Saturday, January 23, 2016

X-Wrong (with the X-Rite Color Checker)

The biology of color perception is extraordinarily complex. Even controlling for individual differences (color blindness, age, culture, vision correction. . . the list is endless), we are left with two main issues: the creation of colors, and the viewing of the image.
These are not simple issues. As explained by Paul Smith:
Colors next to each other, or in a global harmony, affect each other's hue, intensity, and saturation, and thus need to be very carefully "tuned." Each patch of color affects the apparent size and position in depth of the others which is why details of Impressionist paintings sometimes look flat and badly drawn in isolation, but seem "correct" when seen in the context of the whole painting. 
Getting these colors in tune and harmonious is an enormous amount of work. Indeed, it's the makings of madness. Smith relays the story behind the white knuckles of Cézanne's Portrait of Ambroise Vollard:
. . . Cézanne worked up the whole depicting surface as a single entity, constantly reworking the various parts so that they stayed in harmony after each addition or alteration. Essentially, the problem was that every time Cézanne added a touch to the painting it had to be modulated to harmonize with what was already there; either that, or the exiting portions of the painting had to be brought into harmony with the new touch. . . . Vollard recalls: " . . . In my portrait, there are two little spots on the hand where the canvas is not covered. I pointed them out to Cézanne. He replied: '... I may be able to find the right color with which to fill in those blank patches. But understand a little, Monsieur Vollard, if I put something there at random, I would be forced to begin my painting again, starting from that point.


Cézanne took months to work through these color problems—but he never found the right colors for Vollard's knuckles.
Making adjustments to photographs is a much more direct process, but the artistic challenge is the same: achieving tonal harmony in a photograph requires the same visual approach and care which a painter takes, and can be extremely frustrating. 
For photographers, the process starts with the scene itself: evaluating the light, contrast, colors, and tones, which leads to decisions of framing. Different lenses and cameras, as well as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, will affect how the scene is captured, so the "framing" decision is a complex one. After those decisions have been made and the shutter is clicked, the photographer is left with a raw negative or file, and a new artistic process begins in developing the image.
With an achromatic image, each development change in highlights, shadows, or midtones requires a corresponding adjustment elsewhere to maintain visual balance. Dodging and burning is no simple task. When color gets added to the mix, it becomes exponentially more difficult. 

Printing notes by Pablo Inirio, master darkroom printer at Magnum Photos.

And then, of course, there's also the consideration of the differences in visual perception caused by different printed mediums and sizes. A glossy magazine page held close is a different spectator experience than a large print viewed several feet away. 
These considerations get overwhelming. There's many an image I get stuck on, unable to hold onto the balance, and start to feel a bit of the Cézanne panic. Very often I abandon those images for a time and try to understand them later.
This often frustrating process has led me to seek out sources of stability and predictability. I make all kinds of final product: from web images, to post cards, to magazines, to large prints. I know what I don't know, and there's always a bit of trepidation when I'm trying to develop an image for a final production for which I don't have a strong understanding. Having a common thread would be a bit of comfort. 
All of which is preface to my brief experience with the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo. From the company that brings you Pantone colors, the ColorChecker is a three-paged, passport-sized set of swatches that provide a controlled and universal reference for both white balance and colors. Paired with a magic bit of software, the idea is to take an image of the ColorChecker at the beginning of a shoot, and then generate a custom profile to allow consistent color correction, no matter the light source. While it doesn't solve the artistic considerations of what you want to do with those colors, my hope was that it would at least give me a standard starting point for all the images I make.

Starting a studio session with Nicole.
Alas, the dream was not realized. Set up was relatively direct, but the first clue that the product possibly is outdated is the Flash-based instructional "video." Although I sometimes miss certain aspects of the 1990's, bad instructional videos are not one of them. 

I soldiered on, however, following the instructions. After installing the software, generating profiles is relatively direct—except that to access a new profile, Lightroom has to relaunch. That slows things down quite a bit. It might have been worth the price if the resulting profile did the job.

But it didn't. Despite repeated tests in all sorts of lighting scenarios, using Leica, Canon, and Fuji cameras, in nearly every case I found that the Adobe Standard profile gave better skin tones than the X-Rite. In those cases where I didn't feel Adobe Standard was doing the job, the Camera Faithful profile did. And both of those profiles are accessible without generating a unique profile for each session of images. 

The pace of software and hardware innovation has likely left the X-Rite behind, with fast processors in digital cameras making all sorts of contemporaneous lighting measurements and writing that data along with the image itself. (And it certainly appears that the company hasn't felt it worth its while to update the software.) Although I'm sure the X-Rite is useful in certain situations, and may even be useful with older digital cameras, I found that it only complicated my workflow and provided a more confusing outcome than sticking with Adobe Standard.

In the end, any consistent standard can provide a base from which to work. If nothing else, the X-Rite helped me confirm that Lightroom's color profiling is close enough, and consistent enough, that I might as well start there. I'll seek peace in that knowledge, so that I can avoid the color matching madness of Cézanne!