Buyer's Guide: 10 Essential Color Management Devices
Matt Golowczynski | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Dec 2, 2011
As the range of devices for capturing, editing and reproducing images has expanded over the years, the issue of color management has gained significance. A basic knowledge of color management is vital so you understand what’s going on as an image passes from one device to another, as this will help you understand where things can go wrong (and therefore where you may need to intervene).
The following 3-page guide lists ten devices, each of which play an important role in different aspects of color management. They range from cheap, portable gadgets that can help out as you’re shooting, to all-encompassing suites that can quickly deal with a number of devices in an imaging chain. As with my previous buying guides this is not intended to be a test or review of any kind, nor is it intended to be comprehensive. This is purely intended as an introduction: a concise roundup of some of the most useful color management products currently on the market. As always, for most of the products I've selected here, alternatives are available. If you think I've missed something, feel free to leave a comment!
All prices given in this article are representative of typical 'street' pricing and please note that unless otherwise indicated, the 'check price / buy now' links will take you to a product page on Amazon.com.
Here's the selection:
- Digital Image Flow DGK Color Tools Premium White Balance Card Set with Premium Lanyard (set of 3 cards)
- Datacolor DC SC100 Spyder Cube
- ExpoDisc Neutral Professional Digital White Balance Filter (58mm)
- X-Rite ColorChecker Passport
- X-Rite ColorMunki Display
- Datacolor Spyder3Print SR
- Color Confidence GrafiLite
- X-rite Colormunki Photo
- Datacolor Spyder3Studio SR
- Understanding Color Management by Abhay Sharma
Digital Image Flow DGK Color Tools Premium White Balance Card Set with Premium Lanyard (set of 3 cards)
|The DigitalGreyKard is available with a premium woven lanyard (pictured), or slightly cheaper with a more standard alternative|
The abundance of grey cards on the market which all serve the same essential purpose means manufacturers must take the concept further if they are to get their products noticed. The DigitalGreyKard is one product that succeeds in doing so. For a start, it comprises three separate cards – grey, black and white – each of which can be used as a reference for exposure adjustment in post-processing. They’re also sized to be roughly the same size as a credit card for wallet storage, and come complete with a detachable lanyard so they can be carried around conveniently while shooting.
The product’s manufacturer, Digital Image Flow, also makes a number of claims as to their accuracy. Spectrophotometric measurements, for example, are said to confirm the cards’ spectral neutrality, meaning that they reflect different wavelengths of light equally to ensure no color casts. This is said to ensure they perform to the same standard as more expensive grey cards.
Furthermore, being constructed from a waterproof PVC allows them to be gently washed so that their accuracy is retained, as over time there’s a good chance of them building up minor scuffs and being dirtied. A marginally cheaper version with a standard lanyard is also available, as is a larger version of the standard grey card should you decide you don’t need the other two. I haven't been able to find a distributor for this accessory in the EU, but European readers might be interested in the very similar set of 3 gray cards by Photocritic.
|The Spyder Cube includes a black trap towards the base and a ball for catch
lights, plus white and gray faces for complete control over exposure and WB.
The Datacolor Spyder Cube takes the principle of a grey card reference image and expands it further for the benefit of raw processing. It is designed with a chrome ball and a black trap to measure catch lights and absolute black respectively, in addition to black and white faces which define shadows and highlights in relation to the former two measurements. The fifth element is the two grey faces at the top of the tiny 2.5in cube, which serve as both white balance and mid-tone reference points.
A reference image taken with the Spyder Cube in place is used to set the correct white balance, as well as to define the white, black and mid-tone points by measurements based on the white, black and gray faces respectively. This in turn identifies any clipping, where areas in the image fall between the black face and the black trap, or between the white face and the chrome ball. Once this has been set, these adjustments can then be applied to all subsequent images captured in similar lighting conditions, regardless of whether its for raw processing or for a batch of JPEGs or TIFFs.
Unashamedly a calibration device for control freaks, the Spyder Cube is neat, portable, and its innovative design means it can be hung, stood or tripod mounted, depending on the demands of the scene. Its obvious advantage is for awkward mixed lighting situations, such as when shooting indoors with both artificial lighting and illumination coming from a window, but it's also useful for scenes which may not otherwise contain all the suitable reference points that the SpyderCube provides.
- Street price: $79.95 (US) / £58.62 (UK) / €85.00 (EU) Check Price / Buy Now (for 58mm version)
|The ExpoDisc is available in a number of sizes from 52mm to 82mm, and can be used with filters in place|
Although much can be done in post production with even basic software, getting white balance right from the start saves time and effort, and means you can instantly see images close to how you will want to finally output them. The ExpoDisc allows you to do exactly that. The ExpoDisc takes the form of a small filter which slips onto the front of your lens, and essentially converts your camera into an incident, rather than reflective color meter.
Once a custom white balance has been created with the ExpoDisc mounted, assuming that the lighting doesn't change, all subsequent images taken with that white balance setting will be correctly balanced. A far more convenient method than reference adjustments in post processing. As it doesn’t actually screw into a lens’s filter thread, but merely sits over the rim of the barrel, the ExpoDisc can be quickly mounted, used and dismounted, and so any filters you may have already screwed into your lens’s thread can remain in place as this process is carried out.
Given its suitability to mixed and difficult lighting environments, those frequently shooting under a mixture of lights, or photographers constantly working in different conditions, are likely to benefit the most from the ExpoDisc. Portrait photographers, however, may be interested to learn that a portrait version of the ExpoDisc is also available, which retains exactly the same principle as the version covered here, save for a slight bias towards warmer, more flattering tones.
|The X-Rite Colorchecker Passport's fold out design allows it to stand upright with no additional supports|
Based on the industry-standard Colorchecker chart, but expanded and presented in a more practical format, the pocket-sized (3.5 x 5 inches when folded) X-Rite Colorchecker Passport can used for both custom DNG profiling and as a conventional reference tool for white balance and exposure.
The device incorporates three targets: a miniaturized version of the standard 24-patch Colorchecker target; a neutral patch for setting custom white balance, and a Creative Enhancement target. The first target is used for DNG profiling, as well as standard color measurement. The neutral patch, meanwhile, may be used to set custom white balance and as a reference mid-tone for exposure, while the Creative Enhancement target contains warming and cooling patches for minor white balance adjustments, as well as rows of neutral and colored targets which can be used to check clipping and color shifting respectively.
The passport’s book-like design combines the three targets into the area of a just one, and allows the target to stand without any further support, when all three sides are pulled away from each other. The targets are well protected by the rugged plastic casing too, should you want to throw it in your camera bag or keep it in a pocket, while the supplied lanyard allows you to carry it around your neck as you shoot. Bundled software (the snappily-named ColorChecker Passport Camera Calibration Application) allows you to create custom DNG profiles quickly and easily, and can work either as a standalone program or as a plugin for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
|The X-Rite Colormunki Display's design incorporates a diffuser panel (top) used for ambient light readings|
One of the more recent additions to the X-Rite stable of color management products, the ColorMunki Display is a screen calibration device aimed at beginner and intermediate users. Intended as a 'no stress' solution it can be used to calibrate a range of displays, from projectors to wide-gamut LCDs, and is provided with both easy and advanced software wizards to suit the user’s technical capabilities and desired level of control.
The colorimeter itself has a counterweight on its cable, and is fitted with a diffusing panel for the measurement of ambient light readings, while towards the end of the calibration procedure it can also be held against the display to measure flare. Once the luminance of the display has been correctly adjusted the calibration process takes little over five minutes, and post-calibration before-and-after examples illustrate the degree to which changes have been made.
The Colormunki is a user-friendly, inexpensive screen calibration device. For more advanced users, or those hankering after a higher level of control, the more expensive X-Rite i1Display Pro is designed on the same lines as the Colormunki Display but offers a raft of additional functionality, including an integrated tripod mount and infinite control of white point, luminance, contrast ratio and gamma.
|The Spyder3Print SR creates and reads a range of different patches for basic or advanced printer
Monitor profiling is relatively easy, but for ultimate control over color there is an extra step. Many photographers probably don't think to take their printer's color reproduction into account, but depending on the type of media that you're using, printer calibration can make a real difference.
If you stick with recommended ink and paper from your printer manufacturer, or you use paper from a well-supported third-party brand which provides profiles, you probably don't need to bother with printer calibration. Where devices like the Spyder3Print SR come in really handy is if you chose to use third-party inks and/or more obscure, less well-supported media, where pre-created profiles are not available, and the generic profiles included with your printer are unlikely to yield accurate results.
The Spyder3Print SR is one of the most popular standalone print profiling devices on the market. It combines a spectrocolorimeter with a platform (pictured) together with software that allows you to print a range of color targets. Once printed on your media of choice, you simply run the spectrocolorimeter along the patches and measure each one to assess your printer's color reproduction. This information is used to create a profile for your specific machine and media, and profiles can be tweaked using the supplied software.
The Spyder3Studio SR package combines the same spectrocolorimeter as the Spyder3Print SR but includes a separate colorimeter for display calibration, at a slightly smaller outlay than the combined price of the two.
- Street price: $69.01 (US) / £52.08 (UK) / €69.70 (EU)
- www.colourconfidence.com (follow link for price/purchase options)
|The Grafilite is ideal for prints up to A4 (8.3 x 11.7 in) in size, although a larger
'Twin Pack' version is also available if you like to make larger prints.
You can have the best monitor and printer profiles possible, but that doesn't change the fact that the appearance of a photographic print is always going to be subject to the conditions under which it is viewed. Colors that appear different under one type of lighting can appear similar same under another (an effect known as metamerism), while neutral areas can easily take on a color bias from the lights under which they are viewed.
The Grafilite, by British color calibration specialists Colour Confidence isn't a color calibration tool as such, but it is a very useful tool in ensuring that your prints look right. The Grafilite kit comprises a folding lamp with an energy-efficient 230V daylight simulation bulb rated for up to 10,000 hours, together with a gray mat designed to be used as a neutral background (the latter being particularly important give that the appearance of colors is affected by what's around them).
The kit as a whole is fairly compact and the lamp can be folded into itself when not in use, while the mat itself measures just 8.3 x 11.7 inches in size. Should you be regularly making prints larger than this, the more expensive Grafilite 'Twin Pack' includes two bulbs, in two separate stands, and a double-sized (11.7 x 16.5 inches) gray mat.
Although Colour Confidence ships internationally, those in the US keen to avoid high shipping charges may wish to consider the Ottlite Folding Desk Lamp instead. Although it doesn't come with a gray mat like the Grafilite, you can supplement it with an inexpensive grey card to act as a neutral background.
|The Colormunki spectrophotometer can calibrate monitors and measure print targets for ICC profiling.|
Despite only having been around for a few years, the Colormunki Photo - a combined display and printer calibration tool - has already become one of the most popular integrated color management devices on the market. This can be at least partly explained by its simplicity, since it uses the same device to perform both tasks. Indeed, integration seems to be a theme with the Colormuki Photo. Even the carry case with which it is provided doubles as a holder for display calibration, its weighted strap acting as an anchor when the device is positioned on a computer screen.
As the image above shows, print profiling is performed by running the Colormunki over a series of printed patches, the results of which are used to create the profile. Further clever functionality includes an integrated white ceramic tile, which quickly allows the device to be calibrated for accuracy, as well as a Spot Colour measurement option which enables it to read a colour from a physical object - such as a CD cover, magazine or other - in order for it to be transferred to a computer and used for other tasks such as image editing and logo creation. There are more advanced (and expensive) calibration devices available, but the Colormunki is definitely one of the most user-friendly.
An alternative version aimed at graphic designers, the Colormunki Design, is also available. Easily identifiable by its white casing, this is based on the same spectrophotometer as the Photo version, but it has slightly different software to make it more appropriate for use in graphic design, rather than photography.
|The Spyder3Studio SR kit is cheaper than the combined cost of the included Spyder3Elite and
Spyder3Print devices if purchased separately, which effectively means you get the SpyderCube for free.
Designed as a complete colour management package, the Spyder3Studio SR combines three of the most popular Datacolour products: the Spyder3Elite colorimeter (the most advanced of the trio of Spyders currently available) for monitor and projector calibration; the Spyder3Print SR for generating custom ICC print profiles; and the SpyderCube to provide accurate points of reference for image processing.
The Spyder3Elite colorimeter is equipped with an ambient light sensor, so that this may be taken into consideration during calibration, while the supplied software may even be used to assess the quality of the monitor in order to determine the consistency of reproduction across the display area. The spectrophotometer used for print profiling, meanwhile, comes with its own base to act as a guide when moving it across a series of patches, the process of which now claimed to take merely a few minutes.
Finally, the SpyderCube is constructed from a fade-proof resin, to ensure its surfaces remain accurate over time, and with the integrated tripod thread and hook it can be respectively mounted or hung in the scene depending on which is easier. In addition to the above, the package comes complete with a monitor cleaning cloth and a Quick Start Guide, and everything comes in a solid metal case which is useful for more mobile users.
|Understanding Color Management is intended intended as an introduction for
those new to color management although intermediate and more advanced
users will find plenty of useful information too.
Although obviously not a color management device, I think this book deserves a place on my list as it covers all aspects of color management relevant to photographers. Despite being originally published in 2004, much of the information within it is still as relevant to color and its management today as it was seven years ago, but as its title suggests, its focus is more on theory and basic principles of color management rather than providing a step-by-step guide for any specific tasks.
Abhay Sharma's book begins by looking at the very basics of color and the human visual system, before venturing into the purpose and differences between color spaces, the importance and basic principles of device profiling, and other key issues such as appropriate rendering intents for photographic reproduction. Those wanting a good overview of everything involved can start with the 46-page introduction which succinctly covers the book’s scope, and gloss over some of the more involved sections.
Although the reader isn’t expected to have any prior knowledge of the topics discussed, both the pace and tone of the writing allows them to quickly develop an understanding of even more complex aspects of color management. The book is logically organized to enable you to do so, while summaries at the end of each chapter quickly remind the reader of the key points discussed. True, it may not be the cheapest book on the subject, but in terms of its scope and usefulness I think that Understanding Color Management is well worth the investment.