Buyer's Guide: 10 Essential Color Management Devices
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.