Before I could sell a bunch of old stuff on eBay, I first needed to buy some new camera gear (strobes, stands, umbrellas, etc.) to post some good photos. You know how this works: The gear I bought cost more than what I’ll get back from selling the old junk, and it will probably take up more space. That’s how geeks do spring cleaning.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been a slacker when it comes to color calibration. (My monitor still isn’t calibrated, although next week a new X-Rite Eye-One i1 Display 2 will arrive to take care of that.) A few weeks ago I bought another X-Rite product: a ColorChecker Passport and I’ve been using it for simple white balance. It works great. Just use the white-balance eyedropper tool in Photoshop, Lightroom, etc., and you can solve most of your color temperature variations. Everything looked pretty good to me, so I didn’t give it much thought.
But yesterday I decided to take advantage of the real purpose of the ColorChecker Passport and I created Adobe DNG Profiles for each of my camera/lens combinations. (The rest of this post applies only to those who shoot in RAW format.) I even went so far as to create “dual illuminant” profiles based on two exposures with widely varying color-temperature sources. I didn’t really expect much benefit from all of this. It was just a way to waste an hour instead of working. I used X-Rite’s software to create the profiles and install them into Adobe Camera Raw so they’re available to Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3.
Last night I sat down to see how these profiles might affect some of my old photos. I was blown away by the results. I expected very subtle changes. How far off could my lenses and cameras’ sensors really be? I’ve always adjusted color, exposure, contrast, etc., to give me the results I wanted. I figured this might just make it a little easier. But the results were dramatic. The colors in many shots became much more vivid without introducing unwanted saturation or contrast.
Unlike the use of a neutral gray card for setting white balance, using a DNG profile doesn’t require you to do anything at the time you shoot. Once you’ve created profiles for your gear, you apply them in Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom 3 — all in post-production. You can still use the ColorChecker Passport during your sessions to correct for white balance, but a single profile works across all sessions and lighting conditions.
And this is where I had my breakthrough. The DNG profiles are separate from white balance. I apply the profiles when I import my photos into Lightroom. Then I set the white balance, color temp, etc. The DNG profiles compensate for variations in the equipment, which don’t change due to lighting conditions from one session to the next. It’s the white balance adjustment that corrects for the color temperature of the illumination at the time of exposure. You might think that you can use color temp and tint adjustments to compensate for your sensors and lenses, but I learned you really can’t.
You can create new DNG profiles for extreme lighting conditions at the time of exposure, but you won’t need to do this under most circumstances. Invest an hour or two to create good dual-illuminant profiles once and use them forever. (I used a Nikon SB-900 strobe with and without a TN-A1 (full CTO tungsten orange) filter for my two exposures.) The only cost is a ColorChecker Passport: $99 at places like Amazon.com. It’s already improved my photos more than any other $100 investment.