Review: Datacolor SpyderCHECKR 24
Color management in digital photography can be a very important component of the digital workflow, especially for applications where color needs to be faithfully or consistently reproduced - photographing artwork for example, where there is a requirement for the photograph to accurately convey the colors present in the subject.
Photography intended for print publication is but the first step in a multistage color management process that leads to the final published print, whether it be for a magazine, a book or a billboard. This process typically involves the color calibration of a range of steps from image capture in the camera, through accurate rendering on a monitor, to the use of calibrated color profiles for the equipment that will actually produce the final printed image.
There are many levels of color management in digital photography. For the great majority of digital camera users however, it's probably something that they don't really consider much, since most digital cameras do a pretty good job of interpreting the color for the majority of the images that they produce.
Yes, I use the word advisedly for two very good reasons. Firstly, the perception of color is very subjective and varies significantly from person to person. This goes deeper than just the physical differences between the ways that each person's eyes respond to different wavelengths of light, also encompassing the far more mysterious mental aspects of color perception.
The second reason is that almost all digital cameras don't really "see" colors in the true sense of the word. The sensor itself is essentially color blind, responding only to the intensity of the light (it's true that the sensor's sensitivity does vary somewhat across the visible spectrum, but not enough for it to be able to usefully discriminate colors for imaging purposes). In order to reproduce color, the monochrome digital sensor will typically have a mosaic of tiny red, green and blue filters in front of its array of pixels, which enables the colors in the recorded image to be reconstructed algorithmically in a process called demosaicing.
If you're shooting raw images, the actual intensity pattern that the sensor sees and the demosaicing components of the image are stored separately, giving the photographer a fine degree of control over the color in the final image. If you're shooting JPEGs, this color reconstruction process is largely done for you behind the scenes, and while some degree of further color tweaking is possible in post-processing, the photographer will have nothing like the degree of control over the color as would be possible with a raw image.
There is a whole array of factors that determine the way that your digital camera will record color information - the reflectivity of the subject, the sensitivity of the sensor itself to different wavelengths of light, the optical properties of lens, the intensity and quality of the light source, and so on. Subjects photographed in natural light for example can have a very different color rendering from those photographed in artificial light, since the color spectrum of the light from a typical household lightbulb is very different from that of the sun or the sky.
So given all of these variables that can impact the color in our photographs, how do you faithfully and consistently reproduce color in images, using different cameras and lenses and under different lighting conditions?
The answer is to use a color correction card like Datacolor's SpyderCHECKR 24™. This is essentially a card bearing a set of spectrally calibrated color patches as well as a set of gray scales from pure white to deep black. The colors on the card are calibrated to a set of reference points in the Hue-Saturation-Lightness (HSL) color gamut, including a gray scale from pure white to black in increments of 20%.
The basic idea of this card is very simple. When you start a photo shoot with a particular combination of camera, lens and lighting conditions, if you photograph the SpyderCHECKR card under those conditions, you can subsequently make necessary adjustments to the image to exactly reproduce the calibrated colors on the card. This set of adjustments can then be saved as a color correction preset (in photo processing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop for example) and used to accurately color-correct any image captured under those conditions.
It's actually very easy. There's a small software application that comes bundled with the card (as a separate download from Datacolor's web site) which will actually analyze your photograph of the card and generate the color correction preset for you for a number of photo processing software applications including Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, Hasselblad's Phocus, or Black Magic's DaVinci Resolve.
All that's needed for the software to do its thing, is to make sure that the photograph of the card is oriented and cropped as shown here, the white balance corrected using for example, Lightroom's eye dropper tool on the 20% gray square, and finally a little tweaking of the white and black levels to get about 90% RGB on the pure white and 4% for the black. If you add the SpyderCHECKR app as an external editor in your preferences in Lightroom for example (as I did). you can then directly load the cropped image into the app to run its color analysis and generate your color correction preset for you.
One slightly annoying issue that's more of a Lightroom problem than a SpyderCHECKR problem, is that you need to quit out of Lightroom and restartit it again in order to have access to the new preset that you just created. Perhaps there's a way to refresh the user presets in Lightroom without doing this, but I couldn't find one and if not - Adobe - are you listening?
To see how easy the SpyderCHECKR is to use and how well it works, I enlisted the help of my oldest friend Boo Boo the bear, my faithful companion since before I was even old enough to remember :-)
Here's a shot of Boo Boo captured indoors using ambient light. The image on the left is the uncorrected image straight out of the camera. The image on the right is color-corrected using a Lightroom preset created automatically with the SpyderCHECKR software as described above. In this case the difference is quite subtle because the camera did a pretty good job of handling the color. It's clear however that the image straight of the camera is slightly bluer, which is typical for shade light and I was using the default white balance setting for normal daylight.
One thing to be aware of is that just correcting the white balance is not the same as using a color profile that applies a correction across the color spectrum. To see how much of a difference this would make, I saved the simple white balance correction and the full SpyderCHECKR color correction as separate presets. The differences in the color squares were subtle but distinct. I'm not showing separate images for each correction here, since the differences really are quite subtle and because most of the people viewing these images on the web are probably using uncalibrated monitors anyway which would make any comparison even harder (color calibrating your monitor could be the subject of another whole article all by itself).
Here's an example in which I lit Boo Boo with artificial light to illustrate the kind of stark color difference that can exist between artificial and natural light sources. Again, I was using the default white balance setting for normal daylight, so the shift towards the red end of the visible spectrum is really apparent. Had I instead used the Tungsten white balance setting, I would have gotten a more realistic color rendering, but still likely not as accurate across the entire color spectrum as you can get using the color correction preset generated using the SpyderCHECKR card and software.
One other thing worthy of note, is that when I compare side-by-side, the two corrected images captured under different lighting conditions, the colors are remarkably consistent, which is exactly what you want. Imagine for example, that you are a fashion photographer shooting a model wearing a beautiful, colored gown that is to be featured in a print ad. As the photo shoot transitions during the day, from bright sunlight to the much warmer colors of sunset and maybe even to artificial lights after dark - the color temperature of the ambient light will be varying throughout the shoot and the last thing the photographer (or her client) wants is for the model's gown to be a different color in every shot of the final spread.
Overall, I would say that this is a really excellent product because it makes color correction in post-processing a great deal easier and more accurate than simply using a gray card and setting the white balance. The instructions for using the card and the software are clear and easy to follow, and I particularly like the fact that the SpyderCHECKR card comes bundled with its own very intuitive software for automatically generating the color correction preset.
In conclusion then, the SpyderCHECKR 24 really is a great tool for handling this vital first step in the color management workflow from capture to print. It currently retails for around US $50 (including the license for the software that must be downloaded separately) and is available for purchase from Hunt's Photo and Video.
UPDATE: As part of a special promotion, Hunt's Photo & Video is offering readers of this blog a 10% discount on the SpyderCHECKR24. Just follow the links above to get the special price. If you prefer to order your SpyderCHECKR by phone, you can also talk to the very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful staff at Hunt's store by calling (800) 221-1830 and using the promo code plUwz to purchase it over the phone.
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