Learn How to Use a Color Checker in Two Minutes

If you're using a color checker to only correct white balance, then you're not getting the most out of it. A color checker is the only way to replicate true to life skin tones accurately.

I write articles and blogs that I wished existed when I first started photographing people. Achieving accurate skin tones was one of those. Unfortunately, most YouTube videos spent 45 minutes discussing and dissecting color checkers and somewhere in-between the science behind the way our eyes interpret color and camera technology, my eyes would glaze over. So, the video above is a quick 2.5-minute video on how to accurately use the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport everyone owns and uses incorrectly.

What a Color Checker Does

There is a difference between good color and accurate color in your photographs. Most digital photographers are stuck on good color. The difference is simply this: achieving accurate color is like saying 1+1=2. Reds are red, blues are blue, etc. Using the software that X-Rite provided with their ColorChecker Passport analyzes the color checker in your image for overall color and tone and creates a custom DNG profile for your camera, lens, and lighting combination. This way, you can be sure that your colors are accurate to what they look like in person.

Remember, good color is not often accurate color and vice versa. Accurate color, however, can save your subject from looking too blue or too orange in an image, as you'll see in the photo below (corrected color below).

Figure 1.1

What Affects Color

  • Your Camera: Every camera has its own interpretation of accurate color, and those colors can shift from manufacturer to manufacturer, even from camera body to camera body. If you're using a color checker in your workflow, all cameras will achieve the same colors and tones in your images. It doesn't matter if you're using Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, or your iPhone. Color is color. The software that X-Rite provides analyzes the color checker in your image and creates a profile for that specific image, not what camera you're using.
  • Your Lens: Believe it or not, your lens can also impact color. Not all lenses are built equally. Depending on your lens manufacturer, quality, transmission, color, and saturation can directly be influenced. Cheaper glass is usually notorious for slight shifts in color.
  • Lighting: If you're shooting raw, there's really no reason to worry about white balance if your color temperature is set accurately to begin with. Unfortunately, our cameras do a pretty crappy job at selecting the right white balance automatically, and if you're using cheap strobes, you could see a slight shift in color from image to image.

A grey card while help you get accurate control white balance, but doesn't necessarily account for every single color in your image. A grey card accounts for the overall temperature and tint, not every color individually. Using a color checker helps you account for the individual colors as well as overall color in your image simultaneously. 

Want to learn more about the difference between a color checker and a colorimeter? Look no further.

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33 Comments

Luca Rubino's picture

I'd like to know how to use it with capture one! This is the only thing i miss from lightroom

Jeff Rojas's picture

It's simply because X-Rite uses a DNG profile and Capture One uses ICC profiles...

Luca Rubino's picture

Yes I know it. but it's weird to me thinking that you could use the color checker with few steps with may other professional apps, like Resolse DaVinci as well, and with CO, you couldn't.

http://www.colourspace.xyz/creating-camera-profiles-for-capture-one/ Good info and in cimments link to software you need offering 14 days trial.

Luca Rubino's picture

Thanks, i will try it soon. I hope to find the thing I want!

Tony Clark's picture

Good write up, I have a similar process for CaptureOne Pro. I will shoot my X-Rite Passport, determine the warmth bias desired, click on the appropriate square, make adjustments to contrast, saturation, clarity, etc., save and apply to following files. I make sure to save the file containing the Passport in case I need to go back and make adjustments. I imagine that LR allows for similar adjustments, I have Adobe CC2015.5 but prefer C1Pro.

Jeff Rojas's picture

So you're applying to "good" color, not accurate color. Everything you're doing is by eye and taste. :P

Tony Clark's picture

No, I am calibrated with a Colormunki. Every image is tweaked in one way or another but you've got to start at accurate/neutral however you phrase it.

Jeff Rojas's picture

Then you are NOT actually creating accurate color. You're creating color based on your opinion of what is correct. A color munki solely calibrates the screen... but it doesn't make sure that the file itself is color correct.

The ONLY way to achieve an accurate color is to use a color checker correctly.

You would benefit from reading my blog: http://blog.sajorffej.com/color-checker-vs-colorimeter-whats-difference/

Hey Jeff,

what do you suggest in order to make the x-rite chart (I have the passport and the "big" one) work with Capture One Pro.
The "colourspace link" above works only with a full licences of the xrite software. I only have the i1 Pro basic license (which I rarely use on my Eizo monitor anyway with the built in device).
I tried the basiccolor software but it is damn expensive and the trial did not yield good results for me. Although it is very easy to use.

Do you have some ideas ?
Right now that is the only letdown from C1P that I experience..

all the best

I belive this is a workable way , much cheeper. I found this in some comment. Please let me know if you are getting it good.
Also I notice Basiccolor had some strong suggestions about using repro type lighting a some black cloth. Maybe that can help on the results to?

You can make ICC profiles with a CC passport by using Raw Digger (the Profiling Edition) and Make Input ICC, a wrapper for ArgyllCMS, essentially. You shoot your CC passport in raw, open it in Raw Digger and use the grid tool to sample all of the patches of the CC passport- Raw Digger lets you output the data in CGATS format, ready to be read and fed into Make Input ICC.

Kirk --- images: http://kirkt.smugmug.com

Chris Ingram's picture

Jeff, you (and the other people who have reviewed this product online) make it look so simple. And I guess it really is. However, there are times where I find the results completely inaccurate. Almost always I find that the CCP software creates oversaturated results. And occasionally it seems to create very skewed colours. Sometimes it fails to recognise the chart in the image (even when it basically fills the image). So I find myself taking several shots of the chart on location, to be safe. I have also tried using Adobe's DNG Profile creator software, with varied results.

Bottom line for me is that the product, although seemingly simple and foolproof to use, is not reliable or accurate in all cases. I feel like I have a solid grasp of the workflow and am methodical about my approach. But still cannot rely on the CCP to be right all the time. At that point I use the Camera profiles in LR (as they are better than the Adobe profiles), and eyeball the rest. Not accurate, but good and pleasing to the eye.

antoine amanieux's picture

why are there so many reference colors in a color checker, why can't 1 color (18% gray for example) be enough ? if it is just a difference in accuracy due to redundancy how much more accurate? is it 20% or 0.1% ?

Nice and neat tutorial. One point is slightly inaccurate though.

The color checker must not be held in front of the subject in every case. It must be positioned so that it is LIT EVENLY BY THE KEYLIGHT (i.e. the light giving the main exposure and color to your subject).

The most common case being the one illustrated in the video where the keylight comes from above center, to be lit by the keylight, the CC is held in front of the face. But in cases where one would use side lighting for example, you would need to angle the CC towards the light. Or shoot your test shot from another position if you want to have the CC flat on the picture. If lights are gridded, pay attention too that the CC must be evenly lit (no shadow area). This is illustrated very well in Shane Hurlbut's fantastic tutorial The Illumination Experience.

Moreover, if using a gelled keylight and still want to use the CC (which might be relevant or not in some cases), the test shot needs to be taken without the gel on the keylight (otherwise it would neutralise it altogether which is not what you want).

Christian Berens's picture

I love my color checker, had it stored in my bag for a while and just started reusing it once i got back into portraits!!

I use an X-Rite colorchecker for all my portrait work. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the colorchecker have to be oriented vertically as in the attached file? Maybe it doesn't matter, but the directions specify this orientation.

Jeff Rojas's picture

It works either way... it's gotten quite a bit more intelligent. lol

Jay Jay's picture

I use the X-Rite Passport and it always warms my photo up, as opposed to leaving the temp in camera on auto.... so i rarely use is. The only time it comes in handy is when shooting in heavily temped light like indoors where the lighting temperature of the bulbs is very yellow/orange, or where it's a different color creating casts in the room/subject- the x-rite will strip that out.

Some of the newer Sekonic's use the x-rite to make their meters more accurate- i've yet to do that with mine, but it's on the list.

Helpful tip: Get a cheap credit card sized grey card and put it in your wallet. You'd be surprised how many times it'll get used since it's on you at all times.

Chris Ingram's picture

Yeah, mine gets used more for setting custom WB on location (especially for Video), than for building colour profiles in post.

Spy Black's picture

Doesn't do jack for Mk IIs and Mk IIIs. We've tried this in the studio I work in. We've tried a multitude of things, actually, with ACR and C1. The Canons just have shít color. I guess they're great for weddings and sports.

Jeff Rojas's picture

I've used it on a Mark II and Mark III. I'm guessing user error. Color is color. Doesn't matter what camera it comes out of. I've done a comparison with a 5DS, 5DMarkIII, and a D810 side by side and they're all the same.

What the algorithms are doing is interpreting the swatches of color in the image and correcting them to output their true values.... It doesn't matter what body you use.

Spy Black's picture

Nope, it's the cameras. The only thing the Colorchecker camera profile does is change the hue of the color cast, which is typically red, although there are others. Whenever we shoot anything made of wood, they come out red hot. Below is an example of how the cameras record, with Nikon under the same conditions for contrast. This cast is a bigger problem with paintings, especially oils and especially low key oil subjects.

One time some products were being shot against a gray backdrop, and although the C1 files were being neutralized, I noticed the RAW thumbnails in the finder had brown backgrounds. Not a tint of brown, the gray backdrops were BROWN. I was like, WTF? I happened to have my Panasonic GM5 M4/3 camera with me, I grabbed it and put the Pocket Wizard on it and took a shot. The RAW GM5 files were near perfectly balanced.

Although typically the cameras are set to flash WB (Speedtrons are the studio lights), we tried daylight, auto, and even futzed with custom settings. Although the daylight setting gave the best results, everything had a cast.

Oddly, other times the Canons impose a color cast based on the predominant color in the scene, so if you (for instance) have a blue subject, the gray or while backdrop will have a blue tinge, etc. Further complicating this is that the phenomenon is intermittent. Sometimes the cameras are balanced. It's like Russian Roulette.

Colorchecker charts always look great however. Go figure.

Although this bugs the hell out of me, I can't complain really because I'm the retoucher cleaning up this mess, so these cameras pay my rent. :-) I still find all this utterly weird.

Would this work to achieve accurate colors when photographing plants and flowers? I've struggled with getting the colors correct for my mom's nursery. So far, she has nixed every photo I've taken!

Jeff Rojas's picture

Absolutely! The only difference is the subject matter. Color wouldn't make a difference in that instance. :)

Jeff Rojas's picture

Anytime! Thanks for watching! :D

I haven't jumped on getting one of these just yet. Does it work in Photoshop, and if so, in a similar fashion? I use Photoshop for the majority of my photo editing, rarely use Lightroom (although I know its a powerful program and I'll probably learn it better soon).

Does anyone have experience using a colorchecker for photographing landscapes and / or architecture? Would it be useful for those subjects?

Anonymous's picture

To my understanding the color checker needs to be located in your scene to get the exact light as your subject.

I guess it would be rather cumbersome if you try to photograph a (morning/evening) lit mountain / skyscraper while being your self in a place where the sun doesn't reach (yet).

IMHO, it is more important to achieve pleasing colors than being 99,xx(?) % convinced that the color is accurate.

Anonymous's picture

sounds interesting but leaves me with couple of questions:
1) How sure can I be that I really got accurate colors? I.e. what are the error margins in the production of the color checker and the SW, which creates the profile(s)
2) Even with controlled lighting, would I have to repeat the procedure of each lighting setting? Otherwise I cannot be sure that the lights don't have different color casts at different power settings? You mention yourself that cheap strobes might vary in color every single shot..
3) Lights do age with time (as a computer screen does). How often should that procedure be repeated? Every photo session?
4) Even if the light sources are/have not changed, this workflow seems to apply only if nothing else than artificial light (which I can control) is used: daylight varies with time and on an partly cloudy day even rather quickly. How to handle such situations? I.e. outdoor portraits with accurate color, will be difficult to achieve due to changing light.
5) How would I be able to use the color checker in e.g. landscape / street / nature photography where no model can help to make a photo of the color checker?

All in all, those questions let me believe that it is far more important to have a calibrated workflow where the white balance (and therefore the color cast) is set in such a way that the colors are rendered in such a way that people/customers consider the colors right and thus give a pleasing photo.

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