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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