Colour problem #1 – fixed!

In the comments of yesterday’s post Ben asked whether any other 400D owners had run the calibration process. I hadn’t thought of that. I’d searched for Lightroom ‘presets’ that fixed the colours and come up empty, but it didn’t occur to me to check for raw results of the ACR calibration script. A bit of googling and I found this post, in which a wedding photographer lists the results of his 400d calibration. I copied the settings into Lightroom and there was an immediate improvement. It was a touch too saturated for my tastes, but a quick fix later and I’ve got something that’s great. It’s not quite perfect – I imagine the values change based on individual cameras and specific colour temperatures – but easily good enough for the meantime. I’m happy. Thanks, Ben!

Colour problems with my photographs #1

Friends, stalkers and the easily bored might have noticed that I haven’t uploaded many pictures to Flickr of late. This isn’t because my Year 25 project has stalled – I have the last couple of weeks worth of images ready to go – but because of a problem between Adobe Lightroom and my new camera. Two problems, actually, both related to colour. Here’s the first:

Problem #1 – RAW Colour Deconstruction

Every time a digital camera takes a picture it gets a stream of raw data from its sensor. The camera then converts this data into an image file. Higher-end cameras, though, are capable of saving the raw data so that it can be processed on a computer rather than in-camera. This has a few advantages:

Firstly, RAW files contain slightly more information of the extreme shadows and highlights in an image, so extra detail can be extracted.

Secondly, RAW files allow the white balance to be manipulated after-the-fact. If you hold a white piece of paper under the noon sun, then under a motorway lamp at midnight, you’ll see the same white piece of paper both times. But the lighting is actually very different – it’s obvious that motorway lights are very, very orange compared to daylight. Take a photograph in both circumstances and the digital camera has no way of knowing what colour things ‘really’ are, so it makes its best guess. A standard image file takes the guess, alters all the colours and saves the results. You can manipulate it manually afterwards by pointing out which particular area of the image should be white, but a RAW file skips the guessing part – it lets you say exactly ‘I was standing under a light emitting light of this particular colour, please adapt all colours appropriately’.

Thirdly, RAW files aren’t compressed. Even the highest quality standard image will exhibit signs of compression. Zoom in on a blue sky in a normal digital photo and you’ll eventually see unpleasant blocks.

There are disadvantages, too. For example, RAW files are larger and therefore slower – my camera can take 27 consecutive JPEGs but only 9 RAWs before its buffer fills up. Also, processing RAW files takes time, and needs special software. Here’s where Adobe Lightroom steps in.

Lightroom is a powerful and very capable RAW processor, as well as a library management tool. I think it’s fantastic. It can recover shadow / highlight detail while keeping the rest of the image stable, it can apply changes to batches of images simultaneously and it can edit a photo while rendering a PDF contact sheet and importing from a memory card. I used it for months and eventually paid £200 for a license, figuring I’d use it for years. It is the business.

At least, it was with my old camera.

The problem stems from differing RAW files. My old 300D used CRW files, while my new 400D uses CR2 files. Both RAW formats are proprietary, meaning that the exact structure of the file is known only to Canon. I don’t know whether Lightroom’s programmers reverse-engineer the formats or there’s some other scheme, but either way the result is the same: Lightroom interprets the RAW data in the best way it knows. With the CRW this was spot on, and Lightroom’s processing would produce results as-good-as-if-not-better-than the camera’s own processing (a Canon camera knows exactly how to deconstruct a Canon RAW file to display the optimal image). But the CR2 is broken – the colours just aren’t correct.

It’s most noticeable in the reds. Here’re three different versions of the same holiday scene:

Lightroom Colour Problems - Mr Christmas

On the left is a JPEG produced in-camera; on the right is Lightroom’s interpretation of the RAW file; in the middle is the RAW interpretation by Capture One Pro, a rival to Lightroom. All used the same aperture/shutter speed/white balance/flash power. As you can see, Lightroom is waaaaaay orange compared to the JPG and Capture One. Visually, I’d say the JPG has the most accurate colour rendition, if slightly over-saturated. This makes a big difference in skin tones, and I have a fair few pictures of sickly-looking babies.

Why don’t I use Capture One Pro instead? Because it sucks compared to Lightroom. Also I paid £200 for Lightroom, and I’m not giving it up, so there.

I investigated the issue, and it turned out to be a common complaint with CR2 files. But no easy fixes presented themselves. So, I figured, why not just use JPEGs? In practice the extra exposure data isn’t useful very often, and compression isn’t noticeable in high quality images. White balance can be convenient, but that’s the trade-off to get decent colour. For a while this was exactly what I did.

It was like taking a step backwards. A series of images from a cold New Year walk were just…annoying. The white balance would shift depending on whether the sun was out or hidden by clouds, and in the most extreme pictures people’s skin tones vary wildly. I can fix this in post-production, but only roughly – it’s not like I had people holding a grey card in every shot. Obviously I would have this problem with RAW images too, but I can at least say ‘the average light from a cloudy sky is this colour, please show me the appropriate colours’, rather than having to slide things around until it looks right. Even after fixing there’s still a fair difference between shots taken only a few minutes apart. Also, altering the exposure was far more tricksy. With RAW I can say ‘alter the exposure by one stop up’, whereas with JPEG it’s, again, an approximation.

I found JPEGs far more limiting than I expected. Often the results were great – the camera’s guesses are usually excellent – but whenever I wanted to alter anything I’d get frustrated by the lack of precision. I didn’t like it. So it was back to the RAWs.

Reading up on the topic revealed that plenty of people are having the same problems. But others say: so what, RAW is meant to be more work! I apparently shouldn’t expect perfect results – RAW just gives you a basis from which to start. I should just fix the colours manually in Lightroom and apply the same fix to every photo I import (Lightroom can do this automatically, even limiting it only to photos from a particular camera).

Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me get Lightroom to match the JPEG colours. It’s more than upping the reds – there’s extra blue in there too, along with saturation differences and blah. I’ve tried pretty hard, and I just can’t match it with Lightroom’s calibration tools. Others have struggled similarly. I can get it not-too-bad, but that’s not good enough – I want it pretty-good.

Some people are very cross about Lightroom’s obvious problems with CR2 files. I admit that it’s frustrating. But, there is a solution. It’s just not cheap.

Solution: Get hold of a Gretag Macbeth ColourChecker chart. This is a 6 x 4 grid of reference colours. Take a photograph of one of these in RAW, and run the Thomas Fors ACR Calibrator Script in Photoshop CS. Because the colours are standardised the script knows exactly what they should look like, and it’s capable of telling Lightroom exactly how to adapt its colours to get the correct results. Brilliant!

But, a Gretag Macbeth ColourChecker chart is £60 (I don’t actually have the £130 Photoshop CS either, although I may have to bite the bullet on that soon as my course will probably require it). £60 on a piece of cardboard is simply unjustifiable at the moment, even if I can use it as a grey card afterwards.

So I’m not sure what to do at the moment. I can run RAW files through a demo of Capture One Pro and manipulate the resulting JPEGs, I guess, but that’s far from ideal. I might put out a call to see whether someone has a ColourChecker chart I can borrow 🙂

I ran into another colour-related problem recently, but I’ll save that for another post.

Update: I found a non-expensive solution! Ben in the comments suggested searching for 400D owners who’d already run the calibration, and something turned up! It’s not completely perfect, but easily pretty-good.

Photographing Lil and Tom’s wedding

My good friends Lil and Tom married at the end of September, and my chum Ben and I were lucky enough to be official photographers at their wedding. It was a great day. Six weeks later and I’ve finally finished processing ~1300 photos down to ~400 on Flickr.

I was honoured when they first asked if I’d take on the photographic duties, but I declined – wedding photography is a particular skill and too important for an amateur to try without experience. Things changed, though, and I agreed as long as they were aware I might mess it up. They were entirely happy with this, so I brought Ben on board as co-photographer and we set about researching wedding photography techniques. Obviously we wanted to produce the best results possible, so we read as widely as possible, trying to absorb second-hand information. The big day came around very quickly, and it was a hell of a thing. I did mess it up at one point, but the experience was amazing.

Ben and I met up for breakfast first thing that morning, and went over the plan of action. Everything seemed to be in place, and we quickly headed off in different directions: him to the groom, me to the bride. Each was half an hour’s drive away. Our strategy when researching was to steal ideas, and we both had a rough idea of the kind of image we wanted to capture. I’d been planning to scout out the destination the previous night, but two enormous traffic jams on the motorway meant I hadn’t arrived until 3 that morning, so I was entirely reliant on the satnav. Thankfully she did a stellar job, and I made it to the house in good time.

Lil was in the dress and looking lovely, and I took a lot of images of the final adjustments to hair and makeup, then some family group shots. At one point Lil took time out from her incredibly busy morning to hand me some books from a series I’d been reading. I was having enough trouble keeping everything in my head and I wasn’t getting married that day – I am in awe of her presence of mind 🙂 Time quickly ran out, and I headed out the door a minute or so before they were due to leave.

I ran back to the car, set the photos copying from the memory card to a laptop on the passenger seat and headed for the ceremony venue. I don’t ever speed and didn’t at the time, but I was one of those irritating people who swing from the slip lane straight into the outside lane – I was determined to make it to the venue in time to photograph the bride’s arrival. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be; I hit traffic in Exeter and was actually the last person to arrive. Lesson 1: scout out routes beforehand. If I ever do something like this again this will be a major priority. Ben handled the job with aplomb, however, and I got there just as people were starting to head inside.

I knew cameras were banned during the ceremony and only one official photographer was allowed, but wasn’t sure where I would be allowed to stand etc.. A quick word with the very friendly lady performing the ceremony and I was told I could stand at the front, step forward when the rings were exchanged and move around as long as I wasn’t too distracting. Ok.

I took a few pictures of the room, then realised I hadn’t deleted the images from that morning, and I was going to need the space. I’d taken a few since arriving, so set them as ‘protected’ on the memory card and formatted it. Turns out, this doesn’t work: formatting trumps everything, and I lost maybe ten pictures of people entering the venue. One of them still niggles. In hindsight I should have realised the problem, but I was still somewhat flustered from the drive – at least, I like to think I’d have thought twice under other circumstances. Nevertheless: Lesson 2: know your camera inside out. Ben was doing a good job of covering the guests, so I retook shots of the room, figured out the ISO I was going to need based on the lighting (1600), then had a couple of minutes to say hi to all my friends, who I hadn’t actually managed to meet yet.

The ceremony began and I took my place at the front. Ben and I had been hoping he’d be able to stand at the back and take wider-angle images, but that wasn’t allowed. Lil entered and was walked down the aisle. I quickly became aware of the focus beep, and waited for a calm moment to try and surreptitiously navigate the menus to disable it. I hung back as the vows were read, kneeling and moving from side to side as necessary, hoping the shutter wasn’t too noisy. At one point I was kneeling for a good angle and felt myself physically shaking – whether from adrenalin or strain I don’t know – and hoped this wasn’t really obvious to the whole room.

To speak technically for a minute, I was getting roughly 1/50 at f5.6 at ISO 1600, which, while fine, was close enough that anything much darker would have caused problems. Flash wasn’t allowed, and would have ruined the pleasing window-light anyway. I had my f1.8 in my pocket in case of emergencies, but didn’t fancy risking the tiny depth of field that would produce – I could easily focus on Lil but not Tom with that thing.

I moved forward during the exchange of rings, hoping I wasn’t being too annoying, then stepped back. At this point I made my massive mistake.

The lady said ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ and, as you’d imagine, there were big smiles from the bride and groom. I rattled off a few quick images, not wanting to catch anybody blinking at that particular moment, while she said ‘you may now kiss’. And the buffer was full: I pressed the button and nothing happened and I missed it. Lesson 3 is pretty much covered by lesson 2, but is worth reiterating: know your technical limitations.

Lil and Tom signed the register, at which point I relaxed a little as everybody else’s cameras came out: anything I missed should be covered by someone. Ben had an excellent image-stabilised zoom lens and got some great, blurred-background shots from the back. He did this throughout the day, actually, and his shots of guests are far superior to mine. Lesson 4: to isolate guests, get back and zoom rather than try and compose around it with a shorter lens. I should have known this from Damian’s shots, but somehow forgot on the day1.

The happy couple headed into the gardens and I had a quick opportunity for a few shots sans guests. Ben and I then took a few formal portrait shots in the gardens, but a light drizzle meant we decided to put off the rest until the reception. We took casual shots instead while formulating a plan of action, then it was into the cars to head for the Pride of Exmouth. I again set photos copying from the memory card to the laptop, and we drove half an hour to the coast. I was feeling bad about the missed kiss, but the ceremony was done without any other mishaps, and I was looking forward to the afternoon. Having to continually copy photos from my one 2gb memory card wasn’t ideal, however – Lesson 5: take ridiculous amounts of media, it’s cheap enough that it easily overrides the hassle and worry of transferring ‘in the field’!

The boat set off at the last possible minute before the tide rendered our route impassable, and the sun came out. The weather was beautiful for the rest of the day, which made for a lovely afternoon on as we moved south along the Devon coastline – including, incidentally, a view of the Napoli.

Ben and I took the opportunity to chat and socialise, while taking casual shots of happy people. Most of the advice in this regard had said ‘quality not quantity, unless you want to spend weeks editing photos’. Given our amateur status we ignored this completely, and took as many as possible of any given situation to make sure we had something usable. We did end up with 1333 pictures, but I still think this was the right approach.

Being nearby meant I got to chat to Tom and Lil a fair bit, which was great. There was food and music and sunshine: a fantastic afternoon.

After the meal had settled came speeches – I gave one – and formal family photos. I’d been nervous about these, but thankfully they went ok. The bright sunlight meant we put everybody in the shade of the front of the boat to avoid ridiculous contrasts. I tried to balance flash with the ambient light and was only partially successful2 but while concentrating on the technical aspects found I was struggling to remember the best ways of arranging people. Thankfully Ben had no such difficulty, and did a sterling job of balancing heights etc..

Soon afterwards we docked back at the harbour, and the happy couple disembarked. I asked Tom and Lil to recreate the kiss, which they were very willing to do, and we took the photo Lil had requested months beforehand:

What a cool couple they are 🙂 Probably the only chance I’ll have to take a wedding jumping photo! We also took the opportunity for a group shot of all the Arden schoolfriends, together for the first time in years, and of course there was the throwing of the bouquet:

Looking forward to the big day, Helen.

All too soon Lil and Tom headed off on honeymoon. I immediately wanted to re-do the entire day – Ben and I had learnt so much that we knew we could do better the second time. But, other than the kiss, we’d got everything we wanted. There were a few technical problems later – the laptop refused to power up, for one thing – but Ben’s 4gb usb2.0 stick saved the day. We ended up with photos in four different places, and it was a relief to get home and consolidate everything. Having used the demo for months I finally bought Adobe Lightroom to edit the RAW photos and can say without doubt that the program is a godsend. It’s just remarkable, and deserves its own write-up at some point.

In hindsight I didn’t give Ben enough credit on the day – he worked very hard, and I didn’t always correct people when they called me ‘the photographer’. Much kudos to Ben for his great shots.

This has been a technical write-up, but obviously it was a lovely experience personally. I’ve known Lil since secondary school, and it was wonderful to see her so obviously in love and happy. The whole day was a joy, in many respects, and I’m very grateful to Tom and Lil for giving us such a wonderful opportunity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

  1. I think I did this because of an old piece of advice saying portraits look most natural at 50mm from a couple of metres away. While this may be true in a studio, I’m going to say its redundant in uncontrolled situations []
  2. should have bumped up the ISO []

Savings on the Lightroom digital download

My 30-day trial of Abode Lightroom just ended, and I was looking at pricing for the full version. I can’t afford it, sadly, but was interested to note that buying a direct download is a whole 74p cheaper than having the boxed product shipped to you. Wow. I just picked up a new memory card that came with a license for Capture One LE. It’s no Lightroom, but seems pretty good at handling RAW files and should be effective in combination with Picasa.