How I checked my color problem

Bob Sullivan's 'The Plateau Effect'

Bob Sullivan’s ‘The Plateau Effect’

My friend Bob Sullivan has written about the concept of the “plateau effect”. At the risk of over simplifying Bob’s thesis, it’s the idea that learning is a little like climbing a hill. Knowledge and experience build on themselves, and we reach a higher place. However, there is a point where our efforts and the resulting products tend to flatten out. That plateau can be a comfortable, lazy place. I admit to working in that space too often.

Working as a photographer can be ripe with examples of the plateau effect. Developing a style is difficult because it’s not just about “style”. Photography is a lot about understanding technology enough that it stops getting in the way of your style. On that point, I recently discovered something that I’ve incorporating into my daily work. It’s become an indispensible part of how I photograph. So much so, that I want to share it with my photography friends.

First, allow me to explain the problem. Photography is mostly about three things; light, color and the moment. The moment is the most important thing. It’s what separates okay work from amazing work. It would be great if ‘the moment” was the only thing a photographer had to think about, but that is not the case. Our medium is light, and one of the main characteristics of light is color. So, you have to get control of light and color before you can dependably capture good moments.

Color can be perplexing for a photographer. We take accurate color for granted because our eyes/brain compensate for environmental color shifts that happen as we move from outside to indoors. We often don’t notice the ugly green of florescent tubes or the cold blue of open shade on a sunny day. But pick up a camera and you’ll quickly discover of how perplexing color can be. Throw in the fact that there are no agreed upon color standards between camera manufacturers. For example, the way Canon interprets and records red is different from the way Nikon sees the same color, etc. etc. It’s enough to make you switch your camera to AUTO and throw up your hands. That’s a significant plateau, because you’ll never get better than what the sensor and software in your camera can produce.

Color has been one of these things I’ve always been able to fumble through. I’ve been good enough at it to sneak by, but there’s been a little voice in the back of my head for a couple years that’s been nagging me about color. The other part of this is that it’s INCREDIBLY inefficient and inaccurate to custom process every single photo you shoot. I want to cry when I think of all those hours wasted in front of a computer monitor agonizing about the accuracy of the color in a photograph.

I recently embraced my color problem. Fellow photographers, look away if you’ve already solved this, but read on if you’ve been as flummoxed by color as me. I’m pretty sure you’ll be happy with the knowledge you’re about to gain. It might even help you climb up off your current plateau.

I recently became aware of the Color Checker Passport. You can buy one at a camera store or order one online. It costs $100, and it consists of two things.

  1. Software
  2. Color checker passport

The software plugs into both Lightroom and/or Photoshop. So, you can incorporate it into your already established workflow.

White card

Shoot the white card to set a custom white balance in your camera.

The Color checker passport is an object that’s the size and shape of an actual passport. It will easily fit into your photo vest pocket or camera bag. In the passport you’ll find two important pages. The first is a standard white card. You’ll photograph it in order to set a custom white balance in your camera for every shoot going forward. Doing this one thing will significantly improve your photographs.

Color Checker Passport

Photograph the color grid. You’ll use this with the software you’ve installed on your computer.

Then turn the page of your passport and photograph the color grid. This grid contains a bunch of predefined color patches. You’ll use this grid picture with the software you loaded onto your work computer. That software is programmed to accurately understand each of the colors in your passport grid.

Bruce Thompson

Bruce Thompson in the Therapeutic Product Program facility at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

It will take an afternoon of test shooting, but you’ll quickly gain functional knowledge. Then you’ll use if for your first real shoot, and you’ll see an immediate and significant difference in your color management. So much so, that you’ll quickly stop being intimidated by color. In fact, this removes color guesswork, and it will allow you to quickly apply accurate color to entire shoots with a few mouse clicks. Color will become one of your photographic strengths, and you be able to clear your mind and get back to  looking for good moments. Now, go make pictures.

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Making pictures with an old lens, the benign ugliness of everyday things

Power lines

Camera: Nikon D70, Lens: Zeiss 85mm, ISO: 1600, Shutter Speed: 1/125th of a second, Aperture: F/22, Color balance: cloudy

The South Lake Union Neighborhood of Seattle is changing. The casual observer would be impressed by the crisp new architecture that houses Seattle’s tech and biotech boom.

However, there is a benign ugliness that haunts the area because things that were never intended to be together end up being right next to each other. For example, power lines hang from ancient telephone poles right outside my window because they were installed years before my building was put up. I looked right past these lines when I first toured my condo building a few months ago, but now I find it difficult to look at anything else as I sip coffee some mornings.

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Making pictures with an old lens, The rise of building

Camera: Fujifilm X-Pro1, Lens: Fujinon Aspherical 18mm, ISO: 1000, Shutter speed: 1/125th of a second, Aperture: 7.1, White balance: cloudy

This is another in a series of many new buildings that have sprung up in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. The area has taken on an urban campus feel some people like and others hate. I drift back and forth between these two camps. It’s nice to see my neighborhood doing well economically, but the tearing down of old buildings and replacing them with gleaming glass, metal and tile sheathed buildings is causing a sort of economic filtering that’s pushing out old businesses and long time residents. It makes me wonder if Seattle’s development is eroding the quirkiness we all use to find so charming.

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Making pictures with an old lens, Seattle’s changing

Autumn leaves

Autumn leaves lay scattered on the ground in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Camera: Fujifilm X-Pro1, Lens: Fujinon Aspherical 18mm, ISO: 1000, Shutter speed: 1/60th of a second, F/8

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Making pictures with an old lens, Oct. 27: Dumping

“Non-Toxic Waste”

More than a dozen barrels, marked with “Non-Toxic Waste” stickers, sit behind an old building in South Lake Union in Seattle, Washington. This site and the surrounding three blocks are the future site of a new Seattle Google campus. Camera: Fujifilm X-Pro1, Lens: Fujinon Aspherical 18mm, ISO: 1000, Shuttle speed: 1/60th of a second, F/8

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Making pictures with an old Lens, at night

Suspended artwork in Seattle, Washington

Suspended artwork at the corner of 9th Ave. and Harrison in Seattle Washington, ISO: 1600, Lens: Zeiss 85mm at 2.8, Shutter speed: 1/30th of a second, Color balance: daylight

Previous post: Making pictures with an old lens — Oct. 25, 2016

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Making pictures with an old lens

Passenger jet

A passenger jet flies over Seattle on its approach to Seatac Airport on Oct. 25, 2016. Lens: Zeiss 85mm, Daylight color balance, ISO:1600, Shuttler Speed: 1/1000th of a second, F/11.

I recently found an old-school lens. It doesn’t have any automated features. The only thing the lens did well at first was fit on my old Nikon camera body. I tested it a few days ago, mostly making a lot of badly exposed, out-of-focus images. I put it down believing I’d move on.

However, that lens stayed in the back of my mind; calling me back to fundamentals, back to working deliberately with basic tools. So, I put the lens back on my old Nikon and began testing it (and myself). The reason I’m spending so much time with this lens is because it has a few things going for it that many modern, economical lenses don’t. It’s difficult to get it precisely focused, but when it’s in focus it’s sharper than any lens I’ve ever used. The next thing I’m excited about is how it interprets color. It’s truly amazing when it’s used correctly. Third, it’s very fast; f/1.4. You can use it in low light situations.

Sometimes I find photography to be a bit overwhelming when I’m trying to be aware of and be in control of all the technical variables while also being aware of and predicting events I’m shooting. A lot of things have to happen correctly for a picture to be made be at the right place at the right time. That’s why cameras like my Canon 5D Mark III are so popular. I can put that camera in automatic mode and simply respond to things I see. The camera/lens is lighting fast. I don’t really have to think about the technical stuff. It’s totally changed the way I work in many situations. I’d never want to give up modern cameras and lenses. They are simply great to work with when you have to produce publishable pictures every day. However, I must admit sometimes feels a little empty. It’s a lot about learning how to point automation in the right direction and trusting it to do the right things.

Part of me aches for how we used to have to work. I enjoyed and took advantage of an understanding of how light and chemistry worked on film. I miss that we used to have to predict where pictures where going to come together because I simply couldn’t react fast enough when everything was manual. Photographic successes where fewer in those days, but they were much sweeter. I have a desire to slow down and be more deliberate with my personal photography, and that is turning me toward this old manual lens. Manual photography can be very unforgiving. It amplifies mistakes. It requires you to predict. It makes you wait. But I choose to view all this as a positive. It’s allows the luxury of slowing down and really looking and being deliberate.

I walk to and from work every day. I’ll be using my commute to experiment with this lens. I’ll photograph things I usually walk right by. Subjects will vary. It might be a simple leaf, a shiny new building or a Boeing jet flying through a cloudy Seattle sky. Hopefully I’ll get home each day to the simple beauty of making pictures instead of taking them.


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Roadmap of the American Dream

“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower. We come on the ship that sailed the moon. We come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune.” ~ Paul Simon

I’m in unfamiliar city, traveling around and making pictures. It’s sorta perfect. Yesterday, I was in an Uber car. The driver had the radio on. We listened to a news report about the election, and he got upset when the topic of race came up. So, I asked him to turn the radio off, and we talked as he drove through his adopted city. Miguel is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Miguel told me about his father, who moved to Boston when Miguel was 9-years-old. He came here looking for work, and he found it. He found jobs nobody else wanted. He washed dishes. He did janitorial work in an apartment building. Miguel’s father saved money and sent it home to his family. Eventually, the family had enough saved up and joined Miguel’s father in Boston.

Miguel is a Latin singer, but he doesn’t perform in Boston. I learned this when I asked if he was singing later. Miguel works in Boston, driving Uber and doing other odd jobs. His work life affords him the flexibility to pursue his music career in Miami and back in the Dominican Republic. He is currently recording his next single and shooting a music video. Miguel works every bit as hard as his father did, pursuing the elusive American Dream. Miguel and I parted ways when he dropped me at my next photo shoot location. I wished Miguel well and told him I’d look and listen for his music. He smiled at that.

Later, after my last shoot, I got to thinking about Miguel’s life, and I realized his story is our story. People from all over the world come here seeking a place where they believe opportunity exists. It’s that belief I’m wondering about tonight. Is America still that place where good things can happen, or have we run out of juice? Has that realization turned us into a pale shadow of our former selves? Is our country turning into an angry place where we demonize “other” people and fight for scraps? I hope not, because I believe those “other” people are our salvation. They always have been. I believe our country’s strength is deeply embedded in the DNA of diversity. The people I’ve met on this trip, including Miguel and his father, are examples, but there’s a lot more.

First there is the wicked-smart Austrian cancer researcher I photographed yesterday. And then there’s her cancer-researching husband, who is African-American. They were wonderful together. I made some pictures just for them when they told me they don’t have any “baby-bump” photos. I emailed them to her this morning.

Then there’s the computer science / technology leader I photographed that afternoon. I couldn’t place his accent, so I asked where he grew up. His reply, “Israel”.

I ended up eating dinner last night in a crowded bar. Halfway though my salad, a young woman with wild red hair shuffled through the crowd and squirmed into the empty barstool next to me. I heard a heavy Irish accent when she ordered a glass or wine before cracking open her laptop and pounding away at the keys for 15 minutes. She got a little careless and tipped her glass right into my salad bowl. Looking at her with mild exasperation, I said, “Don’t get the Caesar salad. They put too much dressing on it.” She laughed and bought me an expensive Irish whisky as compensation for running my dinner. A little while later she asked me to look at what she was writing. It was her resume. She moved to Boston a year ago. She is staying with her extended family while she looks for work. She says the job market is tough, but she isn’t giving up. After reading her resume, I shifted into my former hiring-manager mindset and suggested a couple changes. She was thankful and offered to buy me another drink, but I declined and said good night. With that, she went right back to pounding on those laptop keys.

I was planning to walk the two miles back to my hotel, but a heavy rainstorm had blown in while I had my back to the bar’s window. So, I opened the Uber app on my phone and ordered a car. Three minutes later Edwardo pulled up in his nice Toyota Camry. I smiled when he told me he’d just moved from Haiti. His plan is to work and send money home so his wife and kids can join him at some point in the future. The lights of Cambridge shift and sparkle behind raindrops on Edwardo’s window as his “American Dream” unfolds like a road map in front of me.

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Photographing what you can’t see

I recently got the assignment to photograph a story titled Carcinogens on Tap. The story is about the things in our tap water that might be causing cancer, and those things are measured in parts per billion. That’s a difficult photo assignment if you aren’t shooting with an electron microscope.


Shot for a story about carcinogens in tap water.

So, I decided to shoot something that we see every day, but shoot it in a very clean and somewhat unexpected way. This cinemagraph is the result. I’m getting a lot better at predicting the short, repetitive motion required for a good cinemagraph. The first few I did were way too long (too many frames), and the file size was enormous. This one is 200k, and that feels about right for website display.

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Dead and often deflated

I moved from the suburbs into downtown Seattle a couple years ago. I love living in the city core, but there is one thing I really miss about the suburbs — having a private garage. You never realize how important a garage is until you don’t have one. Not only is a garage a nice place to protect your vehicle, it’s also a great place to store all the things you need to keep your house functioning. I’m talking about things like cases of light bulbs, toilet paper, dish soap, etc. It’s also great to have an extra refrigerator or even a deep freezer out there. Knowing there’s a bunch of steaks in the freezer is a feeling I miss.

A garage can also be your temporary storage — kind of a staging area where you put things while you decide that to do with them. That keeps the rest of your home clear and allows you to make thoughtful decisions about what to keep or get rid off. Some people would argue it allows you to be indecisive, maybe even flirt with hoarding, but that’s another story.

The thing I miss most is having a place to permanently keep my tools, and work on my motorcycle. I now live in a big apartment building that has a communal garage. The garage is really just a big, dark, cold place to park. There aren’t very many power outlets available, and that makes things like running an air compressor or a battery charger quiet a challenge. Flat tires and dead batteries are significant problems, and I’ve spent considerable time and energy worrying about and dealing with both.

There was a time when Connie, my motorcycle, was my daily commuting vehicle. I put 20,000 miles on her in the first two years. Now, I go weeks, sometimes months, between rides. The times between rides causes Connie’s battery to die. When she won’t start, Connie turns from a beautiful motorcycle into a 700 lbs. problem. Right now I have that problem, and I need to address it in a meaningful way.

My owner’s manual says the Optimate III is the battery charger for me.

I’ve figured out the necessary battery charger and just ordered it from Amazon for $70. I’ve located a power outlet in the garage, and I’ve pushed Connie to within 30 yards of it. Now I need to get a long extension cord and a bag of zip ties. I’m planning to rout the heavy, orange extension cord through a series of overhead rafters, down a dark concrete wall and along the backside of a guardrail. I have to do it in such a way that most people won’t even notice it’s there, and those who do will hopefully leave it alone, because I’ll make it look like it is supposed to be there. The goal is to get power within a few feet of where Connie is parked, get her battery charged, and then figure out how often I’ll need to do it on a recurring schedule.

Once again, I’m wondering if all this effort is worth it. Maybe the time has come to sell Connie. That thought is both welcome and terrible in the same moment.

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