Colour Management & Product Photography go together like cheese and biscuits. You can have one without the other but at best you risk nuance, at worst you have a mouthful of dry biscuits.

Colour Management solves a problem that bedevils all types of photography to some degree. The colour you see when you open the image in Lightroom is not the same as the colour you saw when you shot it. And here's the kicker. If you're colours are off because your screen is uncalibrated then what will look good to you will look different to other people. They will be used to seeing colours consistently even if their screen is uncalibrated 

Solutions are expensive and if you shoot in RAW then processing tools allow you a lot of freedom to correct. If you are a professional however, you quickly realise that correcting by eye is both time consuming and error prone. Neither play well when you're working for a client.

We photograph a lot of product, for some of the most demanding clients. David Austin Roses for example, are famous worldwide for the quality and colour of their roses. Their catalogues are works of art. The photography needs to reflect colours with pinpoint accuracy as the subtlety of some of their varieties is as nuanced as a fine wine on an expert palate.

When we shoot for David Austin, we have a workflow that includes rigorous colour management. We prefer to shoot on cloudy days because the light is massively diffused.  The colours of the roses look beautifully natural in such conditions. The downside is that the light constantly changes so each rose requires it's own colour reference shot. We match the colours later in software.

David Austin RosesThis is our workflow.

A disclaimer: We use DataColor across the board. Image Capturing, display calibration and even printer profiling. We are not paid to promote their products, we just think they are the best for us. X-Rite are another vendor that people recommend, very similar products with very similar prices. The most useful advice I can offer is choose one or the other. Don't mix and match.

Image Capture

We use Spyder Cube to give us accurate black, white and grey readings that we can reproduce in Adobe Lightroom. Every shot using natural light has a companion shot of the Spyder Cube. The grey reading at 18% adjusts the white balance, compensating for any casts thrown by lighting, reflections etc. The white is 96% and the black 4%. This means we can be sure that the image has the correct white balance and that the exposure relative to black and white is correct. In addition we may photograph the Spyder Checkr in order to fine tune our colours. Of course this means the screen needs to be correctly calibrated too!

Display Calibration

We calibrate our monitors before every edit with Spyder X. This hardware device plugs into a USB port and runs software that displays test colours in a sequence, collecting data to inform the necessary calibration. Our older Apple Macs drift over time. Unless you recalibrate regularly, the colour you carefully tease out in Lightroom will be off when viewed in a different monitor.

Printer Profiling

We occasionally create prints for artists. I can't imagine a more exacting category of client! I also know that matching screen output to print is fiendishly difficult. I've spent hours in the past trying to anticipate the vagaries of various printers, wasting reams of paper and gallons of ink in the process.  Finally I saw sense. The variables include the ink you use and the paper.

Spyder Print allows us to create ICC profiles - a set of data that describes precisely the profile of our Epson printers with various combinations of ink and paper. Adobe Lightroom uses an ICC profile to manage the colours from screen to print. You create a soft proof in the Develop screen, using the profile you created for your printer-paper-ink combination. This shows you what the printed picture will look like, next to your carefully processed original. Your job is now to tweak the settings until the two images match. Then print. Finally what you see is what you get.

Fine Art Photography

We see and occasionally create fine art photography that chooses to manipulate the colours. And that's great, colour is another tool in the creative artist's locker. Whilst I have benefited sometimes from random aberrations in the processing process, I do prefer to start from a place that I can be confident is a true representation of the scene I have shot. Then, if I want to go for say the ever popular orange and teal look I can be confident that there will be no unexpected colour distortion. The best way to get good colour is to start from the right place.

I hope this is useful information for fellow photographers and of course prospective clients. We pride ourselves on the accuracy of our professional work and we don't cut corners on the way to the final result. We like to deliver the best possible results.

Further Reading:

If you're thinking of setting up a home photography studio, have a helpful article here - How to Set Up a Photography Studio