Photographing and Developing Intensive Colors

This is a “technical companion” article that was originally included as some “tech notes” with the gallery of Scarlet Larkspur photos.

Photographing Intensive Colors

Any relatively pure and intensive color like this red of the Scarlet Larkspur is a problem in digital photography – the digital sensor only records luminance, which means that intensive colors are captured brighter than they actually were, because the sensor’s “red buckets” are being filled – and (very much simplified), the fill level determines brightness, and not saturation (more precisely put, chromacity isn’t independent of luminosity in digital sensors).

This is especially apparent with pure blue and red – a result of the “Bayer filter” of the sensor, which separates the incoming light into green, red, and blue. As you can see in the illustration for the Bayer filter on Wikipedia, the sensor has two green buckets for each red and blue bucket, so it is more forgiving for intensive green, and more sensitive to intensive red or blue.

What’s more, the camera’s histograms aren’t really reliable: if your camera has separate luminance and individual R/G/B histograms, the red channel might be indicating color clipping when there actually isn’t any. And if you then use exposure compensation, you’re actually making things worse, because now you’re gathering less highlight data for the smooth color gradients in intensive colors.

This remains one of the most annoying problems in digital photography: the histograms are derived from the camera’s internal JPEG preview image (even when you’re only capturing raw data). They simply are not an accurate representation of the raw data. Setting the camera’s internal JPEG engine to a “flat” or “neutral” tone curve (and perhaps further reducing contrast/brightness) helps a bit to render flatter JPEGs that don’t trigger the highlight warning when there really is no highlight clipping – but it’s a crutch. You really have to experiment with your camera and learn what works and what doesn’t.

Exposure bracketing is a good idea when you’re in the field – and then look at the histograms for the raw data later, on your computer, to see what you can actually recover (or not) from highly saturated color “highlights”. When evaluating these images, it’s also important to consider different Camera Profiles because they might render colors quite differently.

Processing Intensive Colors in Lightroom

Developing these photos on the computer requires some extra attention to the color gradients as well. In Lightroom, my default profile (now part of the Develop module’s “Basic” panel, in the past it was in the “Camera Calibration” panel) is “Camera Neutral”, to give me a relatively flat starting point – but Adobe’s attempts to mimic Nikon’s own profiles sometimes fall short when it comes to color gradients in intensive colors.

Sunsets and sunrises would be one example, especially when the sun is just around the horizon (above or below) and you’re working with intensive red, orange and yellow colors in smooth gradients (you want to avoid banding artifacts in those gradients). Flowers like the Scarlet Larkspur with its intensive red are another, obviously. For these photos, I sometimes switch to the “Adobe Standard” profile* – it has a better rendition of intensive colors, preserving detail where the “Camera matching” profiles only show areas of unified, washed-out red blotches (and this happens even though Lightroom does not indicate any color clipping at all).

The problem then of course is that Adobe’s color rendition isn’t matching the camera’s sensor and color temperatures/tint (from auto white balance). What is actually violet will come out as deep blue or magenta, depending on the situation (example with color profile comparison). And this mismatch of Adobe’s profile and the camera/sensor turned the Scarlet Larkspur’s “bright red with a hint of orange” color into a deeper red with a magenta hint.

Now I normally don’t care too much about color accuracy because developing photos on the computer is a creative process to me, not a documentary one – studying wildflowers is an exception. You can adjust the white balance to compensate, but in these situations, I often make adjustments in Lightroom’s “HSL” panel. For the larkspur photos above, I applied a slight shift of the red into orange, and increased the red luminance a little bit as well.

The result looks pretty good to me now, but then again – I photographed these flowers two days ago on an overcast morning. Their colors probably look a little different at different times of the day and under direct sunlight, of course. And who knows what tricks our own eyes play on us? A person that loves red wildflowers may find my photographic representation of these colors not accurate, perhaps. :-)


*) update: the default profile in Lightroom 9 is “Adobe Color” now, and not “Adobe Standard” anymore. Unfortunately, Adobe decided to give contrast a slight bump in “Adobe Color”, and red/orange/yellow gradients do not render as smoothly in “Adobe Color” for me as they do in “Adobe Standard”. This may be camera specific, of course.

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Alexander S. Kunz is an expert, tutor and teacher for Adobe Lightroom in San Diego, California. His services are available both in person and online, using remote assistance/screen sharing software. Whether you're stuck with a problem in Lightroom and need help, want to learn Lightroom from the ground up, or need assistance setting up your computer, storage and backup for your photographic workflow - Alexander can help you. Please get in touch if you are interested!

All images and content © by Alexander S. Kunz, unless otherwise noted. No re-use without express written permission.

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