Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

The Art of Raw Conversion #020


RAW Converters and "good" colors?

note by Uwe Steinmueller (12/2/2005)


With all of today's popular RAW converters we get a lot of discussions about color quality. Unfortunately the problem seems not to be as trivial as some may think.

Let's go back a few years and look at film. If we would photograph the same scene with the same light with Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia, Kodak Kodachrome and Kodak Ektachrome we would get very (and I mean very(!)) different colors. Let's assume we would have today's news groups then we would read "Kodak/Fuji has no idea about correct colors". And did we mention skin tones? In all probability, both companies have employed the best color scientists in their field. Now let's assume the engineers would take this critique to heart and create a very truthful film (these films even exist) then others would cry "boring colors" or "where is my saturation". These engineers tried to develop films that pleased as many photographers as possible.

What did photographers do in those old days? They would buy the film of their choice (and even use different films depending on their scene). In the end there were as many color preferences as photographers but only a few different films to choose from. These photographers knew that just complaining would not get them a film they liked. So they used filters and light to create what they wanted.

These were the old days. Today with digital all is perfect :-).

The truth is that your digital camera is now kind of camera and film at the same time. At least when you photograph JPEG. Some may think that we fortunately have RAW to get closer to the truth.

If you look at RAW you get kind of a latent color slide. But the camera doesn't even capture real RGB colors because the colors get interpreted by the RAW converter. This means all RAW converters do this slightly different. To get reasonable colors (what ever that may be) the RAW converter needs to profile the cameras and transform the colors into something that photographers like. Again all RAW converters have a different way to do this and this means they also they have a different bias as to what those colors look like.

Most photographers don't even want correct colors (Kodak and Fuji would not sell any film if that were true) but colors they like. To make things worse there are the following issues to consider (list certainly not complete):

  • Light
  • Mixed light sources
  • Contrast
  • Brightness
  • Viewing light (of original scene and photograph)
  • Saturation
  • White balance settings

No profile can be judged without reflecting all these factors (mainly WB, contrast, saturation and brightness). We want it simple but unfortunately colors are not as simple as it seems. With film we were shielded from this problem because we had no control. Now we have the control and have to solve this issue for ourselves.

Note: We're not even talking about the different ways we are able to see colors (many of us are to some extent color blind).

Some may say why not just trust your eyes? That can get very complicated. Oour eyes/brain fool us quite a bit because they auto white balance a scene. Let us look at a very extreme situation:

Lower Antelope Canyon

When you are down in the Canyon you don't really see the blue light because the eyes white balance for us. But if you look at a photograph the white border would be the reference and the blue shows up. In this case we are happy about the bluish tone but in other cases we may not like what we see (remember we often have mixed light, e.g. sun and sky).

This means that today's RAW converters with their generic profiling will never please all users. What to do?

  • Experiment with alternative RCs (try before you buy). For some pictures RC 1 may work and for others RC 2.
  • Tune the colors in Photoshop,
  • Some RCs like Capture One have powerful selective color corrections built in,
  • Create your own profiles for a certain lighting situation (unfortunately not really that trivial).
  • Buy alternative profiles.

Does this mean that we would not like to see improvements in terms of colors in today's RCs? Not at all. But we also know that this is not a trivial task. You can either wait for a perfect world or make the best out of it. Especially tricky are skin tones. They are even more difficult to talk about since they are also:

  • Highly subjective
  • Need a lot of personal experience how you want them
  • Depends on cultural elements

With every new RC we get the same discussions about the colors (especially skin tones). The best way to improve the situation is to find ways improving the RC profiling. This will allow to find a good starting point for your photos. But assuming the developers are ignorant or lazy does not cut it.

Note: You also might find it interesting that profiling experts will come up with quite different profiles for the same camera and RC (look at the profiles or calibrations offered for some of the RCs). More often than not they even offer different profiles with different levels of saturation. We tried to create own profiles. The main problem is even lighting of the target without any reflections. We have often improved some colors to our taste while other colors suffered (in different lighting situations).

We find there are two schools of photographers today:

  • Those who think measuring gets them closer to the truth. The problem can be that the real world colors are not the same as photographing test charts. Outdoor light is challenging. In the end this maybe a good way to improve your work. However be careful that you don't only take photographs of test charts :-).
  • Those that are happy with a highly subjective color balance (we are part of this camp).

For all of these reasons we never do color tests with any RAW converter. On the other side we have gotten results that in the end pleased us with most of them.

What is important is to try a new software and only to buy if you like it. On the other side having more than one RC helps as there is probably no single RC that works best for all images.

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