Last week, I had a paying gig at a wedding reception. (The wedding had been held the month before in Las Vegas.) I was there to mainly do candid shots of the reception guests; but before all the guests showed up, I suggested we do some quick formal portraits.
There was only one problem; the only clear area of the venue was a dark corner. It being early evening, there was also sunlight coming into the room through high windows. Although the sunlight wasn’t illuminating the room or the corner where I was shooting, the decoration was sufficiently light for there to be some reflected light scatter. I was working with on-camera flash, with a diffuser, and at first sight the pictures looked useable.
I hadn’t reckoned on the new kit back at base. I’d only completed installing a new monitor the night before, and I hadn’t been pleased with the colour balance on it. My previous monitors had never given me any problems in that area; what little colour variation I’d noticed between pictures as displayed and prints I’d made had been well within tolerances; so when I looked at this monitor’s display and gone “Yuk!”, I’d gone straight to the Windows colour calibration script to try to make things less worse. It’s not an easy script to work with – their grey scales were particularly difficult to balance – but I thought I’d got it something like OK and certainly close enough for the reception photos.
Well, when I got home and put the pictures up on the screen on the Sunday, they looked pretty bad. Obviously, my colour balancing hadn’t cured things. Moreover, trying to use the colour adjustments in Photoshop didn’t really work. I tried adjusting the skin tones by taking some magenta out of the red channel, but the pictures very quickly showed up the scattered evening sunlight, making everyone look jaundiced.
I had arranged to deliver on Tuesday evening, so on Monday, I sat down in daylight and re-calibrated the monitor. This time, I thought I’d got better results. And the rest of the evening’s pictures looked OK; once the guests started to arrive, I’d moved out of the dark corner and the light was quite good, with flash working as fill-in whilever the natural light was strong, and with a smooth transition to full flash supplementing the room lighting as darkness fell.
Tuesday morning, I turned to the printer to make the complementary sample prints I always give customers. The first one of the formal group pictures rolled off the printer, and it was dreadful. Everything was wrong about it. Obviously the colour balance on the monitor was still wrong. The candid shots were OK; only the formal portraits were unacceptable.
I quickly set to and re-did the pictures. It took up a morning I was going to use making prints for myself and for resale, but there was no alternative. After a morning’s work, I had results which I felt were acceptable. The client was satisfied, too.
So the moral of the story is this: don’t ignore colour calibration. Just because it’s been satisfactory up to now, never assume that things will still be good enough for a special job, especially when you’ve had new kit. Never assume that the factory settings represent some sort of “middle-of-the-road” value (or , for that matter, that the kit will work straight out of the box. I once was off the Web for a fortnight whilst I tried to track down a mysterious modem fault, which turned out to be a £3.99 connector I’d brought new from Maplins failing straight out of the box). Always try to get a shake-down period with new kit. Always assume that the more high-profile the job, the more the tendency for things to go wrong. It’s the Law. Sod’s Law.
And if I ever get a job at that venue again, I’ll suggest very strongly to the client that they get there half an hour early, and I’ll get there half an hour before that and set up my studio lights.
Colour calibration kit is on its way to me even now. That’s one mistake I won’t make again.
Meanwhile, here’s a picture that might show a rather basic Dalek spare parts dealer…