Accurate Color Versus Pleasing Color

In my past life as a Kinko’s marketing executive, I got an up-close look at the evolution of color printer/copier technology.

In the late 1980s, I compared Xerox and Canon copiers to Kodak and Fuji film. The American companies, I believed, put more emphasis on color fidelity, while the Japanese companies strove to produce pleasing colors. Thus, Canon copiers and Fuji film – at least at the consumer level – tended to produce warmer, more saturated colors. There was no doubt in my mind that the Japanese companies would prevail in the marketplace.

Today, digital photographers operate under the illusion of tremendous control over color, and it drives a lot of us crazy. Try as I might to describe the color issues in captions below, I know that your monitor may show them very differently from mine. Heck, I invested in an expensive color calibrator and I cannot even get my two monitors to look the same! Don’t get me started on color management for printing. For the moment, let’s focus on white balance and lighting source, which differentiate the two sets of images below.

The first of each pair is a staged shot lit primarily by electronic flash, with a small amount of ambient theater light. The second was lit entirely by theater lights. The back wall’s color looks dramatically different, but it also gets less light in the flash images, because the lights are closer to the subjects (causing a more dramatic light falloff).

Lit by flash using "flash" white balance. Take note of the gold fabric, skin tones, floor, and back wall.

Lit by theater lights. Normally I use "tungsten" white balance in these cases, but I think I left the camera on "auto" white balance this time. Overall, this image shows a warmer cast. Whether this produces more pleasing skin tones is a matter of opinion, but I would say that the first image is too cool and the second too warm. Which is more accurate? That is a trick question, answered below.

Lit by flash. Look at the red coat, and then join me below.

Lit by theater lights. As before, the wall and carpet are dramatically different. But the red coat, purple robe, and skin tones are only slightly warmer. Each camera sensor has its own subtle differences in color sensitivity, and almost all of them struggle with red. But what I really want to say is that all of these images are fairly faithful representations of the colors produced by the light sources used. The theater lights are gelled to produce a warmer light. Flashes are calibrated to produce a neutral, cooler light. What color is the back wall, really? Depends on what light it reflects. Which is more pleasing color? That's between me and my therapist.

Color management bedevils us lazy, disorganized, impatient photographers. Down that path lies madness. Whether you shoot in RAW or JPEG, most post-processing software affords plenty of color correction flexibility. Aperture and Phot0shop let you sample a white/grey/neutral point in the image for an automatic white balance setting, but the best that can produce is a neutral white balance. When shooting theater or dance, one is often trying to capture colored lighting designed for dramatic effect.

Keep it simple. I recommend setting your white balance for the primary light source (flash, tungsten, or fluorescent, etc.), while recognizing that you will often capture mixed light sources. In post-processing, adjust the colors until you like them (when in doubt, create pleasing skin tones and let the other colors fall where they may) and then go have a glass of wine. Or an ice cream sandwich. Hmmmm. Ice cream sandwich…

1 Comment

Filed under Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Post Processing, Professional vs. Amateur

One response to “Accurate Color Versus Pleasing Color

  1. ckeeble

    This has been the single most frustrating thing for me – color. When the camera that I was used to using got stolen, I didn’t replace it for a very long time. Apparently, during that fallow period I forgot all about setting the camera for the correct type of light. Thanks for the reminder and the good pointers.

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