the RAW color matching lie

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RMGoodLight
RMGoodLight Forum Member • Posts: 75
the RAW color matching lie
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I have to write this opinion post because I'm tired of a false claim everyone is telling. This claim has no real proof, is very hard / impossible to master but people pretend that you need almost no knowledge and skill to achieve perfect results. I have to write about it to give people an idea why they fail with this matter although it should be easy to do.

The claim: Shoot RAW and you can match every look you want.

Learn how to color grade in Lightroom and you can match any colors you want to. There is no magic secret recipe to achieve perfect Fujifilm, Canon or Olympus colors. If you shoot RAW you can match the output of any camera to every other camera. You can even match film.

Sounds easy! People keep telling this in forums and comments. Newcomers or people that switch system ask questions like how can I get this Canon / Fuji colors with my new Sony / Olympus / Panasonic camera? Manufacturers like VSCO sell emulations to achieve special looks and color responses with different brands. And even DPR claimed that it is very easy to copycat that Fuji colors of a GFX 50S with a Nikon or Sony FF sensor.

But it is a lie!

In theory you can do it. In reality you will waste a lot of time and money for mediocre results. I've gone this route myself more than once and spend a lot of hours and days with this topic. I realized that there is no easy solution and all thats left are poor tools and exhausting procedures. If you realy want to color grade your camera sensor to a specific output you need to grade every single image or to create a color profile with a lot ... a lot try-and-error that will only match good cases.

Spyder colorimeter / color checker

The whole family of color checker and colorimeter is claimed as the solution for matching colors. But it is the oposite of what one tries to achieve. The color checkers are used to get rid of all false colors. It is a white balance tool that tries to give different camera sensors the same color output. Unfortunately you loose all the special sauce of the camera manufacturer. And you will not get it back! You get a flat look similar to the Adobe Lightroom standard profile. So you loose all the nice looking colors and have to tweak the result to get them back. Wrong direction.

VSCO film simulations

There is this huge family of digital film simulations. Most can be found for Lightroom. They are not cheap because it is very expensive to produce them. You have to shoot color checkers with real film and try to match the colors manualy. So someone did the job and you can use the results for easy access.

These digital simulations work not very precise. You will get different colors with different brands and even models. RAW gives different colors (in Lightroom) for different brands. The difference is not huge but by applying some digital film simulations you increase those differences. VSCO is targeting this problem by giving you digital simulations for different brands. So you get a Velvia profile for Sony, Olympus, Fuji and generell. But RAW colors differ even between sensor models. I can asure you that a Sony A7, A7S, A7R and A6000 give you very different colors in RAW. But you have only one Velvia profile for Sony... And (you can spare your money) this VSCO Velvia looks very different to the new Velvia of the Fuji-X bodies.

Handmade camera profiles

You can find some handmade camera profiles on the web. Most of them are only camera calibration profiles (see Spyder colorimeter). There are some profiles that try to emulate specific colors. So you can find Astia and Velvia profiles for different RAW converters like Irident Developer or RawTherapy. Since color matching is that difficult the results vary. I think only Fujifilm can create profiles that match 100%.

Lightroom color tweaking

Lightroom offers a lot of ways to tweak colors. You can push and pull the color channels, you can tweak individual colors (HSV), apply a tone curve to the color channels, color shadows and highlights or apply a camera profile. A lot of options but not easy to master. One problem is that Lightroom is not designed for color grading. It is not designed for professionals. The only response to all your tweaking is the image preview and a very small histogram. You can't split view a second reference image or adjust the colors to a reference color from another image. It is all about you moving sliders.

Matching colors in LR is not that easy as everyone claims. It starts with the calibration of your monitor. Second correct white balance. Third a neutral starting point like the Adobe Standard camera profile. As I said before every sensor model has different RAW colors. So you will only match the current camera model.

The HSL tab lets you tweak colors in the most precise way in LR. And here is where the rubber hits the road. You can tweak individual primary colors to match another reference pallete. But those 8 colors (8 x 3 sliders) will allow you only a very generous tweaking. You can try to match the red color all day long for that perfect red of the lips from a Canon image but will not even get close to the image you try to match. The reason are the color shades. What is with the blue shade or yellow shades in those red area you try to match? The LR sliders try to iron out all shades. You can not tweak those fine shades within LR but the camera can do it. Manufacturers do not only use a simple 8 or 16 color palette to convert RAW images into JPEG. They use a very fine palette that move colors by their staturation and brightness.

All of the RAW converters I used before only allow color tweaking by red, green, blue channels and 8 primary colors. That is not enough for color matching.

The only way to achieve this fine color tweaking within LR is to use self made camera profiles.

DIY camera profiles

You can fine tune color shifts as a camera profile. Adobe offers the Adobe DNG Profile Editor for this. I have the impression it is discontinued since it is very difficult to find a download and the current version was not updated for years.

A recipie for a camera could look like this.

This tool is a major pain in the a$$. It is designed for camera calibration not matching. You have to match every individual color by hand (and eye). You have to match it outside of the tool since the preview image is not anything but close to the real graded image. It is not designed for starters and it is not designed for professionals. In my understanding this tool is unfinished and only barely usable. It is not realy clear which color is pushed to which color, since all colors seem to ignore the lightness slider. So does a mid blue affect a dark blue?

All things said this approach needs A LOT of try and error but gets you a camera profile you can use in LR that matches 70%. 

Conclusion

Stop keep telling people that color matching is easy with RAW! It is a very difficult task that fails because you need a lot of knowledge, skill and endurance. Even if you have the knowledge the tools for the task are poor and will cost you a lot of time and pain.

 RMGoodLight's gear list:RMGoodLight's gear list
Sigma DP2 Merrill Fujifilm X-A1 Fujifilm X-T10 Fujifilm X-E3 Fujifilm XF 18mm F2 R +5 more
Sony a6000 Sony a7 Sony a7R Sony a7S
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