5 Color Management Mistakes to Avoid

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One of the most common questions that we get after our presentation is: “How are we able to capture photo with such vibrant colors?” Most students assume that we use some sort of filter or special processing technique to get our results. But the reality is that we don’t. We use a start-to-finish color management workflow which starts in the field and continues to our post-processing.

When we talk about color management, most students have no clue what we are talking about. Color management is often viewed as black art, relegated to just the professional realm of fine art nature photography. However, a good color management workflow is helpful even if you are just looking to share images with stunning vibrant colors on social media.

Making Extreme Exposure Adjustments

Good color management starts with excellent field work.

I know what you are thinking…”Isn’t color management all about getting the colors in post-processing correct?”. Technically that is correct, but colors in post-processing are impacted by how much exposure and contrast corrections you make. For example, if you make extreme corrections to a poorly exposed photo, you may introduce banding and noise. For this reason, it is important to understand how natural factors like weather, light, seasons, and time of the day impact the colors. It’s also important to know to use your camera’s exposure settings to capture all relevant data.

Mesa Arch created using Bracketing and Blending

  • Mesa Arch Image using 3-Image Bracketing & Blending

    Created using 3-Image Bracketing & Blending – Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

  • Example of noise free Manually Blended Image from Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

    Clean 100% Crop of Manually Blended Image – Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch created single exposure pushed to 4-Stop

  • Example of image exposed for Highlights - Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

    Exposed for Highlights – Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

  • Color Management example of extreme exposure adjustments, Mesa Arch

    Noisy 100% Crop created from single exposure using +4 Stop adjustments – Mesa Arch, Canyon Land National Park, Utah

For example, if you are facing a situation like the one you see in the Mesa Arch photo above from Canyonlands National Park (where you are dealing with extreme range of light), it is important to bracket your photo. You can then use your color managed post-processing environment to produce a landscape photo with stunning details and colors.

Not Calibrating Your Monitor

We have all heard that monitor calibration is an essential starting point for color management, but not many photographers calibrate their monitors on regular basis. Here are two of the most popular reasons we hear as to why nature photographers don’t calibrate their monitors:

  • Some nature photographers assume that a good quality monitor is automatically calibrated right out of the box.
    However, this is not always the case. Some monitors have calibration software build into them, but most do not.
  • I can hardly see a difference between a calibrated and uncalibrated monitor. Sometimes the difference is rather minor, but other times the difference can produce dramatic results.
  • Processed on an un-calibrated brightly lit monitor

    Image #1: Processed on an uncalibrated, brightly lit monitor

  • Image #2: Photo looks under-exposed and poorly processed in a normally-lit environment

The first image above was processed using  a monitor whose brightness was turned up high because it was located in a bright room with lots of windows. Everything in the photo looks great when viewed on the monitor. However, if you were to share this image on social media and view it in a normally-lit environment, the photo will look under-exposed and poorly processed as seen in image #2.

You can see that a monitor or LCD calibration is essential even if you are just going to share your photos on social media. We use X-Rite i1Studio or i1Display Pro devices to calibrate our monitors and LCD on our laptop computers.

Using the Wrong Color Space

Once you have calibrated your monitor, another good color management practice is knowing how to set up up your post-processing software such as Photoshop and Lightroom to use the correct color space. Using the wrong color space makes your photos look flat or they may not be able to display the rich colors that you can see in nature. While processing our images, we set our color space to either wide gamut color spaces Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB. These color spaces gives us the smooth gradation in color during our post-processing workflow.

However, when we share photos, we convert the photos to sRGB color space because most devices are unable to handle wide colors spaces.

  • Color management example of Pro PhotoRGB Color Space viewed on sRGB Device

    Image #1: Pro PhotoRGB Color Space viewed on sRGB Device – Red Sand Beach, Maui, Hawaii (HI), USA

  • Color management example of ProPhoto RGB converted to sRGB Color Space

    Image #2: Example of ProPhoto RGB converted to sRGB Color Space – Red Sand Beach, Maui, Hawaii (HI), USA

The first of the two images above shows a photo processed in Pro when viewed in sRGB. The same photo (Image #2) when converted to sRGB retains its vibrant colors across the devices that can view only sRGB photos.

Not Using the Correct Background

A good color management practice requires the awareness that your background colors and luminosity impact how your image appears. Consider a simple example of two grey circles on black and white backgrounds.

  • Color Management Impact of Background on your photos.

    Grey circle on the right appears to be darker then the one on the left.

  • Color Management Impact of Background on your photos.

    Image #2: When combined both the circles have same luminosity.

In Image #1 above, the grey circle to the right appears to be darker then the the one on the left because it is being viewed against a lighter background. When we move the circles closer together, you can see that the luminosity of both the circles is exactly the same.

The similar effects also occur with background lighting. If you are processing an image late at night with very little light, your images will look exceptionally bright and colorful even if they are dark or under-exposed. You should process the images in a controlled lighting environment using a neutral dark grey background.

Not Knowing How Contrast and Exposure Impact Colors

While this topic does not directly relate to color management, it is important to understand how color management settings impact how much adjustment your nature photograph can tolerate.

Contrast and colors are intricately linked. An image with great contrast, in most cases, appears more colorful then the one with lower contrast. However, increasing contrast may push one or more color channels to lose details by clipping the color channel. This is especially possible if you are working with a narrow color space. For this reason, we always use a wide color space during post-processing. We also keep an eye on our histogram when we adjust contrast of the images.

So, the next time you sit down to process your photos on an uncalibrated monitor or take an attitude of I will fix it later in Photoshop, think about taking some time to calibrate your monitor and/or getting it right in-camera. A sound color management workflow will make your nature photos look brilliant across all devices.

The Vibrant Colors Bundle consists of three tutorials (True Colors, Vibrant Colors, and Working with Colors). This bundle gives you a total look at setting up a color management workflow, capturing brilliant colors right in-camera, and developing a post processing workflow. We avoid complicated, long-winded explanations and feature step-by-step workflows to create the rich stunning colors that you see in nature.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams