Calibrating your Camera for Consistent Color


The Consistent Color Conundrum

If you’d like, watch this at the bottom of the page. Or, read on… 🙂

Getting good and consistent color out of your camera is likely something you’ve not put much thought into before. The color looks great and with a few adjustments in Lightroom or your raw editor of choice you can do whatever you want with the color. But when if you have two cameras that give consistently different colors and you’re using them on the same shoot? What then?

Enter Camera Calibration. With the tools from Calibrite the process is very easy to do. You can make a file that’s usable in various software apps, but if you use Lightroom Classic and/or Photoshop with Adobe Camera Raw you’re in good luck as the process is rather automated.

By calibrating your cameras, you’ll be able to take the three main factors that create differences between your raw files in the first place. They are:

  1. The camera body itself.
  2. Your lens choice, each lens has it’s own color characteristic.
  3. The lighting conditions.

We’ll assume that you’re using the two cameras in the same lighting conditions so we don’t really need to worry about that variable. Also, most lenses are very close in their color rendition with a few notable exceptions. But when compared to the differences in sensor and processing that happens in camera, it’s the camera body itself that is the biggest culprit when it comes to mismatched color.

Installing the Software

You’ll need to buy a Color Checker Passport or a calibration device that comes with a Color Checker Chart. You’ll then go to this page and get the item called “ColorChecker Camera Calibration.” At the time of this writing it’s the third item on the list.

They offer a Mac and PC version of the software. For the Mac version it automatically installs the plugin for Lightroom Classic that very much streamlines this process. I wish they’d mentioned something about this during the installation process, but oh well. No thing to worry about, just know that it also installs the plugin for Lightroom Classic. I will assume that it does the same for a Windows computer.

I photographed the Color Checker Passport 2 in the open shade created by my house. Certainly the color of the siding of the house and other factors will affect the light temperature that falls onto the color swatches. It was a bright and sunny day and I just wanted to do something quick for this example.

If you’re looking to do this for a “real job” as it were, you’ll want to do this every time you need accurate and consistent color. However, since we’re looking to use this as a way to get consistent color from two different cameras (with two different lenses too) you’ll likely not need to worry about doing this all that often, just in those situations where it’s critical for their color to match such as a time-lapse or other color critical work where you’re using multiple cameras.

And by time-lapse, I’m assuming you’re using an intervalometer to create a series of photographs in succession and that you’ll use software such as Photoshop or a video editor to put all the frames together. You could do a time-lapse with your camera in video mode, but we’re not covering that idea today.

When photographing the chart, be sure to bracket your exposure to guarantee you get one that’s the proper exposure. I photographed one frame at the exposure the camera thought was right, then one third of a stop over exposed and then one third of a stop under exposed.

If I’d been thinking I’d have photographed the gray panel that also comes with the Color Checker Passport 2 and paid special attention to the histogram in camera to achieve the perfect exposure. But I didn’t do that that this process worked out just fine anyway.

Selecting the proper exposure

After copying the images into Lightroom Classic as DNG, analyze the fourth swatch from the left along the bottom. That’s your middle gray swatch. As you mouse over it you’ll see some values appear just under the histogram in Lightroom Classic. It usually shows you the ISO, lens length, f-stop and shutter speed as shown in the image below. But when you mouse over the image those parts will change.

A few of my chosen frame in Lightroom Classic and the associated Histogram.

As you place your cursor over the fourth gray swatch from the left it should read very close to 50%. If you’re doing this in a different software and you need the luminance value, you’re looking for 128. As long as you’re close you should be fine. Mine was at about 53%.

The Automated (easier) Way to make the calibration file

Once you identify the right file (the one with the proper exposure without any adjustments) simply select Export from the Library module. If the plug-in was installed properly upon software installation you’ll see an export option in the presets panel on the left side. I highlighted the item in yellow that you’re looking for here:

First off, select whether or not you want to do a standard calibration or the Dual Illuminant profile. I chose to do the first option which is good for a single lighting scenario.

Then give your profile a name.

Review the other items. As you can see in this screen shot one of my two monitors hasn’t been calibrated in a while. I suppose it’s nice to be reminded, but it doesn’t affect this process at all. It will just potentially affect how I see the results on screen, whether or not the color is as accurate as it could be.

Then hit export.

A file will be created in the background. On the Mac it’s found in this folder: user/library/application support/adobe/camera raw/profiles. But thankfully Lightroom imports this profile as part of the work it does when you hit that export button. But…

Using the profile

Unfortunately, Lightroom Classic is unable to make the newly created profile available to you until you restart the app. Once you close down Lightroom and open it back up again use the Library module to select the file that you want to apply the new profile too. And then switch over to the Develop module. Look for the profile selector in the Basic Panel as shown below.

Select the Profile Selector and…
Click Browse…
Select your profile from the newly added “Profiles” section and then hit close in the upper right corner of this panel.

Now you’re at the “perfect” starting point as far as color is concerned with your file. You can sync this throughout a selection of images and then all image files will have the same calibrated starting point.

Further thoughts on this process

To be done “properly” you should do this with each camera/lens/lighting situation. As outdoor photographers we’re always experiencing shifting and ever-changing lighting conditions.

So what’s the value of this for the outdoor and landscape photographer?

Certainly the idea of getting two cameras to deliver highly consistent color has some value. Whether you’re doing time-lapse or if you just have two different bodies on the same shoot, you can have confidence that your color will be consistent no matter what camera you’re using.

Additionally, if you’re shooting something that is color critical it would be very important to have faith in your ability to reproduce your colors accurately. I’m thinking about something like the colors of bird feathers, flowers, and other natural elements. Calibration gives you the confidence that you’re faithfully reproducing those colors so long as you have stable lighting conditions and you’re able to photograph the chart in the same light as the subject you’re trying to record.

Alternate Methods to Calibrate

I’m not going to spend too much time on this (watch the video as I cover this method first), however, the Color Checker Camera Calibration software also allows you to simply import a DNG file and then it does the rest. You’ll then have to import the resulting .dcp file into Lightroom Classic and then the result is the same, restart Lightroom to get access to the profile.

Additionally, you can use the .dcp file in any program that will support it. And finally, the software also gives you an option to create a standard .icc profile for even wider use in multiple different applications. It’s important to note though, that you shouldn’t convert this file to this color space in Photoshop. But you can use it in apps that support its use upon import of the raw data as it’s making an RGB image. I don’t have any experience with this specific practice as I am favoring the automated process that I’m able to use in Lightroom Classic with the creation of the .dcp calibration file format.

Watch it on YouTube

If you’d like, please feel free to watch this on YouTube right here.