Accurate color from a digital camera is more than getting the white balance right. That’s a start, but there is a way to get all of the colors your camera can see. All you need is a ColorChecker chart and some free software.

ColorChecker

The ColorChecker 24 patch chart or target was introduced in 1977 and quickly became the standard photographers used for determining the color filter corrections required for photos made on the same emulsion lot number film neutral in color. That meant there was no color cast in the gray patches of the chart. Each new emulsion batch had to be tested with the ColorChecker.

Today, the same target is used to neutralize scenes shot with a digital camera. This is very basic. Shoot the ColorChecker in the scene, remove it, shoot the scene then, in post-production, use the target as a reference to make the entire take colorcast free. This is a big step beyond simply setting the white balance on the camera.

The XRite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2.0
The top part of the ColorChecker Passport Photo is the 24 patch target for calibrating digital cameras (and film too!)

Digital Camera Profiles

In color-critical situations — fashion catalogs for example — it was common to make a digital camera profile for individual product lighting setups. It isn’t difficult to make one and the results are worth it. A Digital Camera Profile (DCP) for a lighting situation guaranteed that the color from the camera was the best that camera body could make for that one situation.

Wouldn’t it be super useful to have one DCP that worked for every lighting situation? Well, there is and it’s pretty easy to make. Best of all, it only has to be done once for each camera. It called a dual illuminant DCP.

Dual what?!

Illuminant. Typically, digital cameras have a profile made for specific lighting setups, product photography for example. These situations required that color coming from the camera be as accurate as possible. So prior to shooting a series of products for a catalog, the photographer made a digital camera profile (DCP) using an X-Rite ColorChecker chart. A single profile made from a very warm ColorChecker photo and a very cool one works as a “universal” profile for the camera no matter what color the light in the scene may be. Nice!

Camera calibration — dual illuminant style

I used the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2.0 to profile my three Canon camera bodies and my Sony NEX-7.

Step one: Light the ColorChecker chart as evenly as you can in the warmest light available. This can be a tungsten or incandescent light bulb. With a speedlight, cover it with a RoscoSun #3407 gel. It is a very good idea to use a tripod. Frame the ColorChecker 24 patch target as tightly as possible in the viewfinder. Photograph the chart as a RAW file.

Step two: Light the ColorChecker chart evenly in the coolest light possible. Cover a speedlight with a Rosco #3202 Full Blue CTB gel. Again, photograph the chart in RAW.

Step three: Convert the RAW file to the DNG format.

  • Lightroom Classic — Choose File > Export then set the File Settings to DNG.
  • Adobe Camera Raw — Click Save Images in the lower-left corner of the dialog. Set DNG in the Format window.

If you don’t have Lightroom Classic or Camera Raw (part of Bridge and Photoshop) you can use the free Adobe DNG Converter.

Step four: Install the free ColorChecker Camera Calibration software.

Step five: Click Dual Illuminate DNG in the top bar.

Making a dual illuminate digital camera profile with the ColorChecker Camera Calibration software
The ColorChecker target with patches selected automatically in the camera calibration software

Step six: Drag the warm DNG file to one of the boxes at the bottom of the dialog. Then drag the cool DNG to the other box.

The software will detect the ColorChecker chart and place a green box inside each of the 24 patches on the target. There are directions for manually aligning the chart if the automatic detection doesn’t work. Click “Create Profile.” The ColorChecker Camera Calibration software will automatically place the digital camera profile of your camera in the right place on your computer for Lightroom Classic, Bridge and Photoshop to use it.

How I lit the ColorChecker

While I have electronic flashes and the gels in my studio, as I shoot more and more videos, I find myself leaning on LEDs as light sources. I particularly like the Orchestra series from Luxli. They are variable in brightness from 0 to 100% in 1% increments. Most importantly, the color temperature can be dialed from a very warm 3000ºK all the way to the cool blue 10000ºK.

I used a pair of the Luxli Viola2 LED lights mounted on Platypod MAXs with the 5/8″ extension. They were placed at a 45º angle to the ColorChecker Passport Photo.

The Luxli Viola2 mounted on a Platypod MAX
A Luxli Viola2 on a Platypod MAX is a perfect tabletop light source.

I framed the target as tightly as I could to make it easier for the camera calibration software to detect the chart.

Useful tips for creating a DCP

  • Please use a tripod to ensure the composition and that the photographs of the ColorChecker are sharp.
  • Name the RAW files with the name of the camera being calibrated.
  • Pay attention to getting the exposure right. If you can see each of the six patches across the top of the ColorChecker 24 patch target, the exposure will probably be close enough. Ideally, use an incident light meter like the Illuminati IM-150 or the Sekonic L-478 flash meters. I like the Illuminati because it also reads the color temperature as well as flash. Sekonic sells a great color meter for $1600 that does not read exposures.

The payoff — the best color your camera can make

The profiles supplied with RAW processors like Lightroom Classic, Bridge and Photoshop and Luminar 4 are very good. But these are not nearly as good as the color that our cameras are capable of capturing. Compare the three photos below. They are identical except for the profile used.

To my eye, the Adobe Standard profile is really flat and dull compared to the custom DCP. The Camera Faithful profile is closer but doesn’t have as much pop. Compare the colors in the plaid shirt around her waist, the skin tones and lip color. Which one looks best to you?