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Color Correction of product images

I love doing color correction for online stores because there are strict rules and little space for being "creative". Unlike artistic retouching, where there are no restrictions on color grading and visual effects, product image retouching, as the name implies, is meant to sell products, and one of its most important goals is to transfer products to customers via computer or mobile screens. When customers see products online, they perceive color, shape, and texture, and our task here is to maintain a close resemblance to the real products. As for the color correction, it means that we have no liberty to change the color, tone or contrast up to the extent where it leads to wrong impressions. We can’t make red items purple just because we think it looks better that way. So there are some very serious restrictions on how far we can go when we do color correction for e-commerce product images.

Prepress and web

Product photo retouching for online stores is a relatively new kind of business that only became possible because of rapid internet development. But retouching existed long before that, it was just not intended to be used for the web, it was revolving around the prepress industry. But as the web grew and became more and more popular, people stopped buying so many magazines and switched to the online entertainment.

Many prepress technicians switched to the world wide web as well to follow the global trend. Problem is, they brought their knowledge of color correction from prepress, and the deal is the matter is completely different. You can see it pretty often even now. When people want their images in inches with a particular resolution instead of pixels, when they think in CMYK and talk about CMYK, when they use rather complicated ways to sharpen images, when they refer to books from the nineties all the time – all despite the fact the images in question will never ever be printed.

In product photos retouching, a vast prepress experience can become a disadvantage if you can't switch from paper to screen in your mind. Color correction for the web is a completely different thing. RGB is different from CMYK, and when we use it we have other problems. While the main goal in printing stays matching a single screen image to a print, color correction for the web has to deal with millions of different screens, all showing different images. People that come from prepress sometimes see web images as prints, and this might be a source of problems for retouchers and especially for color correctors.

Color matching

The question of color matching arises as soon as we start thinking about how to preserve and transfer the “real” color of products in the process of color correction. And somehow, when people think about it, they come to the conclusion that color matching is a good way to do it. By color matching, I mean the process when someone tries to match the product color in the image to the real product's color. The real product should be available to the color corrector, of course. The matching is achieved by twiddling with the image in Photoshop while looking at the product in reality. It might sound reasonable, but it’s not really a good way how to do it.

The deal is that there’s no such thing as “real” color. All the color we see in real life or via screens is perceived color. The color receptors in our eyes are stimulated with the light that is reflected from the surface of the object we see, then the nerves transfer this information to our brain by means of electric impulses, and after being interpreted in some way, our brain makes us believe that we see some color. I say “believe that we see”, not just “we see” to underline the fact that when we perceive colors we get feelings, not numbers, as a machine would. And these feelings are affected by many factors, not just external like how dark or bright it is around us, what is the source of light that we see, but internal, too, like how acute our vision is and what mood we are in.

What I’m trying to tell you is that color is not a constant variable. Two different persons will perceive different colors of the same object, and just one person will perceive different colors of the same object in different conditions. What you see in the morning, in the evening, in daylight, in the dark, in candlelight, under a UV lamp or a luminescence lamp, is different every time. And we’re talking about just a single object.

Imagine that we have multiple objects, and we have to transfer their color via screens to multiple people. It gets even worse. Every screen is unique. There are many types of screens, and there are better screens and worse screens, and some of them affect colors in a terrible way. This is the ultimate goal of product image color correction – to transfer color via screens while maintaining its resemblance to the real products. Imagine this as an equation with many variables, some of them known to us (like the product, the screen we use for color correction, the light in the studio) and some unknown (like customers' screens, their lighting conditions and so on).

Now, having this in mind, imagine that you want to color match. To do that properly, you need to organize a special room with a proper environment to do color correction. It should have a calibrated source of light (otherwise it will affect how the color corrector perceives colors), no other sources of light (like windows). The room should have neutral gray walls and furniture, the monitor should be professional and calibrated on a regular basis, and the color corrector should have good color perception. If the business is big, there probably should be quite a few color correctors, as they will have to deal with every single product photographed in the studio, and it’s a time-consuming process.

It might sound cool, but really, I can't see any positive sides of this approach except for the extreme visual quality of products, which is quite worthless unless you're printing. At the same time, as a manager, I see so many problems that I don't even know where to start. Color correction stage becomes a bottleneck for the rest of the team. A couple of color correctors on sick leave? Your retouchers won't get enough images. An image is color corrected badly? Both the color corrector and the retoucher have to redo their work. And how am I supposed to hire color correctors? Most people that would come to get the job have no idea about color correction for the web, and it will be a pain in my bottom. Not mentioning all the expensive equipment and tricky to maintain working conditions.

Some people think it’s not necessary, all this gray room with no windows stuff and calibration of everything. They might ask: “Can’t we just put a guy in the corner of the studio, give him a regular office monitor so that he sits there and does all the color matching? Is this special setup so important?”. I have bad news for you, guys. This kind of approach tends to fail miserably. Random guys working with random monitors in random environments do fail when they get to alter subtle substances such as color.

Collor correction went wrong

Look at the picture above. It came from 2011, and this particular image and other images like that one were the reason why I dispersed a whole sub-department of color correctors in the company I worked for. The image to the left was color corrected in the aforementioned random environment. The monitor was not calibrated, and it had a serious color shift toward magenta, so everything looked a bit purple, but in fact, was not. So the color corrector shifted the color to green so it looked normal on the monitor, and the product image turned green for real. It was uploaded on the website, green and bleak like that, not very attractive, along with many other product images with random color shifts.

To my superiors, color matching sounded like a good idea and I had a hard time finding arguments why it shouldn’t be done like this. But then I was given a hand of help from a supplier, who monitored how their goods were presented online. The supplier sent an angry letter to the management and asked for permission to replace our images with their own, which were not green at all and didn’t have any contrast problems.

With the aid of angry suppliers, I managed to disperse the whole color correcting subdepartment as with the setup they had, they did more bad than good. As the managing directors didn’t want to invest in proper setup and equipment (which is reasonable), the work of retouching department was seriously reorganized, switching from faulty color matching to a more reasonable and cost-effective approach, which is color preservation.

Color Preservation

Before we decide to color match, we usually have to agree that the color is wrong in the first place. If it was right, why would we even need to color match? Let’s see if the idea that raw images straight from a camera are not correct in terms of color is legit or not.

As I said before when we were discussing photo shoots, the setup is very important as it has a great impact on the resulting images. So yes, if the setup is not correct, it’s highly unlikely that we will receive correct images. Same with the color matching setup I’ve described earlier: if it’s not correct, you’ll get faulty images. But the difference between the two is that if you make it right in the photography stage, you can skip the color matching completely, and if you mess it up, no amount of color matching will be able to fix it. The conclusion is that we’d better invest in the photography setup so that we can skip color matching and save some money.

If we organize the photography station so that the images are exposed correctly and have the right white balance, we don’t need to color match because most of the product images will have their color somewhat correct already. I say “most” images, not “all” images, because there are more problems with color transfer than just those that occur when the products are photographed. In fact, we have a long chain of factors affecting the color, starting with the studio setup and finishing with the customers' browser settings when they open the online store website. So in this chain:

Products – studio setup – camera – image processing – image uploading – customers’ browsers – customers’ monitors customers

We can only be responsible for our part of the job: the photography setup, the camera model, the image processing and uploading, and that’s it. And starting from the camera we have to keep in mind that it’s not possible to transfer every imaginable color to the web. The variety of colors a typical monitor can reproduce is limited, and the color space of the web limits them even more. Not mentioning the fact you can’t be responsible for other people’s monitors: which models they use, whether they perverse colors or not, or maybe they are too bright or not bright enough. You can’t do anything about it.

It means that no matter how advanced the equipment you use and how much time or money you invest in the color transfer, your efforts might still be fruitless. In prepress, you can adjust an image so that when a particular printing machine prints it, the colors will resemble the original as much as possible. In color correction for the web, you can’t adjust the image so it looks the same on every possible screen, it will look different and on some screens, it will look completely wrong.

That’s why people still go to real stores when they want to buy lipstick and other things like that. When you need a particular color, you can't trust the web. And that’s why some websites post disclaimers that the same colors might look different on different monitors, and they cannot be held responsible for mismatch and disappointment because of that. Don’t expect yourself to be able to preserve the real color, as there’s no such thing as real color, and it will be inevitably altered by other people’s devices anyway. So what we do in catalogue retouching is this:

We make sure that the photography station is set up properly. That ensures we get images which are exposed correctly and have a correct white balance. It's also reasonable to restrict color and tone adjustments so that we don’t affect images in a drastic way unless we try to correct mistakes made in the previous stage. We keep in mind that some colors like neon pink do not exist in the web color space and we cannot recreate them at all.

Our task at hand is making sure that customers perceive blue when the item presented is blue, red when it’s red, and the same thing with all the basic colors and tones. We also have to ensure that images have enough contrast to look pretty but not too much, so they don’t look unnatural. We enhance the images with whatever tools we have, but not to the extent when they lose resemblance to the original products.

This approach is not flawless, of course, but it’s cheap and most of the items look decent, and if some colors that are tricky to preserve look a bit wrong, you can color match those items on demand without having to keep a whole bunch of color correctors that do nothing but color correct.

What's even better, this approach is time-tested and I've had an opportunity to do real research on the matter in Lamoda. When customers rejected items because the "appearance didn't match the website", the warehouse gathered them and sent them to me so that I could see for myself what the problem was and color match if necessary. And you know what? The color was fine most of the time. Thinking about millions of products put online and sold makes me feel even more confident in this approach.

The best thing about the color preservation is that the color correction is done by retouchers as a part of the retouching process, it’s quick and efficient. Let’s see how it is done.

Next: Adobe Camera Raw


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