Just What is a Colour Balanced Workflow and What Does it Involve?!

Just What is a Colour Balanced Workflow and What Does it Involve?!


If there’s one thing that baffles most people – clients and photographers alike – it’s how to best colour balance / match / adjust and supply images. How do you make sure that colours are consistent from one shot to the next? What programmes are the fastest and most accurate to achieve this, and how do you document it for future use and reference?


Easy when you know how no doubt. Well sometimes! There are no hard and fast rules for getting the best colour results, but some practices are definitely important to be incorporated, in one way or another. My short answer has to be:


Shoot Raw
Check your Camera’s Profile Settings
Colour Balance with a light meter and Colour Card
Calibrate Monitors

My slightly longer answer goes like this…


Just to be clear, it’s not my aim to give you a technical text on colour management and workflow, there are plenty freely available from the likes of Adobe and Phase One, but rather to give you an overview of what we do here at the Photography Firm for our clients, and what we believe you should expect from a professional photographer supplying images for print and the web.


Colour management used to be a bit of a holy grail up until a relatively short time ago, but today it is achievable, and whilst still quite a complex task there is no reason not to get the colour right. Although we would still recommend getting proofs or scatter proofs done if the final output is to be a colour critical clothing catalogue for example.


A consistent colour managed workflow after an image has been captured is almost as important as the technical expertise used to photograph that image, and is the only way to achieve accurate colour and consistent results job after job. It can also save a lot of time in post production and pre press, thereby saving the client both cost and unnecessary delays in receiving their completed job.  Here at The Photography Firm we have spent many years perfecting our workflow and would recommend it as a habit all photographers should adopt.


At the core of this process is correctly colour calibrated monitors and correct software/camera profile settings, without which a rigid workflow is of little use.


It’s staggering how many people are unaware of colour management, or worse still, are aware of it but don’t use it properly –  it was perhaps forgivable in the early years of digital photography, but today it goes without saying that a good photographer should know more than a thing or two about colour management, digital workflow, file formats and colour spaces.


Regardless of what camera format, make or system we are using, the chain always begins with shooting in RAW format, in fact our camera file settings are never changed to any other format. View this as your digital negative or transparency, whether it be a Nikon NEF, Canon CR2,Phase One IIQ or a Hassleblad 3FR. A raw file can be revisited many times without loss of quality. RAW files record and maintain all the information the camera sensor is capable of recording without any or very little in-camera processing, therefore they give you the maximum quality files, containing a huge colour gamut (think of a gamut as a range of colours). They also allow you a choice of colour space later on in post production – so if an image is for web use it can be output with a different colour profile to that of one heading for print. For more information on file formats and colour spaces see our post titled ‘Colour Spaces and File Formats for Use Online’.


At the start of each shoot and set-up we accurately colour balance, usually with the help of a handheld colour meter in tricky conditions. We also always shoot with a Gretag Macbeth colour checker chart – both at the start of a shoot, and at each change in set-up or lighting conditions. This greatly helps at later stages of the images’ journey to web or print. Incidentally, we never use the cameras light meter, we prefer to use a handheld light meter (we use Sekonic), whilst useful we haven’t found a camera histogram or LCD screen that accurately displays what we are getting (we quite often shoot with the screens turned off, great for battery life).


Using a camera meter is certainly no match to working out the correct exposure by measuring highlights, shadows and midpoints. In the studio (at times on location too) we shoot tethered directly to one of our top spec apple macs. The majority of our location work is shot to memory card if speed is paramount.


The next stage is to process the image.


We use both Adobe Lightroom and Capture One Pro for RAW conversion and processing the final image. If a large number of images have been captured we will quite often send contact sheets or lo res preview files at this stage for the client to make a selection.  Routine tasks generally include a final check and tweaking of colour balance, levels and curves, together with a basic image clean up and sharpening. Images will then be exported as per final usage, i.e sRGB jpeg for the web or Adobe RGB (1998) tiff for print. At this stage images will be sent for clipping paths or further enhancements such as more complex retouching in Adobe Photoshop.


During tight deadline shoots it is not unheard of us to process images ‘on the fly’ where we will have the client selecting images as we shoot for processing by an assistant for delivery at the end of the day – thats something you couldn’t have done with film, thankfully the days of loitering around 24 hour E6 labs in the early hours for delivery to the client the next morning has gone, not to mention the courier bills.


Once these steps are completed we back everything up and deliver to the client online, by DVD or hard drive.