Friday, December 10, 2010

Using X-Rite ColorChecker Passport in Lightroom 3 to Edit Portraits

Photo Courtesy of B&H

Have you ever noticed that the biggest problem with doing white balancing is that typically the end result is a bit dull? See my ExpoDisc article for a good example of various techniques that all offer accurate white balance, but nothing that is visually outstanding.

We want “good” color, but that doesn’t always translate to 100% accurate color. Since good is subjective, the color masters at X-Rite have come up with a fantastic solution to solve this problem – the ColorChecker Passport.

Even though I have seen images on the web and on X-Rite’s web site, I’ll admit that I really didn’t know what the ColorChecker Passport really does. When I got mine and opened it up I saw a lot of pretty colored squares then I changed the page and saw a grey card (hey, I know what that is!) and then I saw business card looking document that certifies the quality of my ColorChecker (huh?). Okay, now what?

See it in action

The box cover and web site for ColorChecker Passport shows a girl holding one and I’ve seen videos and screen shots of people taking photos of models holding one of these, but I still wasn’t quite sure how it worked. In this case a video is worth a thousand words, so check this out to see what I mean:

The video above is great because it shows the end to end solution in action (best viewed in an external window).

Creating a DNG Camera Profile from Lightroom

Camera Calibration supports custom camera profiles as shown above

The reason why you want to create a DNG Camera Profile is so that you can have an entry show in in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom under the Camera Profiles section as shown above. This allows you to apply that profile to most or all for photos to get a good starting point for your images (way better than using the white balance eye dropper tool). Click the image above to see our new entry that will be created in this section.

Step 1 – Choose File Export or the appropriate preset

If you chose File Export you will get this intimidating looking dialogue, but it is really only asking you for the name of the profile you are creating. Choose your names carefully!

Export X-Rite Presets

If your image wasn’t suitable for creating a profile, you will get this message:


but if you did everything right you’ll be glad to see this message:


You can tell by the ColorChecker Passport in the photo below that the color is very accurate and when you hover over the image you’ll see the photo before the camera profile has been applied. Move your mouse in and out to see before/after differences where you will see the color shift.  There is a tungsten light cast on the hat that is just my error, so ignore that as no tool (that I’m aware of) can easily compensate for a scenario that requires two light balances.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Accurate Color with DNG Profile created using
ColorChecker Passport

Assuming you have a calibrated display that is displaying the sRGB colorspace properly (wide gamut will be WAY over saturated), you should notice that the final edited version of this file is not very accurate – in fact, it is way off – but if you ignore the color checker some might say that isn’t a bad thing. The idea here is that color management is important for getting you on a accurate starting point,and some may wish to carry that theme all the way through the photo.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
After Subjective Editing in Lightroom 3 Only
Nik Software and Imagenomic Portraiture Add-ins

Some might find it somewhat worthwhile to just click the 18% gray swatch after their edits to bring the colors closer in line to reality, but you can see by the color checker that because this isn’t a raw file then that level of detail is lost. Perhaps the colors improve with the 18% gray click, but they are still way off.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
After Subjective Editing and clicking the 18% Gray
patch with the white balance eye dropper tool

Which is right? Neither & both – it’s subjective. Some will find both repulsive as they are inaccurate color, some will like the top and some will like the bottom image. What you do know is that you now have a tool to help you to see how you are deviating from the true colors.

Skin Tone (Portrait) White Balance Adjustment

Have you ever done a white balance adjustment and thought your photo look worse afterwards? You are not alone because 18% gray may be great for getting an accurate white balance for your image, accurate doesn’t mean visually appealing.

In the the table below I’ve sampled a white balance from each of the skin tone/studio white balance targets as well as the default 18% gray target to show the difference each has on the skin of the model. Which one is best is a subjective discussion because accurate and visually pleasing are generally mutually exclusive.

What you will notice is that as you make your skin tone pleasing the rest of your image goes to hell, so I’ll show later how to deal with that issue.

You may click the photos for a larger version AND you can click the hyperlinks to see what square I clicked in Lightroom.

Default Balance Adjustment

Portrait WB 1

Portrait WB 2

Portrait WB 3

Portrait WB 4

Portrait WB 5

From what I hear from some friends who use the ColorChecker Passport is that they generally prefer the white balance 2 setting (two from bottom or left depending on how you have oriented your passport in the shot). For this shoot I chose 5 because I really liked the skin tone of the arms for this model.

It should be noted that the blocks right next to the skin tones are for landscapes, so this same technique can be use to get a more visually appealing landscape result. Here’s a video link that shows how this works.

Nik Software’s Viveza 2 to the Rescue

After getting the white balance set properly from Lightroom I ended up with a great skin tone, but everything else sucked. To correct this without using Photoshop, you can use Nik Software’s Viveza which allows you to drop U-Point controls (aka control points) to mask out parts of the image so you can only  change the things you are interested in without worrying about creating masks around difficult things like hair.

Edit in Viveza directly via Lightroom

Since this image was just for the web,
I exported it as a 8-bit sRGB. That’s not recommend
for a typical workflow. 16-bit ProPhoto is better.

As you can see from the U-Point control below, I just placed one on the background and made it cover 100% of the photo and then I could make adjustments which fixed the background. I then added a couple points on the model to make sure that the background was the item being adjusted and not the model (for this modification). If you hover over the image you’ll see the mask that Viveza 2 creates for you (remember: white reveals, black conceals) to allow the background to be modified but the foreground is mostly left alone.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after One click on the background and an adjustment
will get you a nice white background again

This same technique was repeated in many places such as the white fur at the top of the dress underneath the passport. Here’s a mask showing the area edited:

Viveza 2 revealing the mask it creates behind the scenes for this U-Point control

Some tough areas such as the hat will require multiple control points that are best grouped together so that they may all be adjusted using the same values:

Control Point Groups are useful when you need a bunch of controls
in a tight area such as the fur areas on this outfit

The exact number of U-Point controls you will need depends on your photo, but for this one I used a record setting 28 controls (actually more if you count the group). Here’s an image that shows where I made some adjustments (the eyes were adjusted to brighten the iris and whites):

Finishing up with Portraiture 2 & Sharpener Pro

Once I had my colors where I wanted them it was time to have fun editing the photo. For a photo like this I would typically start by using Nik Software’s Dfine or Imagenomic Noiseware to remove the noise from this ISO 800 shot. Next up I would want to get some skin softening which could be done in Nik Software’s Color Efex using the Dynamic Skin Softener filter or by using Imagenomics killer skin softening application – Portraiture 2:

Portraiture 2 rocks for softening skin and it has great built-in masking support

After a few spot healing corrections and applying adjustment brush strokes to enhance the eyes, I felt I had done all I needed to do for this photo in Lightroom so all that was left was sharpening. I started by using Lightroom 3’s sharpening which is said to be a big improvement, but I don’t think it really is. Here’s that I settled on in Lightroom (cranking it any higher gave me nasty artifacts around the shadows and eyes):

Lightroom 3.0 Sharpening still doesn’t cut it in my book

I didn’t like the results so I just went to the history window and did an undo. I then decided to use Sharpener Pro using a new TIF file so that way I could do different sharpening techniques on my edited image at some point in the future (i.e., one for print one for display). Here’s the results of my effort (which did include a U-Point control by the eye to remove sharpening in the shadows):

To my eyes, there’s no comparison – Sharpener Pro is still the best tool
on the market for sharpening your images

The Final Result (Before & After)

While this photo has some defects that I’d typically fix if I were using Photoshop, you can see that there’s a huge difference between the before and after below:

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after 
Before and After using only ColorChecker Passport,
Lightroom 3,
Nik Software and Imagenomic Portraiture Add-ins

These results were good enough for me, so I called it a night. It’s pretty impressive what you can do in only Lightroom with add-ins these days huh?

Now naturally you wouldn’t edit your subject holding the target. This was just a test shot that did, but considering the scope of this article I elected to use it. Another example from this series can be found in the article entitled Photo Thoughts: Sexy Mrs. Claus which also leveraged the ColorChecker Passport camera profile created for this article as well as this one:

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Sexy Mrs. Claus 2011

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial integrated in with my mini-review of the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport!


I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to use this tool. I found that in practice I generally take my shots and then when I’m done I do my ColorChecker Passport shot at the end because that’s the best way to avoid disrupting my workflow. Naturally when I remember, I take my passport shot first. While I love my ExpoDisc, I think that this tool offers me more of what I need and can really save time.

I highly recommend this product for those who are passionate about color accuracy.

Where to Buy

You can buy the ColorChecker Passport at B&H, Amazon, Adorama, and most local and online photography retailers.

You can pickup the Nik Software and Imagenomic products mentioned in this article at a discount on the Discount Coupon Code page.

More information

Blogging & Color Diva @ X-Rite, Brenda Hipsher, has some great resources on the web site for you. Here were my favorites:


I was provided a free ColorChecker Passport by X-Rite for the purpose of reviewing it for this article. I may also get a link if you make purchases from the retailers linked in this article.

The photos in this article are Copyright Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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mms photo said...

Thanks for this article! I just got the CC Passport for Christmas and put it through its paces today on a Pentax K-7, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5W and a Canon G11. It is so amazing the difference calibration makes. Thanks for the info on using it correctly!

Unknown said...

My name is Andrew

On the Color checker passport card, on the grayscales patches, in Lightroom, which are the optimal RGB values for: whites, blacks, and midtones?

In Lightroom on grayscales patches, witch patch is for midtones? And how can I adjust it?
With the exposure slider? Or with the highlights slider?


Unknown said...

My name is Andrew

On the Color checker passport card, on the grayscales patches, in Lightroom, which are the optimal RGB values for: whites, blacks, and midtones?

In Lightroom on grayscales patches, witch patch is for midtones? And how can I adjust it?
With the exposure slider? Or with the highlights slider?

Andrew said...

Hi Andrew,

the optimal RGB values

There's really no such thing as it's personal preference based on the the image you are working on.

The two columns down the center are gray patches that you can click on with the white balance tool in Lightroom to get a white balance that suits your artistic desire rather than one that is exactly 18% gray and "technically" accurate (which can be artistically boring).