for photographers: what you need to know about color
I thought I would take a break from client posts to make a post for my fellow photographers. Hands down, the question I get asked most is “How do you get perfect color outside every time?” Usually I will respond when I have some extra time, but since time is fleeting these days (and I see too many green, blue, or yellow people!!!), I thought I’d make a blog post with a few tips for reference.
The most important thing…look for quality light! I cannot stress how important lighting is…well…yes I can, lighting is EVERYTHING!
Some quick tips…
— Find quality light. Let’s just get this on the table, I am a lighting snob and I fully admit it. :) I only prefer to work with the best light of the day, and that’s the “sweet light” about 2-3 hours before the sun goes down (and no, I rarely ever have a client who takes issue with it). The sun is low in the sky, the light is golden and directional, and it’s just plain yummy! If your schedule doesn’t allow you to shoot at that hour, try to shoot in the early morning hours. You generally want to try and avoid shooting from 10am-2pm when the sun is directly overhead. Now, before I get a flurry of emails, yes, it’s possible to find good light at all times during the day, and yes, you should learn to work in all kinds of light…I have, and this the light I prefer and it works for me. Do whatever works for you. :) Find locations that will work at different times of the day, for example, I have locations that have good morning light and others with good evening light. I personally will not sacrifice good light just because I want to shoot in a certain location. If the light isn’t good there, it’s not an option. I don’t like winging it.
— Pay attention to the color temperature of the light. If you are shooting full sun in an open field, the light will be warm, if you are shooting in open shade, the light is cooler. Learn to look for this and recognize it. If you’re shooting in green grass when the light is bright, your clients probably look green from the color cast of the grass – I’m fairly certain your clients don’t want to look green – and this is one of the hardest “fixes” to do later.
— Get it right in camera so you don’t have to mess with it later. Underexposed images will have a lot of red undertones and are generally not very fun to work with. ;) Overexposed images will be washed out. I realize most everyone shoots RAW, but it’s much easier to just get it right the first time and use ACR/Lightroom for minor tweaks.
— Try to edit your images in the same lighting conditions each time. We’ve all had those late night editing sessions only to open the images in the morning and wonder “What the heck was I doing last night?” The way you perceive color changes depending on the light you are surrounded in as well. I normally edit in my office in the daytime, with daylight only, no overhead lights on.
— Throwing a bunch of actions and haze on a bad image just makes it look like a bad image with some haze thrown on it. Just say no! Actions should be used to enhance your images, not fix them.
1. White Balance. I suggest to never shoot on Auto White Balance (AWB), choose a white balance preset. Why? Because your AWB can change from image to image…you can get 3 images that have perfect color and the next 3 could be totally off. In my opinion, it’s just not reliable, and if you do have to make any tweaks you have to go through image by image in ACR where as if they are all one setting you can select them all and apply changes to them all at once. It has been suggested that some camera models do well with AWB, but I still choose to control my own. What can I say, I’m a control freak. ;) Since I shoot mostly in open shade with back lighting, I choose the shade preset (the one that looks like a house — refer to your manual if you’re unsure which it is). The light in open shade is generally cooler, using the shade preset will add some warmth to your images. There are times when I still think my images are too cool when using the shade preset…if that’s the case, I will change to the Kelvin (K) setting and choose my own temperature, usually somewhere from 7100-7300K depending on how cool the light is. The next question is normally…“But when I use the shade preset, my images are too red.”
2. Camera Style. The next thing to check is the camera style you are using. There are several to choose from…standard, neutral, faithful, portrait, and landscape. Most people will choose standard, but standard itself will make your images have a lot of red tones. I suggest using neutral. The neutral camera style does not have any sharpness, saturation, or contrast added. I know you’re thinking, “But I shoot RAW, what does this matter?” Trust me, it does. Even if you shoot RAW only, every time you take an image, a small .jpg file is created and that is what’s displayed on your LCD screen. If you are set to standard (which gives the image a boost in saturation and contrast), you will see the “color popped” version of the image on your camera, and this could look very different than what you see on your computer. When you choose neutral all the values (saturation, contrast, etc.) are set to 0, I personally feel like it’s more of a WYSIWYG…which is good for a visual gal like myself. ;) Now if you’re used to shooting with the standard camera style you will probably think neutral makes your images drab looking and may have to adjust your editing a bit, but this is one of the things that made a HUGE difference for me.
3. The next thing you’ll need to do is make sure that Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)/Lightroom is using that same camera style. So neutral in camera and neutral in ACR. Or whatever style you choose to use, make sure they both match. I use ACR, so that’s what I will reference. In your options panel on the right, click the camera icon, if you hover it should say Camera Calibration. Find the drop down menu under Camera Profile and change it to Camera Neutral. (See below) Once you change it, click on the little fly out menu (that little icon to the right of Camera Calibration) and choose “Save New Camera Raw Defaults”. This will the save the setting and apply it to every image as it’s uploaded/viewed in Bridge. Actually, just for fun, go back thru and click through the list of profiles and watch how it changes your image. Crazy, right?
P.S. Disregard those other changes I have made in that panel. The reason they are changed is because I noticed that my camera had consistent red/magenta tones. By adjusting the sliders in this panel you can compensate for those issues. So, if you notice your images always seem to pull a certain color, you can play around with these sliders and see if it helps. Just remember to “Save New Camera Raw Defaults” each time if you want it automatically applied to all your images from then on.
EDITED TO ADD: I hope these screen shots are showing up bright and vibrant! I just saw this was pinned on Pinterest and the screen shot looked really icky green and I’m not sure why?!? Very ironic for a post about color. ;) They are showing up normal for me, but that totally stresses me out now. HAHA!
So…here is my SOOC image (this was 6300K WB set in camera):
A quick tidbit about temperature and ACR…For some reason ACR (I’m not sure about Lightroom) does not read the exact temperature from your camera. It basically takes the information from your camera and guesstimates. This used to drive me bonkers…and after much Googling and reading many threads on many forums, I came to the answer. So you may notice, like I did, even though I chose 6300K in camera, when it was opened in ACR the temperature shows up as 5750K. So don’t panic and think something is not right, it just is what it is. Dear Adobe, please fix this. Thankyouverymuch. :) UPDATE: I’ve been informed that Lightroom guesstimates as well.
And the ACR edit with just a couple tweaks. I thought it looked a bit cool so I warmed it up a bit (5800K) with the first temperature slider. And bumped up the exposure (+.15) just a bit. The other settings you see are my default settings in ACR. Once I have one image how I prefer, I open all images in ACR and sync them. This applies the same settings to every image. From here I open the files in Photoshop and complete the final edits.
Once in Photoshop I do a slight sharpen, color pop, and vignette. I have this set up as an action in Photoshop, so one click does it all (I actually batch run it). I get a lot of questions if I use a certain color action…the answer is yes and no. :) I have purchased actions over the years and no matter how great they look on other people’s images, they never look the same on mine. Years ago I purchased Leah’s Color Workflow actions…the base action I use is the color action from that set, however, run as is, it is much too color popped for my preference, so I have added and deleted and tweaked and then tweaked some more to make it work for my images. And this is my final image edit.
Now if you are unsure about skin tones, or don’t see color casts well, you might try the following. (See below) 1. Select your eyedropper tool. 2. Up on your options bar, choose “5 by 5 Average” from the Sample Size drop down menu. 3. Take your eyedropper and hover over your subjects cheek highlight. 4. With your eye dropper hovered, look at the CMYK values in your Info window. (If you don’t see an info window, go to Window in your menu>scroll down and choose Info and the box should pop up). The general rule of thumb for skin tones…the Y (yellow) percentage should be the highest (since the base color of most skin tones is yellow). Your M (magenta) value should be just slightly less than the yellow percentage, and the C (cyan) value should be roughly half of the M percentage. I don’t do this on every image, but I will do a quick check if I am not sure what I see.
Okay, let’s do a little test! :) These are what NOT to do!! What color do you see?
(if you guessed blue, and a little magenta, you’re right!)
(Glowing green color cast from the grass! And too yellow!)
(too blue! this is typically what people will see shooting in open shade)
I hope this post has provided some helpful tips on how to improve the color in your images. I would love to hear if your results change with the tips above…leave me a comment and let me know!! Happy Shooting!
Thank you so much Sarah for all of this wonderful information. I happened upon it in facebook and am so happy I did. I’ve been changing my “neutral” setting in Bridge manually since forever as I didn’t know how to save it to neutral. lol. I appreciate you.
Great post! I love your eyedropper trick!
Thank you! I learned a lot from this post!
Wow Sarah! Thank you so much and for taking the time for putting this post together. You rock!
Thanks Sarah! I know this is an area I need to work on.
Green and blue color casts drive me nuts!!!
I would say my people look a little too yellow sometimes.
<3 how you're not afraid to share information! Keep up the great work!
wow! thanks for all the information!! let me know when you want to host a class and i’ll be there in a heart beat!! i have a question for you – when changing the camera style to neutral in your camera – where is this at? are you a nikon or canon user? i use a nikon d700 and am having troubles finding those options. any help would be much appreciated!!
I also have a quick question, if you don’t mind. When I pull my image into PS from ACR (after changing my settings to neutral), the CMYK looks good. Then after I do my color pop, the C drops way down. Does this happen to you also after you do a color pop? In your final edit, are the CMYK values still as you described in your post?
This was really great! Thanks so much! My ACR does not give the option to change it to neutral. I shoot sony, so I think that is the problem. I changed the setting in my camera, but once it gets into ACR it just goes to standard & its SOOO frustrating. I have googled this issue & thought I had it fixed, downloaded the “solution” and it still only says standard …sigh Thanks for sharing all this great info! I really need to practice shooting in “manual” white balance, I do admit that I have only shot in AWB :/
Hey Sarah, I just stopped by to stalk your awesome color, and here was this wonderful article about color! Amazing, I just loved all the info you shared! You’ re incredibly generous to have written and shared this, thanks!
Thank you for sharing this Sarah! I don’t think my camera is set to shoot in neutral, I’m for sure trying that out the next time I head out.
Love this post! Thank you! I have a question for you. If you are in photoshop and notice with the eye dropper tool that the magenta is higher than the yellow where in photoshop to you go to adjust the colors? DO you just use the selective color tool and adjust?
Thank you- this was really helpful!!
Hi there, so very grateful for your post! I’m just learning. Just one quick question – on Step 2: Camera Style, how do I set my camera to neutral? It sounds like it’s something I do on my camera then also in ACR. (I have a Nikon) I am a total newbie but I was given your link by an amazing photographer and her – and YOUR pictures are amazing so I want to everything you say! :)
Thanks for you help! I look forward to capturing great pictures of my kids and my products that I sell on etsy.
I have a photo I am working on and I notice after reading your wonderful article the the yellow and magenta are about right, but the cyan is way to low according to the info box. How do I adjust just the cyan levels. (M-15,Y-25,C-2)
Thanks! This is a great article.
Oops, that should have been M-17, Y-25, C-2
Thankyou sooo much for taking the time to share this Sarah! I have always wondered why on earth my images (set to neutral in camera) look so different on the back of my camera to when I upload them to Lightroom! I thought it was just that they looked different because of the size I was viewing them at! Thankyou for sharing!!!
Thank you so much…this was great. Would you share what you use to sharpen? Beautiful work.
guilty as charged. how do I get away from the grass going crazy when doing a color pop? I read your FB posts about electric or glowing grass. I don’t want to do it. How do I not when I go to correct something this inadvertently happens sometimes. I use LR and CS5.
Thank you Sarah. You are such a great teacher!
THANKS!! so helpful!
Can you tell me how you add the white stripe across the bottom with your logo in it??
I really want to do that but don’t under stand how