Good color in pictures is subjective. Some people like pictures that pop with saturated hues, while others prefer pictures more subdued. What’s more, we see colors differently at different times of day—even our mood affects how we see colors. In this article, I’d like to touch on the basics of color in digital photography, with the focus on getting the best possible image at the time of capture. To illustrate the techniques, I’ll use some pictures that I took on a recent trip to Panama, where my goal was to take color pictures of the three indigenous tribes: the Kuna, the Emberá and the Ngobe.
Look For Colorful Subjects
The first thing you need for a colorful picture is a colorful subject or background—or both! Seeking out color can be a good starting point to get the photographic ball rolling, especially when you’re traveling and trying to become oriented to a new location. So keep an eye out, as I did when I was in Kuna Yala photographing the women who sew molas.
Wait! I said the focus of this article would be getting the best in-camera shot, but you can change, improve and enhance the colors in an image quickly and easily using tools in your digital-imaging software. These screenshots show the Adjust Color, Hue/Saturation and Color Variations in Adobe Photoshop Elements, essential tools to know when adjusting color.
Get Your White Balanced
When you set the white balance on your digital camera, you’re helping your camera identify what in a scene should be rendered white. If those areas are white, all the other colors should be right on. So, for most situations, it’s important to set the white balance for the existing lighting conditions (Daylight, Cloudy, Shady, Tungsten and so on) if you want true color.
Compare these two pictures (left), however. The warmer image shows the effect of setting the white balance to Cloudy on a sunny day. Doing that warms up the photo, giving you deeper shades of red and yellow. Some cameras let you set a custom white balance and even bracket your white balance.
Note that white balance only applies to JPEG or TIFF files because when you shoot in the RAW mode, you pick the white-balance setting in your RAW-processing software. I use Adobe Camera Raw for this, but there are lots of alternatives, including the software that likely came with your RAW-capable camera.
Some digital cameras allow you to increase or decrease the sharpness, contrast, saturation, and even the color of a picture or set the camera to take a black-and-white or sepia-tone picture.
For a more colorful picture, you might want to boost the color and saturation using these in-camera controls. I usually don’t recommend this because you can do the same thing with software later and with more control. What’s more, if you boost the contrast and saturation too much at the time of capture, you may lose important details in the scene that you can’t recover later.
It’s fun to see how a change in color and saturation can enhance a scene on a camera’s LCD monitor, so take two shots—one saturated and one straight. I like all three versions of this picture of a little Kuna schoolgirl.
Getting a good exposure is critical, which is why it’s important to look at the histogram on your camera’s monitor. That’s what I did when I photographed a Ngobe girl in a remote area of Panama (left).
Note that when your camera is set to RAW, the histogram isn’t the histogram for the RAW file, but for a JPEG rendition of that file. The same is true for the overexposure warning. Why is that important? Well, at the time of capture, the highlights may be shown as washed out, but you may be able to rescue them during RAW processing later.
If you slightly underexpose a picture, you’ll get a slightly more saturated and colorful picture. Also, with the highlight-recovery capability of RAW files (up to one ƒ-stop), many professional photographers are pushing the histogram toward the highlights by slightly underexposing. This ensures details in the brightest areas, with details in the shadows being recovered later with software. The technique helps to avoid digital noise, which occurs mostly in the shadow areas.
The image of a Kuna woman has wonderful color (left). The print I made on my inkjet printer and the online print I made look exactly the same as the image on my monitor. How did I get such an accurate print? The first step was to calibrate my monitor. I opened the calibration profile from the CD that came with my calibration device, hung the calibration device on my monitor over the calibration window, ran the program and, in a few minutes, I was all set to go.
Calibrating your monitor corrects on-screen color for the most accurate visualization of color on your monitor. Simply put, if you don’t calibrate your monitor, the colors you see could be off in your prints. What’s more, you probably want to calibrate your monitor periodically to keep it tuned up. Also, be sure to keep your room light consistent. That can affect how colors look on your monitor, too. Some calibrators remain plugged in to your computer, constantly measuring ambient light and automatically adjusting your screen as the light in the room changes.
Left: You can increase the color saturation in-camera for a more colorful picture, or you can underexpose a picture for a more colorful image-but watch out for digital noise. In Elements, you can boost the saturation; you also can darken a picture for deeper colors. You might like the more saturated of these two images of an Emberá girl, but the less-saturated image is more true to the natural colors.
After you calibrate your monitor, it’s almost time to make an inkjet print. Before you do, you need to use or download the profiles for the printer, ink and paper that you’re using. This is important. If you don’t, it’s like having your computer talking to your printer in a different language-and you could end up with a picture with color that’s way off!
You need to tell your printer what paper type (glossy, matte, etc.) you’re using. If you use the wrong paper, your pictures might look muddy or off-color, and they may take a long time to dry. You give this information to your printer in the printer driver window, which pops up when you print.
It’s essential to use the highest-quality inks, those that have a wide color gamut, to accurately print your images. You also want to use archival ink so your pictures don’t fade after just a few years, which can happen with nonarchival inks. Use all the “right stuff,” and you’ll get great print—especially accurate skin tones. In my print of this Kuna woman, the colors are right on.
Good Color, Start To Finish
My last tip isn’t really a tip in and of itself. Rather, it’s the idea that all of the aforementioned tips work together in the process of getting a good print. Follow all of these tips, from start to finish, and you should be happy with your results. And remember, have fun and be creative. Your idea of good color may be different from someone else’s vision.
To see more of Rick Sammon’s photography, visit his website at www.ricksammon.com.