For the much of my career I have exercised a marked preference for working in monochrome, certainly for non commercial ‘independent’ work. There have been a number of reasons for this, including expense and convenience of workflow, but I believe the primary factor to be that of control. Colour film I found to be restrictive, transparencies being limited in display (I much preferred to make prints) and colour negative meant handing over control of colour balance to a lab technician who often did not share either my vision or enthusiasm for accurate results.
At Art School I had access to excellent facilities for hand printing, both in colour and monochrome and as an integral part of the course received training in controlling and correcting colour balance when printing from colour negatives and transparencies. Valuable stuff, a key part of which was learning how to recognise the shift in colour needing to be addressed. Colour printing by hand is a somewhat protracted procedure, involving the making of a number of test strips, sampling both exposure and colour filtration towards the desired print. Each test piece needs to be fully processed, washed and dried before it can be properly assessed and even with the advantage of a ‘Kreonite’ processor this still took 9 mins per piece of paper. I could take several hours to make a single finished print. Back in my home darkroom without these sophisticated facilities, colour printing proved to be somewhat impractical, whereas I found no such difficulty in wet printing monochrome, in fact after a little time and investment I was able to practice this with more efficiency than I had at college.
This is not to say that following graduation I never used colour, or that my preference for monochrome was purely practical, far from it. A more precise interpretation would be that I found that working in monochrome allowed me greater control over all stages of the process and I naturally gravitated toward it. I concerned myself with tone, I trained myself to think in monochrome. I was never really able to apply the same focus and vigour to the use of colour. Then along came digital imaging and everything changed. As I gradually tuned in to the new technology I recognised the potential to take control of the process again and at last it seemed that I might be able to exercise the same precision in colour photography as I had enjoyed in my home darkroom in monochrome. I began to think more about colour.
Why Shoot Colour?
There have been are a number of photographers who have rejected colour in their work, perhaps most notably Henri Cartier-Bresson, in the belief that colour detracts from content, from the message. There may be some truth in this, although it assumes that content is the purpose of the image, which of course is not always the case. Others have used colour effectively within documentary work, successfully combining content with aesthetic impact, Stephen Shore, William Eccleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr, to name but a few.
Recently, when reviewing research assignments I have noted that students often describe the work of historic photographers (e.g. Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, etc.) as ‘using the black and white effect’ or some similar expression. I am at pains to point to out that back in the day monochrome was the norm, in fact pretty much the only viable option prior to the 1950s, and it was not really until the 70s that colour was given any real value in fine art photography. The decision to use colour was deliberate and thus colour would be at the forefront of the photographer’s mind when shooting. Today the situation is the reverse with colour being the default mode, using monochrome requires a conscious deviation. However, that does not mean that we are necessarily ‘using’ colour, that we are thinking about colour, exploiting colour, we simply accept colour as ‘normal’. I suggest that successful colour photography should at some level reflect an awareness of, an understanding of colour. It follows then that we should strive to shoot colour deliberately not arbitrarily, or face the possibility that the presence of colour within the image may distract the viewer from our intensions.
Whilst at first glance it might appear that a digital colour workflow is less demanding and more accessible than that of colour film it should be noted that there are a number of challenges to achieving accurate colour. The first of these is colour temperature, or ‘white balance’. As you are perhaps aware, different ‘white’ light sources have different colour biases, or colour temperatures. By way of example, if we think of daylight as neutral then domestic electric lighting consists of a distinct bias towards red, florescent lights often have a green cast, on a cloudy day there is a shift towards blue. These biases are to a greater or lesser extent compensated for (or ignored by) our eyes/brains. However film and digital cameras record these differences as colour casts, if we do not compensate for them.
In the past professional colour films were available in two specific colour temperature responses namely ‘daylight’ and ‘tungsten’. The method was to choose a type, perhaps that which was closest to the light source employed, and/or use colour correction/compensation filters to ‘correct’ the colour. Thus if daylight film was used under tungsten lighting, a blue filter (perhaps 80B or 80C) would be added to the lens to cancel out the excessive red/yellow content in the lighting. Small changes/shifts could also be effected at the printing stage. With a digital camera the use of filters is unnecessary, we simply set an appropriate white balance value, choosing either an existing preset (daylight, cloud, flash, incandescent, etc.), create a custom preset using a white or grey card, or we choose ‘auto’ white balance and let the camera sort it out. Great! If only it were that simple.
White balance presets assume a specific colour temperature of light source, but as I am sure you realise there are nuances of colour between seemingly similar or supposedly identical light sources, and variations in temperature depending upon the condition of the light source. The colour of daylight at midday is very different from the same light source at sunrise, or dusk. Different light bulbs burn at different colour temperatures dependent on their ‘wattage’, and as for florescent, well I have yet to find two interior spaces where all the tubes are giving off the same white balance. Presets are a good start, but you should accept that they are not always 100% accurate. Working with a user preset might be a better alternative, measuring with a grey or white card. This can be very accurate, but whilst this is great in the studio, or under consistent, controlled lighting, it is often at best inconvenient and frequently impractical or impossible. One more point, both these methods rely on you remembering to change the preset when moving to a different lighting situation; something easily overlooked in the melee of a hectic wedding or documentary shoot.
The next option, and the one that many of us use, is ‘auto’ white balance. Here the camera assesses the light entering through the lens and attempts to allocate a specific white balance setting, on a frame by frame basis. Now in general shooting this can be the safest way to assure that your images are there or there abouts, but you will need to make some fine adjustments in post. However, auto white balance is not infallible and can create workflow issues as each image, even those taken under the same lighting, will have a slightly (or occasionally widely) different colour temperature assigned which is heavily influenced by the colour in the scene. A classic example might be in wedding photography, where a photograph of the bride taken against a background of greenery and foliage might provoke a magenta cast in the dress as the auto white balance attempts to compensate for the excessive green in the image. Come in for a closer shot, less foliage, less magenta. Stand back, more foliage, more magenta compensation by the camera’s auto white balance adjustment. Now try and get all those images to match in Photoshop!
Raw – The Holy Grail
If there is a solution then perhaps it lies in shooting in ‘raw’. I am going to make the assumption here that you are familiar with concept of raw files (if not you might take a look at my explanation of raw and the raw workflow here), and that in shooting in raw the white balance setting is arguably irrelevant. As a raw file is simply that, unprocessed raw data collected directly from the chip, any white balance setting applied in camera is arbitrary and simply a matter of convenience, it is not fixed and can be changed in post. Setting the white balance in camera has no effect on the raw image data itself, just the accompanying metadata, and the jpeg preview that is used by the camera and image browsers to preview the image. Consequently, if you use the ‘wrong’ white balance, or your select auto white balance, you can change it in processing (Lightroom, Aperture, etc.), or to be more precise reassign it. White balancing is something that happens after raw capture, not during. If you shoot jpeg, white balance is applied as the camera processes the data and if the colour is wrong, then you must edit that data, edit the file itself. When we change the colour balance in camera raw, we are essentially setting the white balance, not adapting it. Thus, even if we have a variety of different white balances across a range of files taken in the same lighting (i.e. using auto white balance) we can, in a single click, apply the same white balance value to all those files. So, the first piece of concrete advice here is if you shoot jpeg, then as far as is practical and possible, get the white balance right when you shoot. If you shoot raw, then in theory there is no need to bother.
Is say in theory, let me qualify that. I know that some will read this statement and say that this is misleading and that there are reasons why you should aim for the correct white balance even when shooting in raw. The argument goes that when you preview your images in LR or similar, the software is using the white balance setting as recorded in the image metadata, and applied to the jpeg in camera preview, to display the basic image. Consequently, the initial assessment of the picture and its merits may be skewed by inaccurate colour. Similarly any corrections applied are made without reference to the original scene/object and it becomes difficult to ‘know’ when the colour is ‘correct’. This makes sense, especially when photographing colour critical subjects such as flowers, or when there are no neutral tones within the frame. In such cases I can see the merit in setting an accurate white balance preset and that doing so could result in a more accurate result in the final edited image. However, let me reiterate this is a matter of workflow, of method, but my earlier statement still applies. The white balance setting in camera has no effect on the colour recorded in the raw file.
Spanners in the Ointment
There are, of course, a number of other issues that serve to undermine the rendering of accurate or ‘true’ colour, chief amongst these is ‘colour management’. Who of us hasn’t suffered the frustration of not being able to persuade the printer to output an image that even vaguely reflects that which is displayed on screen? Without colour managed workflow, most significantly an effectively profiled monitor, we have no real control over the colour, and if we are using generic print settings, after market inks and ASDA (Wallmart) inkjet paper, then obsessing about the precise colour at capture will be by to a degree irrelevant.
Taking this further, what about the camera itself ? Different models and different samples of the same model are subject to subtle variations in the way they record colour and ideally they need to be ‘profiled’ as well*. Think about your work station, what is the environment like? Are the walls white or do they have some colour? How does the lighting in the room change over the course of the day, or in different weather conditions? Is your monitor fully ‘warmed up’, how long has it been switched on? All these factors can an influence on your editing decisions.
Then we have the issue of colour synthesis. The range of colours that can be reproduced varies from one technology to another. Monitors are RGB devices, that is, they synthesise colour by adding together red, green and blue light. Inkjet printers however, use a CMYK system, combining cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. The range of colours available, the ‘gamuts’ of these devises are not the same. inkjets are often able to define a greater range of blues and greens, whereas monitors offer more in the reds. Neither technology can recreate all the colours that we can see with the naked eye.
What about mixed light sources? Often the scene is lit from a combination of types of lighting. This is a problem that I often face, shooting in an office or classroom lit primarily by florescent tubes, but with some daylight entering through windows at one side of the room. Correct the colour for the daylight and the florescent gives a green cast. Correct for the florescent and the daylight becomes magenta.
And don’t forget, colour is subjective. Sometimes technically ‘correct’ colour is not the colour that looks right, or works for the image. There is much room for interpretation. We can even argue that how we see colour as individuals may not be the same. In fact I have noticed that I do not see colour equally with both eyes. If I compare by covering each eye in turn, while looking at a neutral surface, I find that through my left eye I have a colder blueish bias, my right favours a warmer tone. (I have researched this phenomena and I have found that I am far from unique. Try it for yourself.)
What to do…
With all these challenges, how does one deal with colour? I have some suggestions:
• Profile your monitor – using a screen calibration device (e.g Spyder Pro, ColorMunki)
• Shoot raw – I always shoot raw. If you shoot jpeg, get the colour right in camera.
• Auto white balance is OK most of the time – it will have no detrimental effect on the raw files.
• Consider using presets for colour critical work – to aid the workflow. By way of example, at my place of work I am often asked to photograph paintings. Presets help here.
• When it really matters, edit colour in a consistent, controlled environment – not on a laptop in Starbucks.
• When Inkjet printing, use quality papers, proprietary inks and specific paper profiles – extending your control to the output, not just the capture and the editing.
Ideally. the print should be made to be correct in the lighting and environment in which it is to be displayed, but this is far from practical in most instances, not least of all because that environment is rarely predictable or constant. We have a similar problem with images displayed on screen, in fact here we have virtually no control over the viewing context or environment. I hate to disappoint you but the fact that the colours look fab on your website when viewed on your monitor is no guarantee that it will be so on someone else’s screen. Chances are, it will look completely different.
The eye and the brain have a remarkable capacity to overlook small shifts in colour and compensate for the viewing environment. Perhaps it is more important that within a set/presentation, be it print or screen, the colour appears consistent. It is more likely that the viewer will notice differences between shots as opposed to a slight inaccuracy overall.
So, set your camera to raw, pick an appropriate white balance as a reference, avoid mixed lighting, profile the monitor, edit after dark or in a room with no windows, check your eyes…. hmm, I wonder how these pictures might look in monochrome…
*I have recently invested in a Colorchecker Passport and I am experimenting with this to profile my cameras and create my white balance presets. I plan to review this and outline my method once I have perfected it. Suffice to say, so far it has impressed and I have been able to create near identical colour from a number of cameras from different manufacturers.