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X-rite ColorChecker Passport card - Review
A colour checker card and software for colour calibration, DNG profiling and adjusting photos.
X-rite have produced a new version of the familiar ColorChecker card in a tough plastic case.
This 'Passport' version includes other useful functions and comes with software to create Adobe DNG RAW profiles.
Note - the profiling software is published free of charge for exisiting ColorChecker card owners.
Accuracy in digital imaging
Keith has been trying out this new card as part of his day to day work.
The card includes a panel for white balance, coloured targets that allow fine adjustment of white balance for landscape and portrait subjects, and coloured patches that help in achieving good exposure and limiting channel clipping.
Note - I've written a review of camera ICC profiling using i1 Match and the ColorChecker SG card to generate camera profiles.
Look at this (or a variant) if you need such precision, although I'd add that in my own professional work I've needed it no more than a handful of times in the last few years.
A small plastic case holds the coloured targets. It's good and solid - even looks hefty enough to be stood on with no damage...
The product comes with the card and software (works stand-alone and as an Adobe Lightroom plug-in)
Here's the card with my old Zuiko 50/1.2 for scale.
The design is quite stiff to open - this is good since it makes it easy to position the card.
When lighting the card you should make sure that it is evenly lit and for profile making purposes, quite a significant part of the image.
The top panel above is the standard ColorChecker card, whilst the section below is used for fine tuning white balance, and helping ensure correct exposure.
I'm looking at the stand-alone version of the software here, rather than the Lightroom plug-in - mainly because Adobe Lightroom just doesn't suit my needs at the moment :-) Note - I may revisit this choice when LR3 appears.
The basic application opens with a single window.
There are two types of profile you can make, one from one sample image and one with two.
I'm starting with a raw image of the card illuminated with some cold fluorescent lighting (CFL)
You need DNG files to work from, so I've just used Adobe's free DNG Converter to produce DNG versions of my RAW Canon camera files (from a 1Ds Mk3)
The software 'finds' the appropriate coloured patches in the image
There is a limit as to how smart it is, and you my be asked to manually pick the corners of the target area.
In the image below, I've marked the corner points and the software has detected the patches, although the size of the target in this image is a little small.
For a dual illuminant profile, I'm taking one image shot using a single 60W light bulb (a proper one, not the awful energy saving ones so popular these days ;-)
As you can see, the colour temperature of ~2700K and background has fooled the camera white balance.
Not to worry, since this is a RAW file and the software can work out the correct white balance setting for itself
The target area is identified.
Note that perfect focus is not essential, but the image should be correctly exposed with no channel clipping.
Clipping is very easy to get with the bright reds in lighting like this - that's why the picture as a whole is a tad under exposed.
I've selected a second shot, taken in daylight.
Once you're happy with the target selection, you can generate the profile.
The profile is placed in the default place for your application (in this case ACR4.6 and Photoshop CS3)
In general I'd use a single illuminant profile where I have a controlled and consistent light source, such as the CFL light-table I use for some small scale product photography.
Dual illuminant profiles are for more general use, where light varies.
The image below shows the default conversion for an image from my Canon 1Ds3.
The version below shows the custom profile in use on an outdoor shot if you move your mouse over the image.
A dual illuminant profile allows for a much wider range of uses, since the raw conversion software can interpolate between the two sources for the profile.
It's entirely up to you to decide which image suits your taste or need.
There are also a set of adjustment targets for setting custom repeatable white balance offsets.
The crop below is from opening an image in ACR and after setting the DNG profile to one created for the 1Ds3
Note the colour sample points, with #1 being neutral (R=G=B=218)
The lower row of targets (#2,#3,#4) are for warming or cooling landscape types of image, whilst the row above allows for progressive warming of skin tones (remember that white balancing on a cooler looking target makes the image look warmer)
The top row of strongly coloured patches, will show any particular clipping problems, whilst the bottom row helps in setting consistent black and white points.
The new case makes the ColorChecker easy to keep in your camera bag, without worrying that it will get damaged.
I have a small credit card sized ColorChecker too, but that needs a bit more care in looking after. People ask why working photographers spend a lot more on cameras and lenses - one of the reasons is that they are a lot more robust and take somewhat rougher treatment.
The 3 way fold out nature of the card also makes it easier to stand on things and still allow it to be positioned for optimal lighting. It has what appears to be a rather too long lanyard (over 2 feet) which might actually be useful for getting it in the right place for a shot.
The picture to the right is the boarded up gateway where I took the sample images, both in direct sunlight and very light cloud.
It's been processed with a custom DNG profile and I feel it better captures some of the strong colours and textures.
I use Photoshop for my own work, rather than Adobe Lightroom, however the profiles work fine with that application too.
I've written elsewhere about making DNG profiles using the Adobe DNG profile generator software.
This has much more technical information available about the profiles, including colour shift information you can use to see how the profile is working. It also offers considerable scope for editing aspects of profile behaviour.
The Adobe software does have the slight disadvantage in that it takes more time and care in producing profiles.
The X-rite DNG creation software analyses your supplied image(s) and assigns that image's illuminant as any one of several standard TIFF illuminants. This means you can make specific dual illuminant profiles with a much larger range of images than you can with the Adobe software.
Just in case you were wondering, the standard TIFF illuminant codes are:
Remember that DNG files are (like many raw filles) a TIFF type file.
There are no more advanced modes available in the X-rite software (i.e. I'd like to know what illuminant it picked for my images) which does seem a curious omission given the effort to create the profiling package in the first place.
However, it is exceedingly easy to use and perhaps aimed more at 'everyday' users.
Even though I've had the Adobe DNG profiling software for a while I've not actually used it that much.
When it comes down to it, most of Northlight's clients are after pleasing images more than they are after colorimetrically accurate images. The gateway picture above, suggests I ought to perhaps consider the use of profiles a bit more often than I do...
A good example is from some product photography training I was carrying out a short while ago. The picture to the right shows some knitware, with specific dark colours that need recording accurately. The ColorChecker card allows you to produce a specific profile and consistent results from the particular lighting setup in use.
At the time I originally reviewed (ICC based) camera profiling with i1 match and the ColorChecker SG card, I read a lot of people's opinions on just why you would bother and when it would be useful. I came away with the impression that for a lot of work it was possibly more trouble than it was worth.
With DNG profiles it becomes easier to create and use profiles for 'everyday use' as well as special lighting situations.
I do now use them more often, but still not that regularly.
I've found people who do use profiles a lot generally do so for two somewhat different reasons.
Suffice to say, I wholly agree with the first reason, but feel that the second risks being used as technology for technology's sake, and perhaps misses the point that often there is no such thing as 'correct' colour.
It's worth remembering that with 'real life' images, the difference between profiles may be quite small.
Move your mouse over the image below to see a version of the image processed with ACR standard and a custom DNG profile.
Buying a Card
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The range of colour adjustment targets is useful, even though I never shoot only JPEG images with my cameras.
It's quite easy for bright colours to clip channel highlights and the range of colours on the opened up card make this easier to spot.
If you are shooting a collection of images at a particular location, then it's good to take photos of the grey card for custom white balance, and the coloured targets for colour control.
Do be careful when placing the card, that it is not being illuminated by strongly coloured objects.
In the photo of my car, there is a tree overhead, which means that any measurements will pick up the enhanced 'green-ness' of the ambient light.
Our eyesight compensates for this - cameras have much more trouble.
So it's a useful bit of kit and solidly built - it's already found a place in my camera bag.
A robustly packaged version of the standard X-rite ColorChecker card.
Additionally offers white balance and colour adjustment targets.
Includes software that runs as a stand-alone application or Adobe Lightroom plugin, for creating single and double illuminant DNG profiles that can be used in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw (V4.5 onwards) and PS Elements (V7 Win, V6 Mac)
ColorChecker Passport information (incl. S/W download)
Mac 10.4.11 and above (admin access required for installation)
Windows XP, Vista (32/64) (admin access required for installation)
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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