Photography for Art Color Control; White Balance and Calibration

Color can vary a little to a lot from camera to monitor to printer to browser, etc.

You’ve been to a tv store and noticed differences in display color, right?

How do you know which is displaying accurate color? If you’re watching a movie, it isn’t so important. If you’re presenting your painting to a jury or prospective collector, it could be very important!

First calibrate your display. Computer screens and monitors have adjustments for calibration. Consult your owners manual or Google your model for instructions. Shown here is Apple’s built-in calibration application.

When you are confident your monitor is calibrated, you can adjust color from your photo file with confidence. If you are working from an already shot file, start by adjusting the photo’s white balance. Even basic photo software does this. Shown here is Apple Photos.

Find white balance eyedropper in your photo-editing app. Shown here is Apple Photo. You may have to hunt for the eyedropper, but most photo apps have it. Select neutral grey for the eyedropper and find what you know to be a neutral color in the photo to click on.

Neutral white balance. Notice how the color cast is now neutral in the grays and whites.

When setting up to shoot art photos, first set the white balance on your camera to the lighting conditions your shooting in. A good place to shoot paintings is outdoors in the shade (to avoid glare and hot-spots).

When your display is calibrated and your photo is white balanced, evaluate your image on the display against the art piece you shot. Be sure the lighting your viewing the art piece in is approximately 5,000˚K, (print and graphics industry standard for viewing color). Nowadays most light bulbs list the temperature of light in ˚K (degrees Kelvin). At this point, adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, highlight and shadow, etc. as needed. If “color” is not close between display and art piece, something needs correction in earlier calibration.

If you want a very high accuracy of color match, you’ll want to set your camera white balance manually to shooting environment with a grey card (mid to high-end cameras have this control), and you’ll want to calibrate your monitor with a display calibrator. I use the Datacolor Spyder Pro.

Color theory is complex and photography can get complex. Particularly when working with additive and subtractive color (paint and cmyk print subtracts light and reflects, RGB displays add light by transmitting). Then there is bottomless editing software like photoshop. Whew! An archival degree of accuracy may or may not be important to you, but I do recommend at least familiarizing yourself with the basics of calibration and white balance I introduce here. I also recommend, as artists, speaking the language of color is important. I’ll speak directly to that in another post.