X-Rite ColorChecker Passport – Test and Review
First off, a quick history on the ColorChecker:
“The Munsell ColorChecker—first produced as the Macbeth ColorChecker in 1976 and still widely known as the Gretag Macbeth ColorChecker—a cardboard-framed arrangement of twenty-four squares of painted samples based on Munsell colors. Its maker Munsell Labs and parent Gretag Macbeth were acquired in 2006 by X-Rite, a color management and colorimetry company.”
Color chart. Wikipedia. Retrieved Dec. 08, 2009, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ColorChecker
Today it is used as a reference for color in both film and photography and it continues to be an accepted standard. But original cardboard versions are still quite expensive, large and easily damaged. It also needed to be kept safely in a plastic sleeve and kept out of direct light to avoid bleaching the colored squares. In comes the more durable, extremely compact and multi-talented X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.
The ColorChecker Passport is 3 1/2″ x 5″ plastic compact similar in shape to what a woman might carry in her purse for touching up makeup. (I half expected a mirror inside to fix my hair on-location.) The Passport is also a very thin at less than 3/8″ at it’s thickest point making it easy to find space for this in your camera bag or even in your pocket. As an added convenience, it comes with a very long lanyard with a quick release on the end. This makes it easy to carry around your neck or use the lanyard to hang the Passport somewhere while you frame it for a test photo. The long edge of the case is hinged and has stops that lock into place at several positions including flat or folded backwards so the unit can be set on a level surface. When fully opened, it will stand on its own in just about any position. Setting up a reference shot is quick and easy in just about any situation or location. (Though I do find it hard to open with one hand so you may need two hands free to operate it.)
When you open the ColorChecker Passport, you will see that it includes the standard 24 Munsell color patches on one side, on the other half it includes an additional 8 neutral squares to assist in correct exposure. Four patches are spaced closely from light gray to white and four from dark gray to almost black. These can be used to evaluate your exposure of the ColorChecker. (Or the scene in general if you are using it in a test shot.) If the patches in each group cannot be distinguished from each other, the exposure may be off and you can easily make an adjustment to correct this and try again. (Correct exposure of the chart is necessary for proper profile creation.) Below that it has a white point target with 10 squares that can be used to easily and slightly vary the white point from cooler to warmer. And a color chart wouldn’t be complete without the last 8 squares which include primary and secondary colors. (Both additive and subtractive primary and secondary colors. – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, Violet, Magenta)
If you haven’t already noticed, the ColorChecker Passport is actually three pieces. The center can hinge either way and on the flip side of the center is a large neutral block for use as a camera white balance target. This is the same exact tone as the neutral gray white point on the ColorChecker side of the card except much larger. This can be used to set a custom white balance in-camera for proper color balance at capture. (More on that another time.) And on the opposite side of the case, it has space to write down your name and the date it was first used. (X-Rite recommends you replace the targets every two years.)
The ColorChecker Passport also includes its own software which can also be downloaded and used manually with any size ColorChecker for free from X-Rite. The software allows for automated camera profile creation from within Adobe Lightroom for use with Adobe products that support Adobe Camera RAW. If you don’t use Lightroom or have trouble with the automated process, you can also export a camera RAW file to a DNG (also a RAW format) and load that directly into the ColorChecker software and manually generate camera profiles.
Wait, what is a camera profile? Ahh… Well not unlike profiling your display, printer or even specific papers, profiling your camera is just as important of a step in the chain to get proper color from capture to output. Without a camera calibration, the software is only guessing at what the color should look like under that lighting according to very general use color profiles. This would be like asking someone to go buy you red paint at the store when what you really wanted was a deep crimson red. Who knows what they’ll bring back or how close it may be to what you actually wanted. They didn’t have anything to go by so they did their best to guess what you might have wanted. And to make matters worse, different types of lighting have a different spectrum which makes some colors more intense than others. Even with a proper white balance in-camera, this does not properly compensate for odd light sources very well. This is where the ColorChecker and a camera calibration makes everything better.
Currently, not many RAW processing programs allow for camera calibration but I do believe that it will become more of a standard feature as digital photography advances further. However, one of the most widely used vendors for image processing (Adobe) does allow for calibration and even includes its own tools. (More on that below.) Adobe has what it calls the “Camera Calibration” tab under the Lightroom Develop module and inside of the Camera RAW dialog in other applications such as Photoshop. This has a drop-down menu of default camera profiles for the camera used as well as any custom profiles you have created for this camera. This list includes things like ACR 5.x, ACR 4.x, Adobe Standard and any other Adobe created profiles that may apply to your camera model. In my case it also has a list of psudo-Nikon profiles that you can use to emulate the built-in camera modes and/or profiles from Nikons own Capture NX RAW processing software. What we are going to do here is make a profile for a specific condition and it will show up in this list making it easy to access later.
Here is the screen from the X-Rite provided software if you choose to manually generate your own camera profiles from a DNG file. The software is very simple, just a window to drag and drop your file into. It will load and show in the center and attempt to automatically detect the color checker in the frame. I’ve found that even with the color checker nearly filling the frame and in perfect focus, it has a hard time finding it. Perhaps this is just a software bug or perhaps I am simply doing it wrong, either way it is very easy to manually add the points. To do it manually, simply zoom in to the ColorChecker and add a point in the corners where the square brackets are. Once you have all four corners marked, it will display boxes to help you line up the squares better if necessary. Simply drag each corner around until the boxes are properly centered over the squares on your ColorChecker. Once that is done, simply click “Create Profile” and it will ask you to name the profile and it will do everything else. If your exposure on the target is off too bad or the squares are not properly lined up, the software will give you an error message. Otherwise it will finish and give you a message that indicates you should close and reopen any programs that you will use the profile with and it should show up. (Make sure your profile naming makes sense to you! It will save you a lot of headaches later.)
However, Adobe also provided us with a free tool (downloaded from Adobe) called the DNG Profile Editor. It is currently in Beta form but I find that it works just fine. The Adobe program allows for FULL MANUAL control over the color profiles AND it also allows for automated profile creation using…. you guessed it… a ColorChecker. In fact, it works perfectly with the ColorChecker Passport. Simply go to the “Chart” tab, load a DNG file with your ColorChecker in the frame. Then simply drag the colored dots to the corresponding colored square on your image and click “Create Color Table”. This will give you a fun little chart of each color and even show you a comparison of before and after colors. You can click on the dots to manually edit the sliders for each point or go with the automatic adjustments. Lastly, I suggest skipping straight to File > Export Profile. Again, save the file with a name that makes sense to you later as this will be the name it shows up as within Lightroom and/or Adobe Camera RAW.
What I have found after doing some tests of my own is that the Adobe DNG Profile Editor does a much better job at creating a very good camera profile, even with very unusual lighting such as the warm color temperature CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs in my kitchen. Here is an example of the ColorChecker next to a QP 201 card and a Kodak gray card. (Keep in mind that the Kodak card is used for exposure reference and is not intended for use as a white balance target.) I generated a custom white balance in-camera prior to taking the picture and metered the lighting with a Sekonic L-558R meter and manually set the camera for the exposure based on the incident readings. Since everyone elses display will vary, this examples will not look the same to you as I see, but I can tell based on my comparisons on the screen and in person is that the version with the Adobe DNG custom camera profile looks the most accurate to the actual tone of the wood when viewed under daylight.
I have found some situations that not even a ColorChecker nor a custom white balance can correct for. In fact, the color temperature and spectrum from the street light outside of my home is so unusual that it maxes out the white balance tool before colors even begin to come into range. But for every other lighting I threw at it including mixed lighting, the ColorChecker Passport passes the test (when used with the Adobe DNG Editor).
The question now is, is it for everyone? And the answer to that is mixed. Yes, I would suggest it for anyone who needs a white balance target or those who strive for accurate, matching colors all of the time. If you are a JPEG shooter only, you can still use it as a reference target and for setting custom white balance in-camera. If you are that person who runs around and just takes pictures with little regard to exposure, focus or shoot on auto, this isn’t for you. If you work with multiple cameras at the same time or are shooting in a mixed light environment, this can save you a lot of headache later as it will allow you to very easily match up the color of multiple cameras even from different brands.
And very detailed information from Adobe on how to use the Adobe Profile Editor: Adobe.com – DNG Profiles : Editor
A little more information on custom camera profiles and a link to download the Adobe Profile Editor: Adobe.com – DNG Profiles : Camera Profiles and DNG Profile Editor
When and how to use it? Watch my videos… Don’t forget to click HD and view full screen for best quality playback.
My video review of the ColorChecker Passport:
How to create a custom camera profile with the ColorChecker Passport: