results.

Pro Tip: It’s also important to evaluate the image on the computer’s display, not just on the preview screen on the back of the camera. Most of these preview screens are designed to be just that — a preview, not a final display, and often have a smaller range of color, higher contrast and other characteristics than you will see on a good computer display and print. It’s a really good idea to compare the two together, and see how different or how similar your camera’s display is or is not to your computer’s display. It’s important to know.

To do this, set your camera to display a shot you’ve already copied into the computer, open in your normal workflow, and view them side by side. I used a small tabletop tripod to hold the camera close to the screen, as shown. Notice the difference in both contrast and color balance.

Color Workflow

A final tip here — be sure to remember to change the setting once you move to a different lighting condition. Forgetting to change this setting can deliver a set of truly awful photos, and create more, not less work later—especially if you shoot in JPEG format.

Mastering the camera’s white balance controls gives us more time to shoot, better color right out of the camera and less time spent correcting the image later on. What’s not to like? In another blog entry, we’ll look at custom options when one of the camera’s presets doesn’t meet the needs of the scene we’re shooting well enough to be acceptable.

2. Color Settings

The amount of color your capture device records is controlled by the color setting you choose on your camera, AND the format in which you record your images. Let’s look at color settings first.

sRGB

Color Workflow

The sRGB color model (the s in sRGB stands for “standard”) was designed by Microsoft and HP to facilitate good office color. In theory, an average color display could show adequate color for an average color printer to print from office applications. It works OK, especially if your goal is to be average and adequate. You can see the outline of the colors that sRGB includes in the graphic; it’s the smallest one.

Why would you use this setting? Reasons include:

A. Your camera has no changeable setting for color, in which case your camera only works in sRGB.

B. You have no desire to master color spaces and color conversions, and know sRGB will do an adequate job.

C. You’re creating images that will only be viewed on an output device that uses sRGB (many web pages, most photographic emulsion printers, for examples).

D. You’re willing to give up being able to capture and therefore print certain color values.

Adobe RGB

Color Workflow

The middle outline in the graphic at top right shows the color range of Adobe RGB. This color setting offers extra color, compared to sRGB. If it’s offered on your camera, it’s a good idea to use it. Here’s why.

You can always throw away color later. You can’t put it back in if you throw it away too early in your workflow. Once gone, not coming back! Be greedy and grab all the color you can.

Adobe RGB lets you record and edit many color values that sRGB clips out. In the graphic above, you can see that sRGB excludes a lot of color values that can be printed on Breathing Color Vibrance Barytra. Some critical areas include the yellow-greens and blue-greens often seen in landscape work, and the warm yellows and oranges shown in the triangular area at the very top, rising to a point. It would be a shame to miss printing all those colors if your camera can capture them, now wouldn’t it?

Color Workflow

In the third image above, some colors are still excluded, but you can see that all the printable yellow-green shades excluded by sRGB are contained in AdobeRGB, almost all of the blue-greens are captured in AdobeRGB, and two thirds of the excluded yellow-greens. If your camera or scanner only captures JPEG, but you can set AdobeRGB instead of sRGB, this is your best choice for capturing all the color you possibly can. If your device can capture in RAW format, please read on.

A Third Option: ProPhotoRGB

Color Workflow

If you have a paper that can print colors that are excluded from the AdobeRGB color gamut, you may be wondering how you go about maximizing your color output. The best approach is to shoot or scan in RAW. If you do this, Lightroom will display your files using a color space named ProPhotoRGB, shown in the screen capture at right. It’s the one that’s as big as Texas, dwarfing both AdobeRGB and sRGB.

If you don’t work in Lightroom, see further in this blog post for tips on how to open your file in ProPhotoRGB for editing in Photoshop.

A word about capturing in TIFF format

A few cameras and many scanners will offer the option to capture a file in TIFF format. This setting is more often available for scanners than cameras, and offers both positive and negative possibilities. On the negative side, the image is preprocessed, and thus harder to edit effectively later on. Files
are very large compared to JPEG files. On the plus side, the image is saved using a lossless format, unlike JPEG, which accounts in part for the larger file size. While rarely offered on cameras, it’s often available on better quality scanners. If you don’t have access to a scanner that will open and process RAW files, TIFF capture is a better choice for high quality work than some JPEG settings. Good quality scanner software will allow you to make many desired edits and adjustments before you scan, working on the preview image from the scanner, so this is a good workflow. It’s not as good as capturing in Camera RAW, but even on a camera, I prefer TIFF to JPEG for better quality if possible.

3. Capturing in RAW vs Capturing in JPEG

Why would you choose a format that generates a bigger file, takes up more space on both memory card and hard drive, requiring more RAM to edit swiftly and more time to send and/or print? The short answer is you can guarantee more quality in some critical areas. Here’s how this works.

The term RAW refers to a file format that captures almost everything the chip in a scanner or camera sees. Unlike saving an image to JPEG or TIFF formats, where the image is preprocessed by the camera and certain colors are thrown away, RAW format records a minimally processed image, saving data that you can use to make absolute best decisions about what to keep and what to toss instead of relying on the camera to decide for you. Much of the data can be printed later but would have been tossed out in JPEG or TIFF. To get the absolute most out of your camera or scanner, work in RAW.

Capture Settings

To capture in RAW using a camera, you’ll need a camera that shoots RAW images and you’ll need to choose the RAW settings on your camera. By default, most cameras will shoot JPEGs, regardless of capabilities. Referring to the screen capture of the Nikon D800 settings shown below, notice that this camera offers a setting for NEF (RAW) alone, and also three setting choices for capturing both RAW and JPEG formats. If you have a use for both formats, some cameras even support sending all the JPEGs to one card and all the RAW files to a second card, assuming your camera has two card slots. In some people’s workflows, the JPEGs are used for quick processing and reviewing, uploading to deadline-sensitive editors, and quick proofing, while the RAW files are used to create the final, highest quality images. You’ll make the best decision based on your particular workflow’s needs.

Color WorkflowIf you are shooting in JPEG, whether also with RAW or just JPEG alone, be sure to set your color settings to Adobe RGB unless you have a really good reason not to do so. The RAW files will be record- ed with all the color the chip saw, and you can edit later. JPEGs will open in AdobeRGB.

To capture in RAW using a scanner, you’ll need software that supports RAW capture on your particular scanner., often from a third party such as SilverFast. Some software will scan in 16 bit, explained in the next section, as an alternative to scanning in RAW. Most of the benefit of scanning in RAW is still available if you can only scan in 16 bit. You’ll notice that some scanning software calls it 16 bit; some others call it 48 bit for full color, 16 bit for grayscale (black and white) scanning.

Working in 8 vs. 16 bit file depth

Color Worfklow

When we talk about files having bit depth, this may not be a familiar term. Here’s how it originated.

In the earliest computer screens, there were only two values that could be displayed. The number of values was expressed as 2, raised to a power of 1, or a screen with a bit depth of 1. As displays improved, more shades could be displayed, and the number rose.

When we open an image in Photoshop, a standard color file opens in 8 bit color. This means that for each channel (red, green, and blue) there are 2 (raised to a power of 8) colors. (2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 = 256)

This is a lot of shades of color – each channel interacts with the others, so that (256x256x256 = 16,777,216) shades of color. Shouldn’t 16 million+ shades of color be enough? After all, our eyes can’t distinguish that many different values. And yet, for some things, it’s not.

When we edit a file in Lightroom, files are automatically displayed in 16 bit color (16 raised to the power of 2). Edits are performed using this larger number of values, which allows for more precision under the hood. Users may not notice this precision most of the time, but one of the ways it helps photographers is to smooth subtle gradients, such as the transitions in a photo including the sky.

Photoshop, by contrast, doesn’t automatically work in this higher bit depth. Some photographers like to match their editing in Photoshop to their Lightroom workflow, so they work in 16 bit in Photoshop also. Is this of value in terms of color quality? As with many questions, the answer is, “It depends”! Many photographers will never notice the difference. Some will use it to guarantee the best possible quality of files for making prints; it’s now possible to send 16 bit data to some printers when printing, though the practical value of this final step’s use of 16 bit data is still in doubt. Some will only try it if their 8 bit workflow fails them on a critical image. How do we open an image in 16 bit mode instead of 8? Read on…

4. Opening an image; building the foundation correctly

Color Workflow

If you want to edit your images in 16 bit color in Photoshop, the best way to do it is to start with 16 bit images, not convert them after capture. To do that, shoot in RAW or scan in either RAW or 16 bit. Next, either export them from Lightroom in 16 bit, or, if working on RAW files in Photoshop, configure Adobe Camera RAW to open RAW files in 16 bit. To do this, open Adobe Bridge, and click on the link at the bottom center of the screen, circled in the screen shot as shown. When you do this, options appear in a new window. Change the color profile to ProphotoRGB (more on this in a moment), change 8 bit to 16 bit. As for the other options, I leave the file at its original size, to resize later, and I sharpen later as well. Close the window, and now, images opened from Ado- be Bridge will open as 16 bit files into Photoshop.

Pro Tip: When you configure the Camera RAW window to open 16 bit files in ProPhotoRGB, save the preset to easily use again. Click on the top pulldown menu which says “Custom,” and save your preset with a name that tells you what it does at a glance.

Opening an Image in Adobe Lightroom

Color Worfklow

Working in Adobe Lightroom

As you view an image to edit, the file is displayed on screen, in 16 bit color, in ProPhoto RGB, but all the edits you make are saved in a separate file. The original files of images opened and edited in Adobe Lightroom are never modified. It’s only when you export the file from Lightroom that the changes are applied, and then, it’s to a copy of the original file. This non-destructive editing allows an endless supply of chances to start again if you don’t like your first results.

If you’re capturing in JPEG format, non-destructive editing is an even better idea, since you have less options for editing your images to get what you want before they start to degrade in quality.

Opening an Image in Adobe Camera RAW

Color Workflow

Working in Camera Raw

An image captured and saved in a RAW format must be opened using software that can interpret the RAW file correctly. Adobe Camera RAW, included with Adobe Photoshop, is the tool used most often to work with RAW files. You can also use the Bridge for non-destructive editing of JPEG files, trying many edits that you could make in Photoshop before actually applying them. This is a tremendous way to do non-destructive editing, similar to the way Lightroom works. In both applications, the changes you want to apply are saved in a separate file, and only applied at the end when you export the file.

Opening a JPEG directly into Photoshop and editing it; best practices

Color Workflow

Working in Adobe Photoshop

Yes, you can open a JPEG file directly into Photoshop. If you’re going to do that, I strongly recommend the following steps, which simulate non-destructive editing as closely as possible. One of the best practices is to open the JPEG, and immediately save it as a .PSD or TIFF file. These are lossless file formats and don’t have recompression issues. If you plan to use layers during editing, you will need to save in one of these formats, because JPEG format doesn’t support layers.

A. Open the file.

B. Immediately Save As, choosing TIFF or native Photoshop format (.PSD).

C. Make a duplicate of the original Background layer.

D. Work on the copy of the original layer.

E. Continue to save your work as a TIFF or .PSD file, so that your edits are, as much as possible, non-destructive.

F. If you need a JPEG at the end of your workflow, export one from this master file.

Pro Tip: Record an action that can be activated by a keystroke so that this can be done quickly.

What happens if the JPEG is recompressed too many times?

The image below at left is the original file. The image at right is multiple iterations of the image later, where various edits were applied and the file saved multiple times as a JPEG. A close look at the two files shows that the repeated compression has introduced digital artifacts that degrade the image’s appearance; three obvious areas are outlined in each image in yellow, and will be very obvious on a large print.

Color Workflow

Pro Tip: If you are editing in Lightroom, or Adobe Camera RAW, don’t worry about recompression issues. In both softwares, all the edits you make are saved in a separate file which applies the edits when you export the image to be opened elsewhere, as in Photoshop.

Master Image, Master File

Skilled Photoshop users have long advocated creation of master files, even before digital cameras were the bulk of our tools. A well-exposed transparency or negative would be scanned at the maximum resolution afforded by a professional-grade scanner, and saved in RAW format. This image would be opened at full size, edited as non-destructively as possible, and saved as a locked Master File. Copies of the master file were opened, resized for a particular client’s need, sharpened as a file output step, and the copy saved for the client.

A locked master file requires conscious thought to unlock, minimizing the chance that it would be permanently converted and saved to a smaller file size, color space or other limiting factor which would preclude certain future uses. An even better option is to create the final master file, and then, on the Macintosh, turn it into a Stationery Pad. This means that clicking on the file will open a new copy of the file every time, eliminating risk that the original will be converted.

This may seem like a lot of bother over nothing, until the first time someone asks you for a 16×20 enlargement of a particularly beautiful print you’ve made, and you discover the file has been converted to a 5×7 and won’t print at high quality from your only copy of the file.

Conclusions

The foundation for great color images is laid in the original capture of the images, long before you hit the Print button. While good results can be achieved capturing JPEG format images, maximum editing and print preparation quality is best achieved capturing in RAW, editing in 16 bit mode in ProPhotoRGB, the defaults in Lightroom. This workflow can be matched in Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop, allowing the print maker dedicated to the highest quality the tools needed to achieve the best possible output.


Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.


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