Category Archives: Review

Review: Cokin varicolor

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real Photoshop filter that screws onto the front of your camera lens and just makes color look better? If landscapes, architecture, seascapes and vehicles are your thing, there is such a filter: the varicolor polarizer.

The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting
The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting

The varicolor consists of two tinted polarizers rotated 90 degrees from each other. Thus light is colored by one or other of the two tints depending on its phase… um, that means absolutely nothing to most people, so here’s a better description:

Most landscape scenes have two types of light: direct and reflected light, such as

  • Direct light from the sky vs light that has been reflected from water
  • Direct light from the sky vs reflected light coming from the ground.
  • Reflected light coming from two very different surfaces, typically shiny vs rough.
  • Highlights and reflections vs non-highlights from the same metallic object (typically vehicles).

The varicolor filter will separate the direct and reflected sources and tint them via two different colors. The amount of tint can be varied by simply rotating the filter.

Many photographers assume a varicolor is simply a variable warming and cooling filter, and the packaging on one of the main suppliers of varicolors, Cokin, does little to kill this miss-assumption.

Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!
Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!

It is true that a varicolor filter can be used just for global warming/cooling, and can totally change the lighting.

Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and violet sky.
Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and deep blue sky.

More usually though, you make slight changes to the ambient. You are more typically not trying to tint the scene so much as tint the direct and reflected light via two complementary colors ( typically, but not always, warming and cooling) to get a visual separation between the two.

In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.

Buying a varicolor filter

Varicolor is an effect most suitable for wide angle lenses. There are two companies that sell wide angle varicolor filters, Singh-Ray (‘gold-n-blue’) and Cokin (P173). Hoya also do them, but in smaller sizes (typically 58mm) that are not really useful as we are nowhere near wide angle diameters.

The Singh-Ray is priced too high for most people’s pockets. The Cokin is about 1/5 the cost and very affordable, but comes as a square cassette for the Cokin P Series holder rather than a standard 77mm filter thread (such as the one I need for my Tokina 11-16mm, a lens that suits a varicolor perfectly).

A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.
A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.

There is a third option: make your own standard varicolor filter, using a cheap Cokin P173 and an even cheaper no-brand circular polarizer filter.

Making a standard 77mm varicolor filter

The Cokin filter cartridge is easy to open (you just prise it open with a knife at one corner enough to get your fingernails in, then open it with fingers – it opens very easily as it isn’t glued down) to reveal a much more standard looking circular 75mm glass filter body. We next need a standard 77mm CPL (circular polarizing filter) to put the varicolor glass into. It has to be a CPL filter because like a varicolor, the CPL has to be rotatable on the lens for it to work. It also has to be a non-low profile CPL, for reasons we will see next.

The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.
The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.

When you take the varicolor filter glass out from the Cokin cassette, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and thick it is. A standard CPL is about 1.5mm thick glass. The varicolor is three times that: 4.5mm. In other words, it is half the thickness of a standard window pane!

That makes a kind of sense: the varicolor is two CPL filters, each with its own color filter added on, so we are talking x2 CPLs which takes us up to 3mm, and then x2 color filters on top of that. The upshot of this is that you cannot use a low profile CPL filter ring: it has to be full height.

Even with a full height filter, I had problems putting the varicolor into the CPL filter ring. The varicolor is just too thick! The only way to get it to fit was to reverse the filter retaining ring as shown below. The varicolor is about 2mm smaller in diameter than a standard 77mm CPL, and you can use that space by turning the retaining ring over so it goes down further into the filter, and just enough to become fully threaded into the filter body.

Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring,  you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring, you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.

Rotating the completed filter whilst looking through it at the sky, you will see the sky tint from bluish to yellow, going through a series of pinks and magentas at the midpoint. If you have any reflected light in the scene (coming from windows, water, or highlights on pretty much anything), they will take the opposite tint to the sky. This occurs because one CPL is tinting the direct (sky) light and the other one is tinting the reflected light.

Choosing the varicolor tint pair

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

As well as the P173 (blue-yellow), Cokin also do the P170 (red-green) P171 (red-blue) P172 (pink-orange) and P174 (blue-lime). The p173 varicolor is the most popular because its two colors match the white balance temperature range. I’d be tempted to start with a P173, and chances are that it’s the only one you will ever need.

The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.
The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.

So, using the P173, you can tint the two light transmission types (reflected, direct) in a scene so one is warmer and the other is cooler. In the photos of the wood above, the light coming from the sun is cooled via the varicolor, and the leaves and foliage are made warmer. This creates a nice contrast between the two, and the lighting and reflected light thus become more prominent than it was on the day.

Using a varicolor

Although a varicolor can be used to give a nice warm-cool color balance differential between the sky and ground, its standard textbook use is where there is water, reflecting metal, or glass.

Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!
Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!

The above three photos were all shot with the same P173 filter, rotated to get the leftmost and rightmost versions.

Most people don’t care for this effect. Not only is the water overly tinted, every other color is way off via an undesirable cast. The effect puts a lot of photographers off, until you realize the secret of using varicolors properly…

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

Setting the white balance (in this case by clicking the Lightroom white balance selector tool on the ground below the tree trunk to set it back to its original neutral grey) will also reduce the effect of the tint.

Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!
Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!

If you are shooting landscape, a bit of white cloud or grey ground will suffice to set white balance, but more generally, you need a grey card. If you don’t have one, an almost perfect stand-in is a square of card from an unwaxed, unbleached breakfast cereal box. The inner side makes a perfect grey card for the purpose of white balance. If you expect to be in direct sunlight, get a smooth stone or a bit of fine emery cloth and sand the grey side down for about a minute so it starts to lighten slightly. I’ve tested such a piece of sanded card against a calibrated X-Rite grey card, and the resulting color balance is consistently within 1% of the calibrated (and very expensive) X-Rite!

Varicolor filters and seascapes

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

The situation where a blue-yellow varicolor absolutely excels is when you need to take a photo of the sea on an overcast or very bright day. In this case, both the sky and sea will be the same grey (or blue-white). Grey on grey isn’t a very compelling color scheme. The grey light of the sky is at a different phase to the grey coming from the sea though, so using a varicolor we can save the day by creating a color separation where there was previously only grey. In fact, in this situation, the varicolor is a requirement to getting a decent shot unless you want to do some serious post processing!

In the shot below, I used the varicolor to turn the water blue, ignoring what was happening to the sky.

Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor
Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor. Lots of color separation, but also a pink cast

We now have some color separation between the sky and sea, but white balance has been totally destroyed and we need to reset it in post. We can either select the blue of the sea as our white balance point (which will warm the entire image towards sepia, and might have been appropriate if the sun was in the sky), or the grey of the sky (which will give us a blue sea and grey sky). Both will fix the issue, but will give us a totally different look. I want a blue sea, so have clicked the sky:

Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.
Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.

Tweaking the image further gives us our final photo…

Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.
Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.

In the actual scene, the sky and sea were the same color, and although this final version has been processed for exposure, I have hardly altered color at all apart from the initial white balance correction and lowering yellow from the foam. I left most of the color correction to my trusty real-life Photoshop filter – the Cokin P173.

Another cool use of the P173 is when you are using HDR photography. HDR will take the varicolor tints and overdrive them, giving you a dramatic effect.

Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)
Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)

When shooting HDR of fast moving water, it makes sense to use a fast shooting camera. The Sony A77 does 12 frames per second. That and its fast WYSIWYG live view make it perfect for landscape HDR, especially if like me you prefer to shoot hand held.

Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England.  5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.
Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England. 5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.

Disadvantages of the varicolor

As mentioned earlier, the varicolor is really two tinting CPL filters. It comes as no surprise then that the varicolor has such a strong color effect as it is really two filters, each with two elements (CPL+tint).

You will have the usual negative issues of stacking what is really two filters onto a lens, the biggest one being stop loss: you lose up to two stops of light. That’s enough to kill your autofocus even on a bright sunny day. Fast f2.8 glass is pretty much a must, otherwise its down to tripod and manual focus.

Vignette is another issue, so you may need to correct for that in post.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, a varicolor is seriously thick glass: 4.5mm, which is half the thickness of a standard window pane. On the bright side, such a filter is complex, so you simply can’t get cheap knock-off versions, and there are really only two brands available (Singh-Ray and Cokin).

Conclusion

Varicolors are typically only recommended for landscapes with water, and many photographers simply dismiss them as a variable tinting filter, but they can be used for so much more once you realise that the secret to their use is fixing white balance in post. After that, they become very useful, being able to make mundane color look dramatic (and often the focus of the shot).

  • They allow you to set the warmth of reflected light coming from windows in architectural and motor vehicle shots.
  • They allow you to crank up the contrast between the light coming from the sky and the light reflected from the ground, something that can make all landscape shots look different, bringing up color and enhancing lighting.
  • They create iridescence (think ‘body of a peacock’) when you shoot close-up foliage and car bodywork, especially when you have highlights.
  • They can act like an all-in-one warming-to-cooling filter when you have flat lighting

A blue-yellow varicolor is something to try out in all use cases where you would reach for your wide angle lens. It will be a firm favourite with anyone who has one of the affordable super-wide lenses (Tokina or Sigma) but you will need to do some DIY to move the filter glass from a Cokin P series cassette to a screw in filter, or you need to hold your breath and get a Singh-Ray.

Perhaps the best thing about the varicolor is that not many photographers use them. They don’t realise the white balance trick or are off put by the two stop light loss. That makes the varicolor a less used filter than it deserves and far from being an overused effect. In fact, if you pull back the effect with white balance, nobody will guess you created the effect optically!

Notes

  1. All forest photos shot with an Olympus Stylus 1 (the varicolor was hand-held in front of the lens).
  2. All seascapes shot with a Sony Alpha A77, Tokina 11-16mm, with the varicolor modded to screw onto the Tokina as a standard 77mm filter.
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Review: Minolta 70-210 f4.0 beercan

…old film lenses are analog devices and not digital. An old lens will not ‘shoot at a lower resolution’ but give reduced contrast.

The classic Minolta ‘beercan’ lenses date from the 1980s. There is a lot of conflicting advice on their suitability with modern cameras.

On the one hand, the 70-210 is seen by many as a classic: Minolta color, built like a tank and fast autofocusing on modern DSLRs. Although its constant f4 rather than f2.8, that’s only a stop difference, and it makes a good poor-man’s long telephoto. You can pick up a beercan for peanuts from eBay.

On the other hand, we have all the issues associated with 1980s film camera optics: it is poor on chromatic aberration and flare. There’s also the question of resolution. 1980s lenses may have seemed good back in the day when your final output came as print, but the old stuff may not hack it against modern glass when you go pixel peeping from a modern 24MP+ DSLR.

Finally, there is the question of age. These lenses are 30 years old and you have to be careful about lens mold. Many lenses of that age have it and if you keep them stored with your existing lenses, your whole collection may become infected!

A picture paints a thousand words

Without any ado, let us forget the specs and science, and get straight to the photography.

'Bum!' (American translation: 'Ass!')
‘Bum!’ (American translation: ‘Ass!’)

The photograph above was shot with a large beercan on a Sony A77 APS-C 24MP camera in Program mode, f7.1, 1/400s, ISO120. It was shot hand held from a distance of about 40-50 metres away.

1:1 pixel closeup
1:1 pixel closeup

The statue is made of spun wire rather than stone.  You can see this in the per-pixel size close-up above.

Let’s just recap: this is a 24MP image shot hand held at ISO125 from some distance away. Of course, there’s post production here, but this pretty much blows out the resolution question: sharp at 24MP. The color is also good.

Best of all, I am shooting on an APS-C, which means that 70-210 converts to 105-315 and with anti-shake (it comes as standard in all Sony Alpha camera bodies). I’m stupid enough to expect to be able to shoot at 315mm/f7.1 hand held… and it worked: no blur! This is not a one off either: all my shots with this lens came out just as sharp. This would just not happen with a more commonly used super-zoom (such as my Sony  18-250), which would have a minimum f stop at the high end of f6.5, so f7.1 would still be a bit soft.

Incidentally, its worth noting that old film lenses are analog devices and not digital. An old lens will not ‘shoot at a lower resolution’ but give reduced contrast. As long as the contrast can be brought back to normal levels in post production without removing detail, there is no problem. I have read internet posts where someone rejects an old lens because it ‘doesn’t have enough resolution’ or ‘resolving power’ for a given modern camera. Resolution is not something any lens has, and its not about the smallest dot a lens can resolve, but how sharp that dot appears in the final output (either through lens contrast or modern digital convolution filters and micro-contrast enhancements applied in post). Don’t worry about the  numbers: judge by the contrast and detail in your final photograph as we have done with the sculpture above.

Another issue with older glass is optical aberration: distortion, flare and chromatic aberration.

At tele distances, everything will be flat, so we should not be concerned with distortion. The beercan flares like mad, but that’s fine as there’s no point taking a shot like this with the sun in front of you. As you can see by the boy’s shadow, the sun is almost exactly at 90 degrees to my right, and that’s probably as close to central you would want a hot summer sun unless you are also using Flash and ND filters.

1:1 pixel closeup showing chromatic aberation
1:1 pixel closeup showing chromatic aberation

The beercan also gives lots of purple chromatic aberration wide open, so I’m stopped down quite hard for 24MP: f7.1. The original image still gave me a little CA on the boy’s highlights. We’re looking at per pixel at 24MP here so this will never show up on print.

Cleaning up chromatic aberation in Lightroom 5 (Amount slider increased to 17)_
Cleaning up chromatic aberation in Lightroom 5 (Amount slider increased to 17)_

Nevertheless, Lightroom 5 easily got rid of the fringing and satisfied any pixel peeping urges I might have. This works well because the CA tends to be pure purple, making it easy to remove.

Using the beercan on modern DSLRs

I use the beercan on a Sony Alpha A77, with which the beercan works very well: quick autofocus speed (but note that the lower end Sony alphas have a weaker focusing motor, and autofocus may be slower on those models), and despite the size, actually balances very well on the camera.

Beercan on Sony A77
Beercan on Sony A77

The nearest modern lens alternative is the Sony 70-200 f2.8. That goes for $2000.00, so although it has better optical characteristics, it only gives you a stop more in speed from f4. That stop may be important for professional shots, but for the happy enthusiast, it probably is not worth the x10 price hike! This is especially true when you consider that long fast tele is probably an edge-case for most shooters except sports or wildlife.

Beercan on Sony A77
Beercan on Sony A77

Physically, the lens is 100% metal apart from the lens hood and rubber grip area. It is a very shiny black (almost piano black). The lack of markings (compared to current lenses), constant diameter and coloring actually makes the lens look modern because of its minimalism. It certainly stands out against my drab grey-black modern lenses!

Optical extras include the fact that the lens is a ‘true zoom’ or parfocal, meaning that it maintains focus as you change focal length. This makes the lens very easy to use as it doesn’t call attention to itself as you compose your shot. It would also make the lens useful if you ever needed long tele with video (but note that the lens is noisy on focus). There is also macro at 210mm, probably 2:1, but I haven’t really tried it (as I have a dedicated 1:1 macro lens in my set).

Perhaps the best optical feature of the beercan is its color and contrast out-of-camera, as well as its colourful bokeh.

My washing line, out-of-camera, 210mm, 1/160s at f4, ISO64
My washing line, out-of-camera, 210mm, 1/160s at f4, ISO64

As you can see here, these three features can conspire to make even the most mundane photographic subject better! You can also see the chromatic aberration here (highlights at top of post), but as mentioned earlier, this is easy to remove in post-production, or by shooting stopped down (the photo was shot wide open to show depth of field at f4, but going above f5.6 would have fixed the CA).

When photographed in ideal conditions (not into the sun), the contrast and color out of camera is so good that you would assume polariser filters or post work has occurred

out-of-camera image, shot straight at sky, no filter or post, 75mm, 1/5000s at f6.3, ISO160
out-of-camera image, shot straight at sky, no filter or post, 75mm, 1/5000s at f6.3, ISO160

Have a look at the blue sky in this image, and the contrast between the sky and tree. There is not a hint of CA in this photograph either as we are away from wide open. Wonderful!

Once the sun is directly into the lens though, the issues start.

Out-of-camera shot directly into sun, 75mm, 1/2000s at f6.3, ISO64
Out-of-camera shot directly into sun, 75mm, 1/2000s at f6.3, ISO64

We now lose a lot of the contrast (although we do get a nice graduation in the sun highlight, something that does not occur on a typical kit lens, or even some more expensive current optics, and is a feat from the Sony A77 as I am shooting at ISO64!).

beercan flare, 1:1 pixel closeup
beercan flare, 1:1 pixel closeup

What we do see though is difficult to remove flare. It is several shades of purple so cannot be removed without cloning it out. If this was a paid for shot, you would be in trouble, because the beercan’s flare is not pretty enough to be passed off as artistic intent or styling.

So if you buy a beercan, Colors, contrast and bokeh are to die for, chromatic aberration is strong but can be removed in post, and flare is your worst enemy.

The lens is not quiet by any measure, although that may not be a problem at long tele, as the subject will probably be too far away to notice!

Issues with buying old glass

I got the lens from eBay. The seller sent over the original carrying case, the instruction book, and even threw in a free small beercan (35-70mm f4 constant), also with the original case. All well and good, but the 70-210 had mold in the front lens assembly. That is not fatal, and a quick look at a disassembly guide on the web enabled me to take the affected lens out and clean it all off. Nevertheless, I store my old lenses separate from my new ones. Not much of a constraint (they go into the same camera bag when I go out shooting), and a cheap way to build up on some classic mid speed glass.

If you are buying 1980’s lenses for a Sony Alpha camera, Minolta AF lenses from that period will fully work off the bat because modern Alphas maintain backwards compatibility with them. Third party lenses from the same period will most likely only work in manual unless they have been upgraded for modern autofocus (which will cost more than the lens is worth, given that the market is flooded with working Minoltas). Be wary of buying 1980’s Sigma and other non-supported brands.

The most important issue with old glass (if you believe half the internet) is ‘lack of resolution’ or ‘lack of resolving power’. As noted earlier, this is a non-issue. See the notes section at the end of this post if resolution is a bugbear for you (or you have heard otherwise so often that you need proof).

Optically, the biggest issue you will get with old glass generally is the lack of modern coatings. This presents itself with a greater loss of contrast and more flare when shooting into the sun. It occurs because old lenses are bad at controlling internal reflection between lens elements (modern lenses absorb the stray light through their coatings). You need to be aware of this when shooting with older glass, but in practice it is not a big constraint as you rarely need to take such a shot, and when you do, the resulting aberrations can often be used artistically (who needs Instagram when you have the original glass that causes the effect…). Another issue you may find at the low end is greater optical distortion. Old lenses were designed without the benefit of current computer simulation power, but that does not have to be an issue when the modern photographer has the benefit of modern computing power in post production, and most optical distortion can be corrected to current lens standards in Lightroom.

The issue with lens age and mold is just a part of the game. You will spend less money with old glass, but the downside is having to occasionally dismantle a lens or bin it completely if you got sold a dud. If nothing else, learning to work with old glass means you are forced to open the odd one up, and get a better understanding of what a lens actually is. The important thing is to actively look out for mold, and either fix it or bin the lens when you do find it (and don’t pay so much on an old lens that you cannot afford to bin it).

Conclusion

My default kitbag includes the following:

  1. Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 constant, APS-C (wide angle).
  2. Sony 16-55mm f2.8 constant, APS-C (standard lens and ‘video lens’)
  3. Sony 50mm prime f1.7 APS-C (standard 50-prime), or
  4. Minolta 50mm prime f1.4 full frame.
  5. Minolta 70-210mm f4.0 constant (105-315 APS-C equivalent, long tele).

Although there’s 5 lenses here, 3 and 4 are tiny, so we’re only really talking 3 large lenses. I’ve got the most commonly used focal lengths at a constant f2.8. I also have a couple of fast primes at 50 for low light and high depth of focus. Finally, I have the long end covered up to 315mm at a constant f4.

I have nothing between 55-105mm but that’s ok by me. I could cover it via my small beercan, but that stays home as that range isn’t really interesting to my shooting style except for portrait (although the 50 f1.4 is a good stand in for portrait because of the nice bokeh and ability to go down to f1.4).

The take away from this lens set is that two of them are 1980s Minolta glass, both bought from eBay at a fraction of the price of equivalent modern glass. Yes, they have issues with shooting wide open into the sun, but to be honest, doing that doesn’t often lead to keepers with any glass (unless you are shooting with off-camera Flash, and that is another ball game for a later post). I’m happy to put up with having to fix the CA in post for the Minoltas, because the famed Minolta color (deep color and good contrast out of camera) means I save that time having to sort out other issues in post.

The initial photo from this post is a good example where ‘Minolta color’ becomes useful. The separation between the boy, foliage and sculpture is so large that it almost looks like the boy was composited in! In fact, the separation out-of-camera was actually larger: the sculpture was darker and the background foliage was lighter. The high contrast between the image elements gave me a lot of help in making mask selections and more than made up for the time lost (10 seconds) fixing the chromatic aberration.

Notes

  1. Original photograph taken at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England. The sculpture is Sophie Ryder’s ‘Sitting’. http://www.sophie-ryder.com/
  2. I don’t think the boy in the photo is pointing to the statue’s backside. He’s pointing at a parent who is peeping at him through the gap between the statue body and arm. Call it artistic license, or childish humor.
  3. You will see in the photos of the beercan that I use a hand strap rather than a neck strap. A hand strap is much better for stability at all focal lengths, but particularly useful for long tele. A hand strap is also very useful for stability when shooting video.
  4. As an aside, I cannot understand ‘completest’ photographers who have to have the full optical range at f2.8. Most keepers happen in the range 16-85mm, so that’s where you usually want your expensive constant f2.8 glass or fast primes. Anything much over or under that can be slower or cheaper glass, unless you specifically use other ranges often. I especially like ultra wide, so have shifted my constant f2.8 range towards that, but its a false economy to think you need constant f2.8 or better in ranges you rarely enter into. The best way to choose where to upgrade your lenses is to start with a slow 18-250ish all-in-one, look at which focal length most of your keepers are shot, and update that range with constant f2.8 and fast primes over time. You may be surprised at how low a focal range all your best photographs are in!
  5. I am shooting with the A77 at below ISO100 for many of the example shots. Shooting at ISO64 gives you a small loss in dynamic range, but also gives zero noise . Although there are lots of Sony A77 review on the web berating it for noise at high ISO, there seems to be few reviewers who have realised that it gives zero noise at the very low end, and routinely gives cleaner photographs than competing full frame models in normal daylight shooting, because even pro cameras (such as the 5D Mark III) don’t go below their base ISO and certainly not down to ISO50.
  6. The best way to get mold growth on a lens is to store it in your camera bag. I keep all my lenses in clear airtight boxes with silica gel pouches. Clear so that the light can get in and airtight with silica so that moisture keeps out (mold likes dark and damp). Used and new lenses are kept in separate boxes. When adding a used lens to my set, look for mold and I clean off all traces of it first (and if that is not possible, I bin it). If you don’t clean off the mold before storage, placing the lens into a dry airtight box will force the mold to spore. You can use a handful of gel cat litter in a non-waxed, sealed envelope instead of silica gel.

Note Addendum: Old lenses and resolving power

An issue that crops up with old lenses is ‘resolution’ or ‘resolving power’. The argument goes along the lines of ‘old lenses were designed for far lower resolution than current cameras so image quality suffers’. What that argument doesn’t tell you is

  1. Lenses are analog devices, not digital, and therefore don’t have a property called resolution, and
  2. The act of digitising an analog signal is actually very forgiving, so resolution is not an issue unless the sensor is at least twice as good as the lens, and
  3.  What this degradation actually looks like. Lack of resolving power in a digital image shows up as aliasing or ‘jaggies’, but old lenses don’t give you that (they are, after all, not even digital devices so don’t play by those rules).  So what does lack of resolving power actually look like (because that is the crux of the issue)?  We will see what lack of resolving power looks like in a moment.

Let’s look at the problem with a hypothetical simple sensor…

lens Resolution 01
lens Resolution 01

Consider a digital camera sensor with only three photo sites. Each site can detect black or white. If we try to take a picture with this three pixel sensor, such that only the centre pixel is lit, we see an image such as i).

We will get a high voltage for the center pixel and a low voltage for the outer pixels. The sensor digitiser will convert these to the signal ii), which as a digital bitstream is ‘010’,  and that is what our RAW file will contain. When we view the RAW file as an image, we see our row of three pixels as per i): black, white, black.

Now, suppose we put a lens on the front of this sensor that is unable to resolve correctly. What would happen? As a waveform, we would see something like iii) coming out from the sensor. The centre voltage has spread out so it is no longer a definite high voltage anymore, and the two low values have also degraded. How does the digitiser handle this? Well it has a trigger level half way between the high and low voltages. If the voltage is higher than this level, we see a ‘1’ in our RAW file, and a ‘0’ for anything else.

The digitiser will still see the center pixel as a ‘1’ because it is still more than the trigger level, and it will still see the outer pixels as ‘0’ because they are still below the level. Our blacks are still black, and our whites are still white, despite the fact that the input signal to the digitiser is significantly degraded!

As an aside, this feature of digital systems is actually the only reason why we started encoding analog values digitally for both storage and transmission: as long as the noise introduced to our digital signal is less than half the difference between a logic ‘0’ and a ‘1’, we get no noise because a ‘0’ is still a ‘0’ and a ‘1’ is still a ‘1’ . In this case, our noise is the lack of analog resolving power before the digitising stage, but we do not see it because its introduced error is less than half our sensor’s bit accuracy, and therefore rejected.

So, unless the lens is good for less than half the maximum resolving power of the camera sensor, you do not need to worry because the digitising process corrects the noise introduced by the lens. Put another way, if your lens is only good for 14MP (which it typically is), then you do not need to worry for a 25MP camera, because 14 > 25/2.

lens Resolution2
lens Resolution2

Ok, so now you are thinking ‘yeah but most sensors are not just detecting 0 or 1: they are detecting a 000000000000 to 111111111111 (plus they use separate photo sites for the red, green and blue components of each pixel), so instead of 0 or 1, so what you would actually see with three adjacent pixels from a real sensor is dark grey-light grey-dark grey (as per the image above) instead of black-white-black’ as per i). You might even be thinking ‘the resolving power of a lens varies with focal length: the more you zoom, the more the light is travelling through less of the glass area, which amplifies errors and changes resolving power for the worst… so at some point, a long tele lens like the beercan will be causing big enough resolving errors to cause worry’.

Yes exactly that will happen, and there is a name for this process. It is not called something scary like loss of resolution, loss or resolving power or wasting your sensor resolution by being a cheapskate. It is called simply losing contrast. Blacks turn to grey and whites become less bright. That is not anything to worry about because you can quantify it: you can see it physically just by looking at your photograph. An old lens that is focusing correctly but resolving to a lower level than your camera will just lose contrast. That’s not really any surprise because you know all about this already: a good lens that you artificially make worse by rubbing a greasy thumb all over it will do exactly the same thing. The grease scatters the light and causes the same resolving issue.

You can correct all this easily: just increase the contrast in post. Better still, you can realise that the issue is really micro contrast rather than contrast, and increase clarity (except of course on skin, where the loss of contrast is potentially a good thing). Either way, all it takes is a small tweak on a single Lightroom slider (and perhaps a mask to avoid changing skin contrast).

Alternatively, you can just use a brand of old lens well known for high contrast so that loss of contrast is less of an issue. Well, ‘Minolta color’ means many things, but one thing it means is really good contrast, so if you are using Sony NEX or Alpha, buy Minolta and don’t worry!

Lensbaby

you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens

There’s a Lensbaby review on Amazon that ends with  words to the effect of  ‘this is nowhere near as sharp as my Canon L Lenses, and I think I’ll stick with the L Lens thank you’.

Let me tell you the alternative side of the story. You may or may not like Picasso’s paintings, but look up his earliest works. The guy could really paint! Picasso turned to cubism and other primitive styles because he was at the top of his game technically and had nowhere else to go. So it is with Lensbaby: if you know your camera very well, and want to mix it up a bit, Lensbaby is a direction to take. For some, that may be a step backwards technically, but it can occasionally be a bigger step forward creatively.

This review won’t go into what a Lensbaby is and what it looks like, but instead I’ll go through what it does and doesn’t do, and what I think it is best used for.

First though, a little history

Lensbaby was released in 2004 with modest expectations. It was launched At the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International trade show, Las Vegas. The creators, Craig Strong and Sam Pardue sold out on the first day, and spent the remainder of the show working nights in the hotel room building more Lensbabies, all of which sold out the next day. Lensbabies are now a mass produced, international product.

A modern Lensbaby consists of a primitive optic (such as a single, uncoated lens, a plastic lens, or even just a pinhole). This optic has very little in the way of advanced features, so you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens.

Tip 1: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay. Tip 2: Don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual. Tip 3: Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well.

The whole point of the Lensbaby system is that you embrace all those aberrations and use them creatively. So, stick with the Canon L Lens (or Nikon ED, or Sony Carl Zeiss) when you want optical quality, but consider Lensbaby when you want to trade sharpness and quality for something more edgy,  dreamy or totally leftfield.

I’ll let you look up the different types of Lensbaby and how you physically use them at lensbaby.com, and dive straight into the things you really need to know when considering  owning a Lensbaby…

Buy your Lensbaby second hand

Lensbaby starts off fairly cheap, but all the accessories you need before you have a system you can begin to use it creatively add up.

Maybe the Lensbaby is worth the money. Well, there’s a number of ways to work out the true value of a given lens, but for me the best indication is resale value. Look on eBay, and you will see that Lensbabies can easily go on auction for significantly less than retail price. In my opinion, Lensbabies don’t hold their value because lots of people just don’t understand them or didn’t realize what they were buying into (See note 1 below), and the Lensbaby immediately ends up for sale as ‘opened but practically unused’ on eBay.

So that is your first big tip: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay.

I bought a Lensbaby Muse, the Lensbaby tool, the double lens optic, a three optic starter set, a Lensbaby book, and a custom Lensbaby carrying case. All as a single lot, hardly used and fully boxed, for a bit more than the cost of a camera battery. A great deal for me (because it is a good, feature rich set to start exploring with), but I would  have been furious if I had been the one selling, because he bought it for the same price as that battery and the  entry level camera that comes with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that Lensbaby is low quality stuff. It is actually surprisingly high quality (a lot of the bits I assumed would be plastic are machined metal for example). What I am saying is that lots of photographers buy Lensbaby but don’t like it or get bored quickly and dump on eBay, and that’s what pulls the resale price down.

Lensbaby is a baby lens, but looking after baby is not easy

Everything about the Lensbaby is not just simple but downright primitive. You could hand a Lensbaby to a photographer from the 1800’s Wild West and they would totally understand the technology. Simple, uncoated lenses, pinholes, Holga quality toy lenses.  You don’t even get aperture blades: you have to swap out metal disks with the aperture holes cut out. And of course, the Lensbaby is completely manual. It doesn’t have any electrical connections at all. Your digital camera won’t even detect a lens is attached, so you have to know how to force the camera to fire even if it doesn’t detect a lens (on my Sony Alpha A77 its Menu Button > Cog 1 >Release w/o Lens set to ENABLE).

Focusing is done with your fingers: you manually change the shape of the lens body, and that takes a lot of practice. It is easy to take a Lensbaby photograph where everything is dreamy and blurry, but difficult to take a technically good Lensbaby photograph (where the main subject is typically in sharp focus).

Lensbaby Double glass optic f4 (out-of-camera image)
Lensbaby Double glass optic f4 (out-of-camera image)
Closeup of the in-focus ‘sweet spot’. The central area of the image is tack sharp, but this takes practice!
Closeup of the in-focus ‘sweet spot’. The central area of the image is tack sharp, but this takes practice!

This difficulty is hidden by the name. You might be thinking ‘Lensbaby: ahhh! Its a cute baby lens so it must be easy to use!’.

The reality is actually ‘Lensbaby: its the most primitive lens you can put on your camera, so you have to know your camera inside-out, because you will be the one sorting out the focus, depth of field, contrast, keeping aberrations at bay, and changing nappies. You will typically be doing most of that not only manually, but directly with your fingers, so you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty’.

So second tip: don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual, because those are the default modes you will be using with a Lensbaby.

All the above photographs were taken using cheap 1980s lenses shot wide open.
All the above photographs were taken using cheap 1980s lenses shot wide open, something that is a good alternative to Lensbaby kit.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, cheap traditional lenses and some Photoshop filters/blurs may be a better bet.

The images above were all taken using 1980s lenses (the classic Minolta ‘large beercan’ and the Minolta 50mm f1.4, both of which can be had on eBay for cheap, and both of which work perfectly in full automatic on my Sony A77), whilst I was practicing traditional photography skills such as use of traditional lens filters (such as polarizers, old-school on-lens graduated filters), and lights and light modifiers (natural light reflectors, softboxes, etc). The photographs are as seen out of camera.

It is worth considering whether practicing that traditional stuff with inexpensive old-school optics will, for the same money make you a better creative photographer than going off on a tangent with Lensbaby.

Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well

There is a very good, but also very subtle  reason for using Flash with Lensbabies, and it was staring me in the face from the moment I unpacked my Lensbaby Muse. It was the photograph on the product packaging. It looks like this:

http://www.lisasmithstudios.com/
http://www.lisasmithstudios.com/

That’s a really nice photograph. But if you try getting that same controlled depth of focus, you also end up with low contrast, and that makes the image look bad for tone, and washed out for color. You can fix it in Photoshop, but then your photograph starts to look like the depth of field was done with a Photoshop camera blur.

Look at the face to see how it was done: there’s a big directional fill flash. That’s what is bringing the contrast back into the subject. You can even see its direction if you look at the shadow cast by the goggles.

Third tip: if you are using Lensbaby professionally, you typically need sharpness and contrast in the area of focus, and you use Flash extensively (or natural light with reflectors) to give you the contrast.

Nice effect, but not enough contrast (out-of-camera image)
Nice effect, but not enough contrast (out-of-camera image)
Adding Flash gives you the contrast back (out-of-camera image)
Adding Flash gives you the contrast back (out-of-camera image)

This will come as no surprise to wedding and portrait photographers, but may be a surprise to the rest of us. Knowing how to set up a Flash that doesn’t look too obvious is often an important part of taking good Lensbaby photographs. That typically means you know how to put your Flash off-camera and how to use light modifiers, both of which are advanced topics.

Lensbabies love Bokeh and flare

Tip 4: Lensbabies love bokeh and flare, Tip 5: Lensbabies are for you if you hate post processing, Tip 6: Lensbabies are good for telling visual stories because they turn photographs into single-subject story frames

The aperture on a Lensbaby is a perfect circle cutout, so your bokeh will be perfectly circular rather than polygons. Most Lensbaby optics have poor or no coatings and zero flare resistance. If you want bokeh and flare, Lensbaby is where it is at.

All the Bokeh and flare you could ever want (vibrancy increased in post)
All the Bokeh and flare you could ever want (vibrancy increased in post)

Fourth tip: LensBabies allow you to add all sorts of optical aberrations if abstract or transformed graphics are your thing.

Lensbabies are good if you hate post processing

All of my Lensbaby photographs here except the bokeh one are shown as they came out of the camera. That is a big advantage of LensBaby: they take far less of your time in post-processing, and you often don’t need to do much in post.

The flipside to this is that everything a Lensbaby does can be emulated in Photoshop or Lightroom. The plastic lens is just a big surface blur. The glows can be done with guassian blur, and the streak effects are motion zoom blurs.

Emulating Lensbaby in Photoshop certainly gives you more control, but it doesn’t always give you the movement and atmosphere that LensBaby gives.

The original Shot was recolored in Photoshop (top), then a Guassian blur was added using an elliptical selection (middle). Finally, a radial zoom was added using another elliptical selection (bottom) to give a final Lensbaby Photoshop emulation
The original Shot was recolored in Photoshop (top), then a Guassian blur was added using an elliptical selection (middle). Finally, a radial zoom was added using another elliptical selection (bottom) to give a final Lensbaby Photoshop emulation

The above images show how I emulated Lensbaby effect in one of my own shots. The entire process took about 3 minutes to do, and about another 3-5 minutes of tweaking.

Fifth tip: Lensbaby provides graphical effects optically, so you don’t have to do it in post… but if you are good with post, you may not need a Lensbaby.

Lensbabies are great for telling stories

So what exactly do you use Lensbaby for? Lensbabies simplify your subject until you almost end up with a graphic rather than a photograph.

In the actual setting for this photograph, the wall was textured and the bottom shelf was dirty. By taking the photograph with a Lensbaby, all that extraneous detail goes, allowing you to bring out the bare elements of the scene (LensBaby Plastic optic, f4, out-of-camera image)
In the actual setting for this photograph, the wall was textured and the bottom shelf was dirty. By taking the photograph with a Lensbaby, all that extraneous detail goes, allowing you to bring out the bare elements of the scene (LensBaby Plastic optic, f4, out-of-camera image)

That is why wedding photographers use them so much: Lensbaby shots move the story of the day along with strong graphics that focus on only one thing: here’s the wedding cake on its own, here’s the shoes and dress the day before. In each case, anything extraneous is lifted out of the photograph via the selective focus.

Sometimes you need to tell the story not by a sharp image, but a feeling of something: the blur of the bride’s bouquet being thrown, or zooming into the happy father, lifted out from the clutter of the congregation because he is the only person in focus.

Sixth tip: A Lensbaby is good if you want to tell a story or imply a feeling through photography, because it is a good way of paring the photograph down to the bare story, graphic, or emotional elements.

Conclusion

So, a Lensbaby is certainly not for purists: you may prefer to spend your money on a 50mm f1.4 or cheap 1.7, and shoot wide open. That and a bit of post processing will get you to almost the same place as a Lensbaby. Doing your own post takes up time though, and because it is much more of a controlled process, doesn’t give you the edgy, primitive effects that Lensbaby can give you.

Although Lensbabies are primitive, you need a lot of skill to use them well: manual control and a good understanding of off camera Flash or natural lighting are important if you wan to use a Lensbaby professionally.

There is a very strong ‘Lensbaby effect’ and like most strong effects this may become old quickly if you use often.

A LensBaby is something you will typically take out when you have taken all your money shots, and have time to go a little leftfield. A LensBaby is not a replacement for good standard lenses.

LensBabies don’t hold their value, so you might want to consider buying second hand. eBay is your friend.

Notes

  1. Reasons for people not liking Lensbaby and selling it straight may include
    1. They didn’t realize the lens was fully manual and required a lot of effort.
    2. They didn’t realize that moving the area of focus on a full frame camera too far results in a shadow along one edge, or that ‘50mm’ meant ‘50mm full frame’, so you end up with a less useful 75-80mm on crop frame.
    3. They didn’t realize that most things you can do with a Lensbaby can be emulated in post production by an advanced user using a current version of Photoshop.
    4. They had serious issues with putting a pinhole on a two thousand dollar DSLR and the unpredictability in final photograph that this implies, preferring instead to stick with a 50mm 1.4 wide open. The latter is more controllable, not as extreme, and can become tack sharp throughout once stopped down… and when you want dreamy, a bit of grease on a skylight filter works wonders.
    5. They get bored with the effect.
  2. I took the Lensbaby History from Lensbaby, bending your perspective, Corey Hilz, Focal Press.
  3. Some cameras are better for Lensbabies than others. Cameras that have live view that allows magnification or has focus peaking are ideal, as are cameras that allow Auto ISO in full manual. A camera that allows Aperture mode for a non-detected lens is a big plus (as it prevents you having to go into full manual).

Capturing autumn color

When taking photos that rely on naturally colored light, you need to either manually set white balance before you take the shot, or change white balance later in post processing.

When taking photographs of autumn/fall foliage, you may find that your camera doesn’t capture the reds, browns and yellows as you saw them. This is because auto white balance is fooled by autumn sunlight, and will choose a colder (blue) white balance. The fix is to manually change the white balance.

Original image as-shot (HTC Desire HD camera phone)
Original image as-shot (HTC Desire HD camera phone)

Have a look at the image above. This is as-shot, via a cell phone (HTC Desire HD) during a walk through a wood, just before sunset, October 2012. The light was from a perfect low autumn sun, setting off the red and yellow of the leaves. Yet the photo captures none of this!

Camera auto white balance is fooled by the autumn sun and will set the white balance towards blue to compensate for the yellow cast the sun would otherwise create. The camera is not clever enough to know that you want that cast.

What to do? The solution is to either

  • Set the white balance away from ‘auto’. ‘Sunset’ or ‘Cloudy’ usually does the trick, with ‘Sunset’ being the more extreme.
  • Use an image area that you know is neutral (such as the grey hat in this case) to set white balance.
  • Simply set the white balance towards a warmer yellow until the overall image looks right.
White balance/Tint sliders as-shot (top) and after processing (bottom)
White balance/Tint sliders as-shot (top) and after processing (bottom)

For this photo, I used Lightroom’s White Balance Selector tool (keyboard shortcut, W), clicking on the hat. I also tinted the image towards magenta via the tint slider. Finally, I slightly increased exposure.

Image after white balance and tint edits
Image after white balance and tint edits

And here’s the resulting final image. The hat is now grey, but that is kind of beside the point: I now have the golden sunlight and autumn foliage as they were on the day!

More autumn Color
More autumn Color

Here’s some more photos post processed using the same white balance technique (all taken within 10 minutes of the initial photo).

Conclusion

When taking photos that rely on naturally colored light, you need to either manually set white balance before you take the shot, or change white balance later in post processing.

If you leave the camera on auto white balance, the camera tries to remove the cast caused by the colored light. Although this is desirable when you are shooting indoors (such as when you want to remove the blue/yellow cast caused by fluorescent/incandescent indoor lighting), it is rarely what you want when shooting outdoors.

Some photographers don’t realize that the issue is to do with white balance, and instead try to fix the issue using more complex color correction (HSB sliders, etc). Check the white balance first: it is a far easier setting to alter as there is only one slider.

Notes

  1. In some of the photos, I also added a small amount of clarity. If you do this, add it to foliage, clothing, hair and eyes only.  Don’t add it to the subject’s skin, as clarity has the ability to age the appearance of a person’s face.
  2. I chose to illustrate this blog post using a cell phone rather than my usual DSLR for a good reason: I have never used a cell phone camera that didn’t get auto white balance right under any outdoor condition. If you use a cell phone camera, you will typically always end up with an image that is too blue under daylight, and too yellow at night. If you use a cell phone camera often, be prepared to change white balance often if you want to capture the as-shot light ambience.
  3. The sky is blown out on some of the example photos, but this is usually unavoidable when using a cell phone: such devices have insufficient dynamic range. Available fixes for this include
  • Underexpose (although this is rarely successful as you leave insufficient dynamic range to fully capture the main subject).
  • Never make the brightest object (i.e. the sky) prominent. This is my preferred option.
  • Take separate shots of the sky and main subject, and composite them together later in post production.
  • If you have an Android/iOS phone, get a HDR app (I use HDR Camera+).

Colour Accuracy

The human eye sees an object as the same color irrespective of the angle and lighting you see it under. Your camera can’t do this because it can’t see; it blindly measures.

I talked about accurate colour and its dependency on selecting accurate camera profiles in a previous article.  I now look at the next logical step; creating my own camera profiles tailored to my camera/lens and the lighting conditions of each particular photo shoot.

The problem with camera profiles.

Using a camera profile for your camera is a step in the right direction, but as I have found since writing my previous blog on the subject, there are other issues to consider

  • Each lens has different effects on colour. My Tamron 90 macro records greater vibrancy than my Sony 18-250 super-zoom. A manufacturer’s (or Lightroom) camera profile ignores the effects of the attached lens.
  • The camera profile is created under controlled lighting conditions. You may get similar lighting in a studio, but not elsewhere.

The magic of perfect colour

Before looking at my solution, it would be instructive to show the results.

Take a look at the images below.

Mahonia Leaf
Mahonia Leaf
Red Robin leaf
Red Robin leaf
Elaeagnus leaf
Elaeagnus leaf

At the end of the photoshoot for this sequence of images, I took a photograph that would later allow me to calibrate for colour. This calibration ensures that

  • I can correct for colour inaccuracy of my camera body and the attached lens.
  • I can correct for ambient light colour.

The photos above were not tweaked for colour to make them pleasing to the eye; they were calibrated to be true to life.

On to the solution to my colour accuracy problems; I created my own camera profiles via X-Rite Color Checker Passport.

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport

All camera profiles are created with reference to a colour swatch. X-rite ColorChecker Passport (CCP) has such a swatch (albeit with a smaller range of colours than the one Adobe use). To complete the solution, CCP comes with Lightroom/Photoshop plug-ins that automatically create a camera profile from any photograph containing the swatch. Camera profile creation with CCP is easy and borders on trivial. In Lightroom you just right-click on a photo containing the CCP swatch and select Export > ColorChecker. The resulting camera profile will be saved to your Adobe profiles folder, meaning that it will now appear in Adobe Camera RAW and Lightroom.

Let’s stop to think what this allows.

Supposing I took a shot of an apple; I can create a camera profile for both my camera/lens combination and lighting conditions. I do this  by taking an additional photo that includes the CCP swatch.  This photo is used to create a bespoke camera profile. If I now apply this camera profile to my apple photograph, my apple is now colour calibrated to the CCP swatch.

Now supposing I then give you the apple, telling you to take the same shot.  Irrespective of your camera/lens or lighting conditions, once you apply your camera profile (which you create in exactly the same way I created mine), your apple will be the exact same colour as mine. The apple in your photo will be the same colour as mine, because both are calibrated to the same swatch.

It doesn’t matter if I used a Sony camera and you used a Nikon, Canon or Pentax. It doesn’t matter that I shot the photo outside on an overcast day and yours was sunny.

So what actually is the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport?

The CCP is a passport sized plastic case. Unlike the more traditional single sheet swatch, the CCP is both sturdy enough to be carried out in the field, and small enough to fit easily in a camera bag side pocket, or your own coat pocket. The CCP also comes with a lanyard (not shown), so you can even just hang it around your neck.

X-Rite Color Checker Passport
X-Rite Color Checker Passport

There are 4 plastic ‘pages’ inside the CCP. The first two pages look like this;

X-Rite Color Checker Passport: pages 1, 2.
X-Rite Color Checker Passport: pages 1, 2.

The first page (top) contains some custom white points, and clicking them allows you to change the warmth of portrait or landscape shots. Nice, but it’s the second page that contains the beef; this is the swatch that the plug-ins look for in your photos to create the all-important camera profiles.

The plug-in can always extract the swatch from the photo as long as the 5 registration points (the 4  corner brackets and the centre ‘+’) are in focus and visible. Even if they are not, all is not lost; you manually place the position of the 4 corner points. The image below shows how this works. The plug-in cannot create a profile from this photo because it is blurred and the registration points are indistinct. The swatch extraction is performed by manually dragging the four green circles, ensuring that the green squares are each on a colour brick.

Manual Swatch detection
Manual Swatch detection

Page 3 contains a grey card. This is essentially a larger version of the grey brick to the right of white on page 2.

X-Rite Color Checker; page 3.
X-Rite Color Checker; page 3.

The final page contains a quality guarantee. Worth noting is that the standards used to calibrate the colour swatches are traceable to agreed standards (via NIST; the National Institute of Standards and Technology), so in the apple example above, your apple colour will look like mine because both your CCP and mine will be calibrated to the same standards. It is worth noting that this is not the case for many other calibration systems (particularly electronic monitor calibration devices, more on this later).

X-Rite Color Checker; page 4.
X-Rite Color Checker; page 4.

Examples and discussion

Below are two photographs I took as part of the work for this blog-post.

Image 1
Image 1
Image 2
Image 2

They were taken less than 2 minutes apart under full sun using the same camera, but the wooden table and the Sony Alpha symbol (on the lens cap) in each are different colours. This is because of the change of angle in the scene. Notice how easy it is to see variance in colour between photos even when taken a few seconds apart. In this case the variance is caused by a slight camera movement!

Before discovering colour calibration with CCP, I would have thought ‘oh, it’s caused by reflected light; the change in angle in phto 2 means more light is reflected and therefore there’s more light in the scene’, and the fix is simply to reduce exposure in post processing for image 2 to give us something like image 3;

Image 3
Image 3

Image 3 goes some way to fixing the Alpha symbol’s colour, but not the wood. The wood colour is more complex (the wood is not a solid tone and has a gloss surface) and so does not match Image 1 (the browns have become more orange) and nothing will fix it. You simply can’t make a series of objects look the same colour if they were taken under different conditions unless you explicitly calibrate all your photos to a common colour reference (such as the CCP swatch).

By calibrating using CCP once for the straight down view and again for the side on view, I get consistent colour despite the change in lighting conditions. I still have to change exposure for the second photo , but this time (image 4) both the Alpha symbol and the wooden table look the same colour as in image 1;

Image 4
Image 4

Again, think about what we have achieved here. The human eye sees an object as the same colour irrespective of the angle and lighting you see it under. Your camera can’t do this because it can’t see;  it blindly measures.  We have fixed this seemingly intractable and complex philosophical problem via a simple colour calibration!

Let’s get back from the high end philosophical and down to earth with a stupid question. Does it matter that the wood is wrong in image 3? Put another way image 3 doesn’t look wrong as a standalone photo. If the photo doesn’t look odd, does it matter that the colour might be a bit out? Here’s why it can really matter;

  • If you are shooting photographs with a main and backup camera, both will give different colour. You cannot be sure which (or even whether either) is right. By calibrating for colour separately from the camera hardware and optics, you get consistent colour irrespective of which camera or lens combination you use; all photos in your shoot will be consistent.
  • Colour calibration is vitally important when compositing in Photoshop. Taking a figure or sky from one photo and trying to composite it into another is easy to do in Photoshop, but hard to do realistically because two unrelated and uncalibrated photos will have different colour casts. By using CCP, you remove all colour casts, and the only issue you have to fix is relative exposure. Exposure matching is easy (you have only one slider to match); matching colour is much harder. It involves three sliders (and more likely 3 separate tone curves if you want to do it properly), and that’s assuming the simplest case where you are in RGB colour.
  • Camera manufacturors may tweak colour to make photographs look perceptually better, or more controversially, to hide high ISO noise. This makes the camera innacurate in non-linear ways. A camera designed to give perceptually better skin tones will be innacurate for background landscape tones in the same shot. Colour calibration corrects these marketing induced kinks.

Another stupid question; should you always use CCP? No, there are some exceptions;

  • Some colour casts are useful; you may want to capture the ambient light colour via its cast. A sunset is a perfect example of this; you want to catch all that gold tinted light, and what it does to the environment! Put simply, colour correction can correct out ambience and atmosphere. There’s always got to be some thought into whether colour correction is appropriate. Even so, I now always take the CCP out with me and always take a photo of the swatch if there is time. This gives me the ability to remove colour casts if I ever need to include the photos into a Photoshop composite image during post processing.
  • Some lenses give more vibrant rendition than the actual scene. You may not want to colour correct such a lens as the vibrancy may be desirable
  • The uncalibrated scene simply looks better. The ‘incorrect’ wood colour is actually warmer than the calibrated one, and the CCP shows up better in the brighter but ‘incorrect’ photo. Depending on your reasons for shooting the photo, the warmer, brighter version might be the keeper.

Taking a calibration for every set of shots is usually overkill though, and there is a third way to use the CCP; you create a separate camera profile for each camera/lens combination. It’s not as accurate as making a profile per photo sequence, but it way more accurate than using Adobe standard, and also better than using a single Adobe/manufacturer profile for the camera body only. See note 3 at the end of this post for more information.

Workflow

Taking all the above into consideration, I now use the following workflow;

  1. I always shoot RAW, and always explicitly select a camera profile when converting RAW to TIF or JPEG. I no longer use Adobe standard because I find it particularly inaccurate for my camera make (Sony).
  2. If I have time, or colour is very important I take a shot of the CCP per photo sequence and use the generated profile in post processing. For me, colour is generally only ‘very important’ if the photos may be used later in a Photoshop composite image. Doing this allows me, for example, to composite a sky and terrain, both taken on two different days, but both calibrated to the same swatch.
  3. If I don’t have much time (e.g. I am on ‘walkabout’), I take two shots of the CCP (one facing the sun, one facing away) for my main lens of the day, and use the 2 generated profiles for all photos taken on that day’s walkabout.
  4. I have created a profile for each combination of my Sony a500 camera and 4 most used lenses. For each combination I have three profiles; inside with incandescent lighting, outside sunny, and outside cloudy.
  5. If I haven’t taken a photo of the CCP for a shoot via (2)  or (3) above, I use one of the profiles from (4).
  6. Colour is never important for certain photos. The main candidate here is a true HDR; colour is rarely conserved in HDR, so I don’t bother calibrating for it. NB – there are ways to minimise colour inaccuracy when using HDR, see this previous post.

Using the ColourChecker the way it is intended (to give calibrated colour output from your camera) is only part of the work flow. One of the coolest things about using a calibration swatch is how easy it is to either calibrate other parts of the work flow, or measure their inconsistencies.

The Camera LCD.

Most people consider three colour accuracy areas in the digital photography work flow; camera image file accuracy, monitor accuracy and printer rendition accuracy. We forget that the camera LCD plays an important role, at least for the enthusiast or non-studio based photographer. Of course, you can’t calibrate a camera LCD, but you get a very good impression of your LCD’s strengths and weaknesses simply by pointing your camera at the swatch and comparing the image on your camera screen with the actual swatch. Since using my X-Rite ColorChecker Passport in this way, I know that my Sony A500 LCD screen:

  • Brightens blues slightly
  • Desaturates skin tones a little
  • Is otherwise extremely accurate, and certainly more accurate than an uncalibrated computer monitor.

The monitor screen and printer.

There are several hardware monitor calibration devices out there, and Both Mac and Windows 7 users can use colour profile accessories provided by their operating systems. I don’t trust hardware monitor calibration because (a) certain combinations of calibration hardware and monitor just don’t work, and (b) most are not calibrated to any standard; a Spyder and Huey will give different results on the same monitor!

A colour calibrated swatch such as the CCP is better because it is calibrated to a standard. To calibrate my monitor, I set up the monitor with the manufacturers drivers (and never use the OS default plug and play monitor). That gets me pretty close to calibrated, and for final tweaks, I visually eyeball the physical CCP swatch in front of me with an image of the same thing on the monitor, and set RGB values so all the swatch bricks match. All that remains is to change the monitor colour temperature (9300k, 7500k, 6500k) depending on ambient lighting.

Finally, for the printer, I use a print bureau who calibrate their printers to a standard; I don’t think consumer level printer devices are up to it, and leave print calibration to the experts.

Conclusion

The X-Rite ColorChecker (CCP) is now my one-stop solution for colour accuracy. It allows me to;

  • be sure of colour accuracy (or on the inverse, have an idea of how inaccurate my methods will be) irrespective of my camera/computer equipment and lighting conditions
  • to remove colour casts when using multiple photos in a Photoshop composite.

A CCP is quick and easy to use. All I have to do is place the CCP in the scene at the end of each set of shots, then export the same photo to the ColourChecker plug-in to generate a bespoke camera calibration for that set of shots.

Although the CCP is not intended to calibrate them, I find it invaluable in knowing how accurate (or otherwise) a camera LCD is, and I also use it to calibrate my monitor’s colour rendition by eye.

Notes

  1. For more information and videos on the X-Rite ColorChecker, take a look at the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Blog. The X-Rite product page is here.
  2. The leaf photos in the opening section of this post were corrected (in Lightroom) for colour via a camera profile and had sharpening and slight contrast enhancement applied. The background (a piece of white paper) was then overexposed via the adjustment brush.
  3. The X-Rite ColorChecker Passport is a 24 colour swatch of the type Adobe recommends for use in creating a general camera profile. See in particular tutorial 5 on this link.