Colour Management For The Colour-Blind Photographer

You may be surprised to learn that I’m a colour-blind photographer (or color-blind if you live in North America). You shouldn’t be though, because it’s far more common than you think. Colour-blindness affects one in twelve males and around one in 200 females. You almost certainly know other people who are colour-blind, they just don’t have it tattooed across their faces.

Although the most common question I get from people after learning of my visual impairment is “what colour is this?”, followed by “what about traffic lights?” Generally speaking, it doesn’t really cause me any problems in daily life. However, as a photographer, colour-blindness presents a unique set of challenges.

Fortunately, they can mostly be overcome with a few tools and tricks that level the playing field. I’ve tried and tested many colour management tools over the years, with some success, and some epic failures. These days I rely on just a few, and they serve me well.

Monitor Calibration

x-rite colormunki monitor calibration tool for the colour-blind photographer

I’ll start with an obvious one, because if your monitor isn’t correctly colour-calibrated then all the fancy-schmancy colour management tools and software in the world aren’t going to help you. Even high-end monitors suffer from colour-shift and need calibrating regularly.

Why spend thousands of your hard-earned dollars on the latest Macbook Pro, iMac, or Eizo monitor only to let the screen lie to you. Buy a colour-calibration tool and use it regularly. I use the X-Rite ColorMunki and set the software to remind me every four weeks to remind me to recalibrate. The process is completely automated, so my colour-blindness is no problem.

There are other products that have more or less features for more or less money. Whichever one you choose, use it. Your images both on-screen and in print will thank you for it.

Reflective White Balance

White balance (WB) is one of the most important part of colour management. WB dramatically affects the look and feel of an image. Although sometimes WB is used creatively to add drama or a certain feel to an image, when it’s off, it’s difficult to ignore. Even a subtle colour cast can be enough to ruin an image. Trust me, I know. I’ve ruined many images by not paying close attention to WB.

Fortunately if you shoot in RAW (you are shooting in RAW aren’t you!), you can tweak WB in post-production. This is where colour-blindness starts to be a bit of an issue. Finding the right white balance in Lightroom can be easier said than done, especially if you don’t have any neutral tones in your images. As a landscape and travel photographer, it’s not uncommon for my images to include every colour in the rainbow, but no middle grey, or even white.

There is a simple solution: add one. I’m sure you’ve heard of a grey card. They’re everywhere. Many photography accessories from camera bags to hats now include 18% grey on their product for precisely this purpose.

ColorChecker Passport

I personally use the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport, as it not only has a grey card, but also includes a colour target that can be used to create colour profiles in Lightroom. You simply take a shot of the scene you’re shooting with the ColorChecker in the frame and make sure you continue to shoot with the same WB settings. You now have a WB reference when you import to Lightroom and you can sync any images of that scene.

colorchecker passport and grey card for the colour-blind photographer

This is hugely valuable, as it gives a far more accurate starting point. I don’t rely on it 100%, but it gives pretty good results. In Lightroom, I usually start with WB then continue with my workflow, and having a solid colour base with helps significantly. 

Using a reflective white balance device is particularly useful if you use filters like the Lee Big Stopper, which can add very obvious colour casts to your images.

Nik Color Efex Pro

Nik Color Efex Pro is a plugin that lets you apply creative effects, modify them with overall correction tools and control points, and combine them to create unique colour effects.

One of my favourite filters included in the Color Efex Pro software is called Pro Contrast. It’s awesome for a number of reasons, one being the “correct colour cast” slider.

It works by analysing the image and identifying the dominant colour cast. You can then apply a correction that neutralises the colour cast and restores the natural colours of the image. The filter has two sliders that let you control the strength and hue of the correction.

Correct colour cast can be useful for fixing images that have a noticeable colour shift or imbalance. You can also use it to enhance images that have a subtle colour cast that affects the mood or tone of the image. The filter can be applied to the whole image or to specific areas using control points.

I’ve found this tool to be particularly useful as a colour blind photographer because I often struggle to see subtle colour casts. Color Efex Pro does the hard work for me by identifying colour casts and making them simple to correct.

Embrace Being A Colour-Blind Photographer

We’re super lucky to live in such a high-tech time. There are so many tools available to make colour management easier for the colour-challenged. Instead of letting it get you down, as I’ve been guilty of, embrace the tools that are available to you.

Yes, you’ll screw up sometimes and make somebody look like a humanoid with green skin, but who cares? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, apparently. If it helps, find someone who has “normal” colour perception and ask them to check your images before you send them to a client or post them online. I’ve had my ass saved more than once this way.

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