Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Seeing Red or rather Magenta

Digital photography introduces one to new challenges. These challenges existed with film as well, but depending on whether you processed your own negatives or let someone else, you could remain blissfully ignorant. The challenge every digital photographer faces is color management. Sure color varied between film; for example, Fuji versus Kodak produced different hues of blue, but depending on your preference you just chose a different film.

With digital photography, color varies by make/model. Nikons have deficient green saturation. Canons have deficient red saturation. Each RAW converter (software used to manipulate the data captured by a digital SLR and some point-and-shoot cameras) and preview software renders colors, handles noise (discussion on Adobe Forums regarding change in noise handling between Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) 4.0 and ACR 4.1), and sharpens (or doesn’t sharpen) differently as well. (Some of the hassles arise from proprietary, undocumented Codecs--for example, Microsoft Vista can show Canon styles because of the Canon Codec, but ACR and Lightroom can't because they don't license the Codec) Point updates of software also treat images differently. The LCD panels on cameras, laptops, LCD monitors, plasma monitors, printers, and so on all display color differently. Color management becomes a necessary evil that, if lucky, you deal with once a month for your laptop and monitor, each time you install a firmware update or RAW software update, and each time you shoot.

Sometime between the beginning of November and now, my preferred RAW converter changed the way it handled my RAW files (multiple variables could be at play here - reinstallation of ACR which wipes out default settings, changed color calibration, and a new software version 4.3). I prefer to use ACR 4 over Digital Photo Professional (DPP) for processing the CR2 files my Canon 30D outputs. I regularly shoot in low-light conditions without flash and under stage lights. This environment creates red channel challenges for me.

At each venue, I try to accurately set the white balance, ISO setting, and exposure so that I don’t oversaturate the red and so that skin tones appear healthy. To ensure that I’m getting good images, I check the JPEG thumbnail and histogram in my camera’s LCD. I change the settings if something looks amiss. Later when I’m back home, as my photos upload from my camera to my Mac, I peek at the images using ImageBrowser just to get an overview of how much post-processing I’ll need to do.

This is what I did when I reviewed shots from the Red Devil Lounge taken December 22. I was excited that all the performers had a nice healthy glow despite the harsh red and blue spotlights. Imagine my horror when I later previewed the images in Adobe Bridge and saw the healthy tones changing to Magenta before my eyes. I hadn’t used Adobe Bridge/Camera Raw since replacing my Design Premium collection with the Master collection and installing the latest updates (I had been preoccupied with recovering files from a failed Western Digital MyBook hard drive). I’d heard and read that others had issues with Canon 30D CR2 files in Bridge/Camera Raw and was thankful I hadn’t run into the problem. Now, I was living the same nightmare and searching the forums (Canon’s, Adobe’s, general Digital Photography sites) for answers. This thread has existed since May when Adobe Creative Suite 3 was released, yet there are still no answers. This dilemma speaks to the fact that digital photography is still an emerging science and that technology is moving at a faster pace than the hardware and software vendors can handle. It also reinforces the necessity of backing up original RAW files so that you can go back to them when you need to rework your workflow.

For the time being, I’m temporarily going to forego using ACR as suggested by others in this same situation and experiment with DPP. I will experiment with developing my own set of ACR presets to use for various ISO/light conditions. I might also even download a trial copy of Aperture to see if Apple can process Canon RAW files better than Adobe does (my hope is that Apple, like Microsoft, licensed Canon's Codec).

Addendum 01-02-08
: ACR is correctly displaying my images. I'm inconsistently applying color profiles and had set Adobe Photoshop's color settings improperly. Luckily the browsers I'd been using and my friends had been using to view the photos aren't color managed so the oversaturated red never appeared.