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Color Management in Product Photography

Have you ever ordered some thing online based on it’s appearance, but then when you received it you were disappointed because the colors were not the same as the picture? I find this happens most often with online sellers that don’t have a hard earned reputation to protect. It can lead to customer returns and seldom does it lead to positive feed back for the seller. This matters now more than ever with companies moving online and people not being able to go look at the actual product. In these situations getting correct colors is critical.

Some times a customer doesn’t care as much about the colors of the product being accurate as they do about getting an image that conveys the emotion they are looking for. A beverage company may want a picture of their product in a dance club with constantly changing bright colored lights and are more interested in getting the feeling of excitement and fun than getting the colors on the label absolutely correct. Some times a customer will want us to push the colors to make them pop.

If on the other hand you are selling clothing then color accuracy probably matters a great deal to you. If you are selling blue jeans but the images show up as green jeans you are probably going to have trouble.

Taking a photo and processing it is a bit like a game of telephone but with light instead of words. Every step along the way there is the chance for error to creep in and it is our job to correct for that. So how do these problems happen and what can we do about it? For the sake of brevity I will try to keep this fairly high level but may circle back in the future to drill down further on some aspects of the process.

In order to ensure that the picture will match the item there are a number of steps that must be followed. The first issue that may raise it’s head is consistency in production. Manufacturers often work hard on ensuring consistency in what they are manufacturing, but variations between lots can occur for various reasons. In those cases I tend to suggest that you provide samples that are as close to the average of the color variation as possible. After that it is now up to the photographer.

The first step is to reduce the exposure of the camera so that if you take a picture it will be pure black. That means we have removed all of the ambient light that is in the room. By doing this we can still work with the room lights on while ensureing they will have no effect on the actual picture.

The next step for the photographer is to make sure that they are using lights that have good color quality. Usually what we are looking for is light that contains equal amounts of each color. Light that has more red than blue or green will tend to make your product take on a red tint. One of the key differences between house hold lights and studio lights and why studio lights cost so much is their ability to provide consistent high accuracy color.

The next step is to control the light. If we can keep the light from bouncing off of walls, floors and ceilings then we don’t have to worry about the light bouncing off of those surfaces effecting the color of the product in the final image. If you watch professional photographers they are usually using strange looking light modifiers that are designed not just to place a certain type of light in a certain place but also to keep it from going any where else. The art of lighting isn’t just about adding light to the right places but also about removing light from other places. Light and shadows.

After we have the subject lit in a way that suits what we are trying to accomplish we want to set the white balance in our camera. Studio lights and mid day light tend to lean towards having more of a blue tone. Incandescent light bulbs and golden hour sunlight tend towards a more orange color. We can correct for these differences by using a neutral grey card to set our white balance in the camera. Then as a safety there are a couple of more things we can do. The first is capture a picture of the grey card to refer to later and the second is to shoot our pictures in a file format known as Raw. By shooting in Raw we have greater ability to correct colors in post if we need to. By taking a picture of the grey card we have a reference of a neutral color that we can calibrate against later.

Color correction tools

While correcting for white balance helps with the shift between orange an blue there are other colors that we need to worry about. In order to help with that we will also take a picture of some thing called a color checker. A color checker is a chart with a number of calibrated color squares printed on it. Professional grade photo editing software will have the exact color of those squares programmed into them. You then can tell the software to create a profile to match the colors in the picture to the colors programmed into the software. This will usually get you pretty close but there still may need to be some manual color correction done in post production. For that we will need a calibrated monitor.

Every monitor will imprint it’s own look on your image due to the limitations in monitor technology. One of the ways to reduce that is to use calibration tools that will put known colors on the screen at a known brightness and then using a colorometer it will read the colors on the screen and compare what they are supposed to be to what the monitor is actually displaying. The software can then create a color correction profile to correct the flaws in the monitor. This process needs to be repeated on a regular basis as the color profile of a monitor will drift with time. With that process completed we can then make manual adjustments to an image knowing that our colors will be accurate.

If we are printing we also need to perform a similar process with the printer. Each combination of printer and paper type requires a different color profile to render the colors correctly if you switch from one paper manufacturer and paper type to another you need to change the color profile along with it if you wish to get accurate colors.

Any product photographer worth their salt will have all of these steps baked into their work flow. When hiring a photographer if you care about color accuracy it is important to enquirer about whether the photographer follows these procedures. If they do not, then move on. Even if they do, it is still important to compare the work delivered to you to your product to make sure they match. If they don’t the angry customers won’t be calling the photographer they will be calling you and none of us wants that.

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