Sunday, May 31, 2009

Take-out Photo is 1 year old!

(stock photo—I'm not shooting today)

Happy belated birthday to my blog!!!

Although my first post was actually in May, take-out photo really began with the June Monthly Special. So I'm celebrating my first year of blogging with a look back at the past year.

Origins and the not-so-hidden agenda of Take-out Photo
My wife had already been blogging for at least a couple of years when I started my blog. To be honest, I didn't understand the joys of blogging until I starting doing it. It's not that I hadn't considered blogging, but I knew I couldn't start a personal blog without getting myself in trouble at work—I'm way too blunt for my own good.

My blog was an attempt to make something good out of a frustrating experience—namely, publishing. I did an ABCs of Paris photo project that in my mind would make a great little coffee table book for people who love Paris. I had some disappointingly close calls, but ultimately no takers. I put the Paris project on the back burner and decided to just give out information for free, maybe getting some good karma in the process. Early on, I decided to shun advertising. Instead, the commercial side of my blog would be an eventual book project of "take-out" photo recipes (in a couple more years, after I finish an unrelated book project). But first, my evil plan of global domination...

Google analytics Risk
A friend of mine started a blog at the same time last year, and since we both like useless competition, we decided to start a game of "Google Analytics Risk." Each hit on a blog= a soldier in that area. In order to win, you must achieve complete global domination.
The white areas are countries with no hits. Not bad, but if anyone goes on a tour of Africa, there is work to be done. And here are my top 10 countries:

Its own rewards...
Absurd Risk games aside, my real satisfaction comes from pushing myself to take on new projects and from seeing photographers of all levels benefit from my blog.

Some highlights/facts from the first year

Serendipitous highlight: The series of interviews. It wasn't part of my original plan, but once I started seeing the work of so many talented people, I just had to make interviews a tradition.

Most hits: The "starters" series of tutorials gets by far the most hits. The one about eyes is the top of the popularity list.

Monthly Special with the most participation: The grid project. That's right. The first project had the largest number of people post their work and link back. I know that a lot of people do the projects and never link back, but it's a lot more fun when they do.

Monthly Special with the least participation: A three-way tie. Ugh! Still life had only six (of which three were my son, Max). Brushes had four. Background had five, two of which by the same person. Compared to the booming participation of the first month, those lean months were very discouraging. If I hadn't seen that my subscriber base was growing I might have given up.

Unwelcome landmark moment: My first rude comment. It simultaneously irritated and delighted me to have a random stranger try to tell me that I am not a real photographer.

Most out of my comfort zone: The "still life" post. I cringe every time I look at that post. This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy trying something new. I may even revisit the topic with a vengeance someday.

Most pleasant out-of-my-comfort-zone surprise: Brushes. I know it was also one of the monthly specials with the least participation, but I enjoyed experimenting with something entirely new to me. I even made my own brush set based on things I've picked up at Paris flea markets.

My favorite Monthly Special: Street photography. It's my favorite genre because it makes me appreciate my surroundings.

Love to hate: Photojojo. They are the arch-nemesis that doesn't know I exist. Why do I love to hate them? Actually, I subscribe to them and find their approach pretty amusing. But they also have a couple hundred thousand subscribers and would therefore kick my butt in google analytics Risk. So I have to hate them.

What's in store for year 2 of Take-out Photo?
More projects, more tutorials, more interviews. Hopefully, more of what you like.

A new "recipes" section will help you put smaller tutorials to better use. The first recipe? The complete portrait retouching workflow.

And what's in store for next month? Something inspired by Fritsch. Something I have never done. Something for which I still don't even have a photo. Hope you will give it a try.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Color blending mode in Photoshop

Layer blending modes: too many choices
If you look at the pull-down menu in your layers palette, you will see a dizzying number of choices with names that do not make sense without explanation. If you want to know what all of those blending modes mean, several great posts out there take the time to explain each one of them:

  • freeTime FOTO explains every blending mode and demonstrate the effect of each one on their logo (nice marketing ploy).
  • Northlite starts with a primer on color and then demonstrates blending modes with a leafy background and a rainbow gradient. Excellent concise explanations.
  • Digital Art Form's post is not exhaustive, but it is certainly methodical.
  • And speaking of methodical, check out Nathan's programming magic. This is the kind of stuff that my son just eats up. For those of us that are less skilled at programming, scroll down past the blend mode math and check out the photos. As a photographer, I appreciate how Nathan demonstrates the blend modes on photos rather than on graphics.
  • Photoshop Essentials simplifies the blend modes by grouping them into five categories. Very readable.
  • Adobe Press shows us "how blending modes think."
As much as I respect all of the above, I start to get vertigo when so much information is presented at once. And even though helpful people have gone through the trouble to demonstrate the effects of each and every blending mode, I am left unsure about practical use.

A book suggestion
I think that Matt Kloskowski's Layers book is the best thing out there for people like me (i.e. people who prefer not to be overwhelmed), because it focuses on the layers features you will actually use. In fact, chapter two of his book cuts the list of 25 blending modes down to the three modes he deems the most useful (multiply, screen, and soft light). That's not to say that he doesn't use other modes in the book, but simply that he keeps it practical.

My own top three blending modes are multiply, screen, and overlay (which is almost the same as soft light). But in honor of the May monthly special on "color," I decided to dedicate this post to the "color" blending mode with an emphasis on practical use in photo retouching.

Color blending mode: what it does
Let me quote Northlite's pithy definition: "Color [blending mode] changes the hue and saturation of the lower layer to the hue and saturation of the upper layer but leaves luminosity alone."

Not making sense yet? Let's look at an example. I will start with a color photo:
In the layers palette, I add a new empty layer. Just to show how the color blending mode works, I will fill that top layer with white by using the paint bucket tool with the foreground set to white.
This leaves me with a plain white screen. Next, I choose "color" from the layer blending modes.
Because the color blending mode leaves all of the shades of gray (i.e. the luminosity) intact, my white top layer blends down to create a black and white image.
Although I would recommend different methods for customized black and white conversion, the example above should help you visualize what the color blending mode changes (hue, saturation) and what it leaves alone (luminosity).

And now on to real-world use...

Toning an image with color blend mode
If you fill a new blank layer with any color (as I did with white above) and set the blending mode to "color," you will get a toned image. So this time I will use a beige color on the top layer.
The result is a nicely toned image:
This is exceptionally easy, because I go straight from color to a toned image. Change the color of the top layer, and you change the tone:

Enhance or change color selectively with the color blend mode
Two more tricks with the color blending mode start with the same steps as above, but then modify the top layer in one or both of the following ways:

1. Play with the opacity
If you lower the opacity of the top layer, your background color will start to come through. This can look very ugly at 60%, but can be very useful at 15% to either add or correct a color cast. In the photo below, I applied a yellow layer at about 20% in the color blending mode. The right half shows the new warmer version, and the left half is the original more ruddy complexion. Just to make sure you could see a difference, I set the opacity higher than my ideal.
2. Color blend + layer mask = selective color change.
Add a layer mask to a toned image, and then paint color in or out. I usually prefer to paint in rather than out, so I add a layer mask filled with black by clicking the layer mask icon while holding the alt key.
Now I can use a white brush (b) on the mask to paint in color selectively. If blue is my top color, and I mask out everything except the eyes, I end up with...
AAARRRGHHH! Ridiculously fake bright blue eyes!!!! But if I dial down the opacity, I get a realistic change:
Or I can do the same thing to shift his hazel eyes more toward green:
Since the color blending mode leaves the luminosity alone, you get all of the shading of the original image. Even the super intense blue might be believable if more people in the world had the eyes of Paul Newman. Back to the real world...In my own work, I never have any reason to change hazel eyes to blue or green, but I might want to enhance a person's actual eye color if a photo didn't do it justice.

In the end, our only potential obstacle to realistic color manipulation is self-restraint (the lack thereof). But then again, who says realism has to be the goal? Start to experiment with the color blend mode and you will appreciate its ability to create highly stylized effects.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A follow-up to better color

In my last post, Amy asked how to fix a color cast when you don't have all three colors to sample (i.e. black, gray, and white). There are many possible ways to do it, but I'm going to stick with the method from my last post, except that this time I will use only one sample: the white point. So here is a modified version that use the same photo from the last post:
This is the "before. It has a blue color cast and it's too dark.

Step 1. This step only applies when the photo is too dark (and I could have done it in my previous post). In order to get a better look at the problem, I lighten the photo by duplicating the background layer and setting the blend mode to "screen" as described in my "fix dark photos" tutorial.

Post "screen" layer, the photo is much better, but it still needs to move away from the blue hues.

Step 2. Add a curves layer and use the "white" eyedropper on the whitest area of the photo. Since the screen layer has already lightened things up, the white sample will not produce a result as extreme as it did in my non-screen method.

Note how only one adjustment warmed things up substantially. If your results are too strong, you can always dial down the opacity of your curves layer.

step 3. Add another curves layer and adjust the individual "blue" and "green" channels (in that order—and "red" if you must, but I would avoid it) as described in my color and tone tutorial. On the same curves layer, you can use to pull-down menu to go back to the full "rgb" curve and add a slight "s" curve to increase contrast. Once again, dial to opacity down to get results you like:
Note that my second curves layer is set to 73% opacity, this is because I thought the color and contrast was pretty good, but a little too strong. Rather than redo it, I simply toned it down by lowering the opacity. Once I have made my curves adjustment, I am satisfied with the final result:
This last step has improved the skin tones. The results are very subtle and will vary according to your monitor. If you want to, you can add curves layers indefinitely and adjust opacity as needed. It may not be the most elegant solution, but it works.

Conclusion
For me, the main point here is twofold:

1.The individual rgb channels are a powerful tool that can still get you great color even in the worst of circumstances.
2. The sometimes less-than-ideal results you get from using only one eyedropper can be fixed by adjusting the opacity and using more than one curves adjustment.

If you want to add one more principle, it would be to use masks+curves adjustments+opacity changes. You do some pretty amazing retouching with nothing but those steps.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

5 easy steps to better color using Photoshop

How can you get better color in a digital photo?

Take its temperature!

If you make only one change to improve the color of your photos it should be to correct the color temperature of your image. "Color temperature"—also known as "white balance"—refers to the number of kelvins (K) emitted by a given light source. A 40-watt incandescent light bulb, for example, is 2650K, whereas a camera's flash might be around 5600K. The higher numbers have more blue and the lower numbers have more red. In practical terms, this means that if your photo's white balance setting (temperature) is at odds with the temperature of the light source, your colors will suffer.

Let's look at an example:
Cute kid. Bad white balance.

The easiest way to assess a white balance problem is to look for something that should be white, such as that t-shirt.

Question: What color is that triangle of "white?"

If your answer was "white," your eyes are playing tricks on you. Your eyes are so good at adapting to all kinds of color conditions that you need to train them to look at things more objectively. So just to check our perception, let's use the color picker and sample that tee-shirt for our answer. The sampler can have variations as I have described in another post, but it will help make a point nonetheless.

I click on the tee-shirt and see that our "white" tee-shirt is really....

Ugh! Blue! It looks as if the shirt were washed in hot water with a cornflower blue crayon.

So how do we fix it?

With a typical point and shoot camera, you might prevent the problem in the first place by using the proper white balance settings (as described in this excellent article). But I won't dwell on prevention here because

1. you can only expect so much of a preset white balance and
2. if you have a camera that shoots RAW (and if you do, I hope you are using RAW), a preset balance is less relevant.

If you shoot RAW...
you probably already know how to fix color, but let me illustrate how easy it is to fix RAW images in hopes of convincing those of you who have RAW capability to start using it. And by the way, more and more of the nicer point and shoot cameras have RAW capability, so next time you're in the market for one, get a camera that shoots RAW.

When you open a RAW image file in Photoshop, you get a host of adjustment sliders (and that's just the beginning). Once you know what the sliders mean, the rest is easy. Seconds later and...

massive change! If you look at the sliders, you can see that I changed the temperature, moved the tint further away from green, and did a few other minor changes that got fast results. The original image looks like it was salvaged from a bag of charcoal by comparison.

If you don't shoot RAW...
you can still get great results. Let me preface this section by reminding you that I prefer shorter and more intuitive solutions over time-intensive processes even if that latter might win over the approval of pro retouchers.

To my surprise, even a very user-friendly book that I love has a 19-step process for getting better color. Seriously. 19 steps! I mean, that's 7 steps more than it takes to reform an alcoholic!

My goal is to show you that you don't need to be a pro to improve your photos. In 4 or 5 steps you can take control of color in your photos.

The tutorial

Step 1. Add a curves adjustment layer.

If you have CS4, you can click on the curves adjustment layer button...
or if you don't (or if you have something against that button), get a curves layer from the bottom of the layers palette:
Our next three steps are going to use the black, gray (neutral), and white eyedroppers you see in the curves layer dialog box.
Step 2. Use the black eyedropper to click on something black (or as close to black as possible) in your image.
There are more precise and mathematical ways to do this, but we're not going to use them here. Among the blackest parts of this photo are the pupils, so I selected the black eyedropper and then clicked it in his right pupil.

The result is subtle so far. The color warmed up a bit and the photo got even darker.

Step 3. Repeat the process with the gray eyedropper.
This time you are looking for a neutral gray. I clicked on a neutral-looking part of the stone and here is what happened:

The skin tone looks less ashen, and things are getting brighter.

Step 4. Use the white eyedropper to select something that looks close to white.
I chose the tee-shirt and got the following result:

Depending on your monitor, this will either look too extreme or pretty good.

Step 5. Take it down a notch.
Unless you get really lucky, that white eyedropper might make a more drastic change than you desire. On my monitor, that post-white-eyedropper version looked way too intense, so I simply dialed the opacity of my curves layer down to about 47%.

Many a scary adjustment layer can be tamed by lowering the opacity. The lowered opacity means the boy no longer looks like he has been ingesting toxic waste.
The color temperature has been lowered because the original background layer is now partially showing through.

Step 5 (optional). At this point, you will either be satisfied or you will miss some of the brightness in the earlier version. Or maybe you want to tweak the skin tones a bit more or add more contrast. If so, simply add a new curves layer on top of your previous one (the one with the lowered opacity), and start tweaking. If you want to fine-tune the skin tone, you can adjust individual color channels (especially the blue and the green) as I explain in detail in one of my "starters." After you adjust the individual channels (if you do at all), you can boost brightness by dragging a point on the curve up and to the left, and/or if you want more contrast, you can create an "s" curve—all of which is included in the other tutorial.

I did some minimal tweaking for my final result.

Let's check out where 5 steps got us. Here is the "before":

and here is the "after":

If you can't leave well enough alone, you would probably bring out the eyes a little more, but I think any parent would be happy with the result we got in only five steps using curves.

The psychology of the color brown


When I decided to focus on color for a month, I chose May because it's a colorful time of year. I thought of bright, vibrant colors or soft Springtime pastels. I certainly didn't think of brown. But as I was looking at this photo that I took at a Paris flea market, I realized that I like it for two reasons: the color and the texture. If I were to convert the image to black and white, I think it would lose most of its appeal. But why? What does the color brown add?

I have no intention of creating a long post about brown (as I recently did about the color pink), but I wanted to see what the psychology of brown might reveal about why I prefer the monochromatic photo in color.

With unanimity, most sites about color mention that the color brown is associated with the earth (hence, its categorization as an "earth tone"), with being grounded in the natural world, with warmth and security. Brown is associated with the past, with tradition. But then the contradictions begin...

Brown is comforting, but it "can also create feelings of sadness and isolation."
Brown "will look great with almost any color", but "few colors work well with it." (I agree with the former.)

Brown tones tend to be more "friendly" than black and white (think about the uses of sepia). The brown background in this detail of a statue makes the hand look less severe (but possibly less "artsy") than it would look in black and white.

The most thorough look at the color brown that I found covers everything from the varied reactions to the color in different cultures to the use of brown in song titles. Among the factoids about brown is the following gem: "If you dream of the color brown, it means you will be lucky with money." In this troubled economy, here's hoping we'll all have dreams about farming.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In search of color in a drab city

Try as I may, I can't find much color in Provo. If I were to apply the "what are the colors of your city?" question to Provo, I would have to say beige and brick red. And the ratio is depressingly weighted in favor of the beige—not the beautiful Paris stone kind of beige, but a sort of sickly fleshy color you might associate with a Band-Aid. Nevertheless, I brought my camera in my car today and kept my eye out for color as I drove around town.

I think the pervasive drabness comes from laziness, as if city planners and architects are content to let the impressive mountains handle 100% of the aesthetic appeal. If I were a nature photographer, Utah would be a dream. May in some future "monthly special" I will have to force myself to tackle the nature and landscape genre, but for today, I just wanted to find some color in the city. Here are two of my finds:

The red door on this building stuck out like a sore thumb amid all of the neutrals. The shadows from telephone lines overhead caught my attention as well. So I parked my car, waited a minute or two, and then snapped a picture of this bicyclist zooming by. Her green shirt helped balance the red and picked up the green on the door frame.

I drove by a food bank and noticed that about half of the crates had been painted orange (my favorite color). I did a u-turn, drove into the parking lot, and took a few abstract photos of the crates. I wasn't trying to "say" anything with this photo (if I had wanted to take on social issues, I could have turned around and focused on the people at the food bank). For me, the appeal is purely from color, texture, and bold lines.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Thinking pink: Color preference and gender

Peonies at a Paris flower market

Since we're exploring color this month, let's think about pink for a moment. Why pink? No particular photographic reason. My curiosity about pink has been piqued for personal reasons, namely, my 4-year-old daughter's obsession with all things pink. So I did a little online research...

As it turns out, the color pink made a big splash in the media back in August 2007 when British researchers claimed to have found the answer to why girls prefer pink and boys prefer blue. You can read a more detailed account elsewhere, so I'll give the broad strokes version. Basically, the researchers established gender preference among 206 subjects by flashing colored rectangles on a screen and asking the subject to quickly state which ones they preferred. And guess what? The guys liked the blue end of the color spectrum while the girls preferred colors toward the red end. Tell us something we don't already know.

The study concluded that color preference is an innate biological phenomenon because the 37 Chinese participants showed the same preferences as the Brits. Hmm. Dubious claim, you say? Just you wait, there's more. Apparently through some convenient rift in the time-space continuum, the researches were able to conclude that back in humankind's hunter/gatherer days, a good eye for pink and red helped the women find ripe fruit and assess the health of little baby Aghoo, whereas the men focused on blue to hone their primitive meteorological skills and to divine sources of water. Several thousand years later you end up with genetic predispositions to pink or blue.

Someone should have told all of this to the publishers of Ladies' Home Journal back in 1918 before they wrote:
"There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." (cited here)
I don't know why women decided to paint their girls' nurseries pink circa 1940 (sale at Benjamin Moore?), but I do know that colors seem to have gender identity crises ever couple of decades. If you look at turn-of-the-century photos of young children, your first reaction might be "Why are there no photos of boys?" But once you learn that the pretty little girl in the white dress was great great grandpa Herbert, you may realize that associating gender with color is relatively new (I realize that I haven't showed rectangles to 206 people, but still...). Babies used to all wear white, then about 20 years into the 20th century, the blue for girls and pink for boys thing came along, then it did a flip flop around 1940, and I'm guessing that the gender-bias-free yellow and green (I'm just guessing, here) entered the picture around the 60s, and then...well, we all know how confused the 80s were.


But getting back to the important thing—Eva's pink 4th birthday party—a Princeton study made me better understand how typical the pink obsession is with Eva's age group. Researchers have even given the age-related love of pink its own acronym—the PFD (Pink Frilly Dress) phenomenon. According to their report, children begin to "self-socialize" through gender at about age two. Even when parents actively resist gender stereotypes, the children seek them out in a desire for stability. In the words of the report:
"Before 5-7 years, children tend to believe that gender is something that can change if a person puts on clothing or makes other superficial changes that are characteristic of the opposite sex. One 3-year-old came home in tears because she thought her mother was a girl, like her, but now she knew that could not be true. Why not? Her mother had short hair. She could only be comforted when her mother agreed to change out of her pants-suit and put on a dress before going out of the house."

Between ages 5-7, girls realize that they can do "boy" things and still be girls, and/or they begin to care less about gender difference. For me, the conclusion explains a lot more than the berry-picking cave-women theory.

If you want to learn more about color and gender studies, read the post by Color Matters.
For a fascinating and thorough cross-cultural study, skim through the pages of data at Colour Assignment.

And now for my forced attempt to bring this back to photography with a few questions...

  • If you were to look through your photos with an eye for color, would you find that certain colors appear much more than others, and if so, are those colors your favorites?
  • Do you gender-type photographs? If you didn't know who took the photo of the peonies at the head of the post, for example, would you assume it was a woman?
  • Are you drawn to photography with certain color schemes, or does the subject and/or composition influence your preference the most?
  • What's your favorite color? Why? Have you reassessed your favorite color recently? (Incidentally, I reassessed mine about six years ago and realized that "blue" was merely a default answer. My real favorite color is orange. I like that orange can be energetic, fun, and intense, but that it can also slip into a calm and meditative mode—think Tibetan monk.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Film nostalgia

Earlier this month, I talked about digital versions of cross processing, and introduced the post with the question "When is the wrong color the right choice?" This led to some interesting comments about darkroom processing vs. digital processing and about the manipulation of color in either case. As a sort of experiment, before I left work today, I took a photo of my son, Lucas, silhouetted against a colorful art installation, and digitally altered it according to various film types and/or processes. I "processed" the original photo with NIK Color Efex Pro because the program faithfully emulates the contrast, grain, and color properties of a few dozen beloved film stocks—a digital approximation based on careful study (actual grain sampling, for example) of the analog originals. Strange, how I find myself learning more about the variation of film types now that I no longer use them. I had my favorite films, but I never took the same photo with a dozen different types for the sake of comparison. To do so now is really an exercise in nostalgia—especially as more and more films are discontinued.

A closer look at Velvia (#4 on grid)

Homage or Death Knell? Is that really the question?
Last August, I did a post about the disappearance of local orchards and the things that have replaced them: "Orchard" Elementary, "The Orchards" Shopping plaza, and so on. I begin to wonder if the digital reproduction of film isn't the same type of dual-edged homage—respect + replacement.

The faux polaroid version

But I have seen enough media hype to be wary of "the death of...." narratives. The number of hyperbolic photo magazine articles about digital replacing or not replacing film rivals the frequency of "get great abs" covers on men's magazines. The digital vs. film debate evokes strong opinions, but like the ab routines, it gets monotonous and tiresome pretty fast.

The grainy and gritty Superia 800

So what is the question?
In the context of this month's theme, the digital replication of different films made me appreciate the number of "right" answers possible to the question of color. The variations in color film emulation made me think about other color/contrast/grain (or any other selection of variables) recipes for digital color. The Color Efex software is largely based on darkroom techniques, but it also includes purely invented digital effects with names like "Duplex" and "Monday Morning." Similarly, Photoshop actions with names such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Daily Multi Vitamin" might be the digital equivalent of film stocks. I am quite surprised, in fact, that Fuji, Kodak, and the like have not got into the business of marketing digital "film" in the form of actions. Some have viewed memory cards as digital film, but the comparison ignores the identity of film types. Some memory cards may be faster than others, but the card won't change the look of the photo. Digital cameras offer "effects" and digital processing allows for infinite variations, but memory cards have no real identity. If film nostalgia stays strong among those shooting digital, maybe film companies will manufacture memory cards with unique in-card processing characteristics. Maybe one day people will have strong feelings about the saturation and contrast they get with a certain brand of memory card...

The unretouched original
Conclusions
I don't have many (other than I really should start going to be before 3 a.m.), but thinking about film nostalgia has led me to some ideas:
  • As a big fan of "The Five Obstructions," I like the idea of creating sets of actions as a self-imposed creative constraint.
  • I love the devotion to film emulation that I see in ColorEfex, but I also like the idea of creating fixed digital variations that have nothing to do with the darkroom.
  • Current digital effects tend toward the dramatic or trendy, but I wonder if subtle effects will become equally important as digital matures.
  • I don't know what "the question" is, but I am pretty sure that it is not "film or digital?"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Color Spaces 101: CMYK, LAB, RGB, sRGB


The following overview of color spaces (aka "working spaces" or "color modes") promises to be opinionated, relatively simple, and focused specifically on digital photography for the web and most standard print labs. If you don't know what a color space is or how to use one, this primer is a must-read that will help you get better photos.

Introduction
Getting good color in digital photography is a headache. When I first switched to digital, I bought a decent printer (back in the days of the Epson 2200), got some nice Hahnemühle paper, and printed...the ugliest magenta photo you have ever seen! The horror! I had no idea what I was doing. Between the monitor color settings and the Photoshop settings, I could have spent a week trying out each combination. Actually, I think I did. Worse still, I had the same problem with my local lab. The prints usually had a color cast and were far less vibrant than on my monitor.

Color calibration felt overwhelming and expensive (it has become more affordable since that time). The fact is, most average consumers will never calibrate their monitors. This means that what you see on screen will probably not be what you get in print. The good news (at least in my experience with Macs) is that monitors are better right out of the box than they used to be.

It's a safe bet that most of my readers fall into one of the following categories:
  1. You have already calibrated your monitor and you have your own strong opinions about color spaces.
  2. You have not calibrated your monitor and will not do so even if I tell you that it's really important.
  3. You have not calibrated your monitor, but based on this post you will now try it out.
I am not going to flatter myself by believing that category #3 will be greater than category #2, so I will go ahead and point those in group three (lovingly, of course) to the following sites:
But enough of calibration, let's move on to the real topic of this post: your choice of color space.

For most people—and I warned you that this post will be opinionated and simple—here is what you need to know:

CMYK
Not to be confused with YKK. The letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (which is black). CMYK is the color model used in four-color printing presses. It is called a "subtractive" color space because it assumes that your background (i.e. paper) is white and that the ink subtracts from white as it is applied. If you have an inkjet printer, you know all about buying expensive cyan, magenta, yellow, and black cartridges. So, if your printer uses those colors, it stands to reason that CMYK would be your color space of choice, right? But no! That would be too simple. We are going to buy the ink, but not the color space. We are done with you, CMYK. Nice knowing ya. Bye now. Buh-bye.

LAB
The most amazing color space you will probably never use. Until Dan Margulis wrote a ground-breaking book on LAB ("L" is for "lightness," and the "a" and "b" are for...uh..."a" and "b"), even most pros didn't bother with the strange color space. For one thing, LAB has "imaginary colors" that fall outside the realms of human vision. So, unless you have contact with a superior life form and its superior printing technology, LAB is "cool" in a nerdy mathematical way, but it is not relevant to your vacation photos. If you like theory and you want to take your Photoshop to the outer limits, LAB is for you (seriously, buy Margulis' mind-blowing book). If not, we mortals bid you adieu, oh great and mysterious color space.

RGB
This is an "additive color space," as in, Here are three colors: red, green, and blue. Add them together to make all the colors. While CMYK was "subtracting" from white, RGB is "adding" colored light to black. Imagine, for example, one of those old projectors with the big red, green, and blue circles (not that the new ones don't use RGB as well) that shows movies by sending colored light into a dark room. RGB is common in most electronic image devices, and most people love RGB because it can produce a wide color gamut without going into that whole "imaginary color" thing that makes LAB so trippy. Many of the first Photoshop books I read turned me into an RGB snob, but guess what? I stopped using it. Mostly. It's not practical for my own real-world use, so I don't recommend it. I promise to explain myself later.


sRGB

The RGB snobs hate this flavor of RGB—oh, yes, there are several flavors of RGB, just to make things complicated. sRGB has the most limited color gamut of all. Does the "s," therefore, stand for it sucks ? I don't know. Blame it all on Microsoft and HP, because they created the sub-par color space. Let me skip the color theory side of things, and get to the two major reasons why I recommend sRGB:
  1. sRGB is the standard default of the internet
  2. sRGB is the color space used by most labs
Therefore, if you post photos on the web and/or have your photos printed at labs, sRGB mode will give you better results.

Remember my story about dull prints with color casts? The reason they didn't look right is that I had my camera (and Photoshop) set to Adobe RGB, but my lab was printing in sRGB. Colors that looked great in the wider gamut of Adobe RGB could not be reproduced in sRGB—Bless its inadequate little soul. Consequently, the sRGB lab printers just toned down all those great vibrant colors, leaving me disillusioned with prints from digital files.

If you do your own printing (as I sometimes do), you can take advantage of RGB and its glorious wider gamut. Otherwise, read Smugmug's convincing account of why you should choose sRGB.

Conclusion
Look at the settings for your digital camera. If you can choose a color space, choose sRGB (unless you do all of your own printing). Look at your color settings in Photoshop. Make the default space sRGB. Do not make the mistake of doing everything in RGB and then converting it to sRGB. Let me quote Smugmug on that topic:
"Sometimes it's written that the best workflow is to save your photos in Adobe RGB because it preserves the most colors, and convert to sRGB for the Internet.

The problem with that is you get the disadvantages of both color spaces with the advantages of neither."

This is not yet a complete solution to proper calibration, but it's a good start that will help you understand steps best saved for a future post.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ready, Aim...

FIRE!

Here is an example of color that caught my eye at a Paris flea market. The bold graphics have the energy and colors of a Lichtenstein print. I couldn't possibly have arranged the books any better than the bargain-hunters had left them.

Now, does the photo have deeper meaning? I guess it depends on the viewer. For me, the bold letters "FEU" (fire) were simply an invitation to shoot back. Hence, the photo is my purely visceral reaction to a colorful graphic assault.

My invitation to you this month is simple: seek out color, shoot it, and show us what you have captured.

Check out what people have done so far this month—really great stuff—and share your own work.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book of Colors: a gift idea for a child in your life

[Although it may seem strange to do this post right before Mother's Day, it is just what popped into my mind.]

Luxembourg Green

If you have kids, or have ever babysat a kid, or have a niece, a nephew, or any kid in your life, or even if you once stumbled into the children's section of your local bookstore by accident while looking for the café, you know that some of the earliest books in a child's library are about colors. A search at Amazon.com yielded 608,650 results. Granted, "colors" is a ridiculously broad search term, but still...

I was thinking about my last post and my mind wandered back to Paris...not to the architecture, but to the green chairs in the Jardin du Luxembourg. One year, I did an entire photo series of those chairs just because I like to remember them.

Then I thought about green and then...hey! Why have I never made my own book of colors for my kids? I really should have. And now that so many companies offer make-your-own photo books at affordable rates (although the image quality may not be as good as more expensive pro options), wouldn't it be cool to make a book of colors for the kid in your life? You could use your own photos, add text if you want, and make the perfect custom book for that kid you want to spoil. The possibilities are endless:
  • quick and easy—buy a basic 4x6 album, insert your photos representing various colors, and you're done. The good thing about this idea is they can drool all over the thing, bend the pages, whatever...You can swap out photos when you want. It may not be fancy, but it can be more book-like if you choose your photos well.
  • Hone your Photoshop skills and make your masterpiece—Slightly more involved, but you can design your own book and make as many as you like through various companies. Google "make your own book" and see what I mean.
  • Alter a board book—show one of those dumb board books who's boss. It will put up a fight, if you ask me, but some of you crafty folks are gluttons this kind of thing.
  • Alter something else—Why not a paint deck? Or you could just take a bunch of paint samples in whatever colors you need, adhere (your friend who is into crafts knows how, don't ask me) small photos over parts of the strips, laminate the whole thing if the kid is really young, connect your paint deck 'o colors with a metal ring (or whatever else that crafty friend of yours tells you is better), and you've got a cool book.
  • Or, if you've got $20, a few weeks, and a good supply of photos on your computer, and if the kid is into really tiny things (à la Littlest Pet Shop, Polly Pocket, etc.—be glad if you have no idea what I'm talking about), a set of 100 custom-made moo mini cards could become a tiny treasure box of color—perfect for that child who will grow up to be a designer. I love moo products (and sadly, I don't get paid to say that—but if you're listening, Moo peeps...). The print quality of the mini cards that I purchased is excellent.
  • Ask your friendly local scrapbooker—I won't even pretend to know what the latest trends are in the multi-billion dollar scrapbook industry, but around here, I could walk down the street blindfolded (don't try this at home) and bump into a dozen experts. But before you go and emblemish—uh, I mean, embellish a book to the point that it becomes a choking hazard for the child, remember that your photos are the content. Try not to get lost in the labyrinth of embellishment possibilities.
Oh, and feel free to limit your colors. What if you just chose three? (an "RGB" primer, anyone?) Or two? Or one—which would be the perfect thing for my daughter, Eva, who thinks that if it's not pink then it "isn't cute."

"I only like pink! All other colors are ugly!"

I could go on, but it's past 2 a.m. and I'm doing that "thinks when he should be sleeping" thing I do, so you'll just have to fill in the rest.

Anyone think they might try something like this? Or maybe you have already done something similar? Ideas? Comments? Let's hear them.