Capture One—On Colour and Interpretations
It’s easy to get lost in colour processing. Because the choices are, really, endless. We can destroy an image through over saturation, just as easily as we can enhance it through an equally vast amount of toning—results are and will always be tied to a final look’s relevance to the actual subject. Which, I guess, is another way of saying “if it works, it works”. See how useful this post already is?
To be clear (because I still get asked about it), I process all my images. This is a personal preference, it’s part of how I work and is fully integrated into my photographic workflow. Not because SOOC files aren’t good enough, simply because I feel my pictures benefit from it—a slight compression of highlights and shadows in the Tone Curve, a bit of added grain or localized clarity...sometimes even very minor changes yield important results; things we don’t necessarily see, but definitely feel.
There are times however when I’ll decide to go much further, even with JPEG files. Colour processing is an area where I’ve been increasingly experimenting, and this is definitely due to my switch to Capture One. Its selection of tools, the fact that most of the adjustments can be multiplied and masked through separate, individual layers...it’s a level of power that practically begs to be used.
This type of work doesn't need to be obvious—and I do intend to write about subtle implementations in the future. Things like “decontamination” or using complementary colours to neutralize casts or slightly alter the mood of an image. But for now, I thought I’d begin this new Capture One processing series with a case study of what we could label obviously processed material.
Eterna or the blank slate
When I visited Vancouver last fall (as part of the GFX 50R speaking tour), I brought along the X-T3. I’d just received the camera and wanted to put it through its paces. I shot RAW+Fine during the trip (so I could test both formats properly) but chose Eterna as the JPEG film simulation. This was both a departure and a return of sorts: prior to the introduction of Classic Chrome (with the X100T) my goto simulation had always been Pro Neg Standard. Not because it was in any way spectacular, just the opposite: it provided the cleanest, most neutral file to work with this side of RAW. Eterna, of course, takes this five steps further—it is bland. Unabashedly bland. As a simulation meant to provide a baseline for colour grading video files, its entire raison d'être is to be as neutral as possible. That said, in the right conditions it can actually be quite beautiful on its own—there’s a very pleasing softness to its tones, as you can see in this SOOC image:
But it IS a palette waiting to be transformed...and for the Vancouver series, I decided to go all out.
What Lightroom calls Presets, Capture One calls Styles—and this is a style I created and named RUBICON, after the KAGE essay I first used it for. It features a very compressed RGB curve (at both ends), combined to a deep red/magenta colour cast in the shadows and yellow/greens in the mid tones. But let’s start with an original Eterna JPEG, SOOC:
A bit of background: I was sitting in a restaurant, waiting for lunch, having a chat with Billy Luong and Take Kayo. I noticed the bike’s reflection as the door was closing behind us and grabbed a very quick shot, without changing the camera’s settings (if I had I would’ve missed it—sometimes you just take a chance). So it’s underexposed—but all the elements are there. Job #1 is about correction:
You’ll notice I’m using both the Levels and the Exposure panels: all exposure tools essentially provide different ways of affecting the same parameters, but with more or less precise targeting. I usually go for the Exposure panel first, then add further tweaks if needed using either Curves or Levels. So yes, for the sake of clarity the visual order in the image above should actually be reversed—sorry about that. I just dragged the panels on top of the image for the sake of the screenshots.
With the image “fixed”, the next step is to add my Rubicon Style. And this is where we also need to highlight Capture One 12’s most important concept: layers. Almost every single tool in the application can be applied not only locally, but to its own discrete layer—with full control over both masking and general transparency. In fact, anything that can be applied to the base image, apart from global adjustments like vignette or grain, can live on a single layer. And if your brain just flashed “even a style?” and then you thought “no, of course not”...think again: an entire set of adjustments, using every single tool, can be applied to an individual layer. And then to another…and another (up to a maximum of 16 layers per image). This is incredibly powerful and it opens up tons of possibilities we’ll get into some other time…but for now let’s keep it simple: when I use a style, I usually prefer adding it to a layer. Why? Because I can then control the look’s intensity with the layer’s opacity slider. To do this, we just need to right-click on any style and choose Apply to New Layer (replacing the default Apply to Background):
The effect of Rubicon tends to be very intense, but the look can be dramatically altered just through brightness/exposure adjustments. In the images below you can see the unaltered version on the left, followed by the results of modifications to the RGB curve on the right. I’ve also included the Colour Balance wheels in that screenshot, to show you what that panel is doing in terms of colour. You can click to get a larger view.
I’m using the Shadow and Midtone wheels, each with a different tint. If you’re curious about the “black tweak” note I scribbled: those sliders at the right of the colour wheels affect luminosity (those at the left affect saturation). Raising it in this case added a tiny bit of fade to the shadows. Here’s the resulting image without all the cruft:
I think I may have been subconsciously influenced by Fred Herzog while I was processing these images—the direction I chose is certainly subjective. Truth is, I could easily have gone somewhere else entirely. Just for fun, here’s a variation of Rubicon on a very different image—Eterna on the left, modified Rubicon on the right:
The colours on this one have been altered to better fit the mood of that morning light:
Every image is different, because the colours already present in the frame will interact with anything we add. As always, our eyes are the most important piece of equipment we own: if things don’t look right, they probably aren't. So if a particular image benefits from adding green instead of orange, then so be it. Every picture contains its own unique set of variables—which is why presets or styles should always be considered starting points and rarely taken at face value.
Processing—especially with colour—can sometimes very much feel like we’re building a house of cards: a slight twitch of the fingers here, an ambitious move there, and it all comes crashing down in a terrible garish mess. Because unlike black and white, we know colour, intimately, in all its nuances. We know the reality of colour and where its boundaries lie. Of course we can push past this, but our frame of reference always matters. So for me every editing session is a balancing act, a quest for a fulcrum that’s always moving ever so slightly. I’m never fully confident, and on the rare moments when I am, I usually crash and burn very quickly, going back to the drawing board and rebooting the entire analysis. And still, I believe I probably get it wrong more often than not.
But that’s part of the exhilaration—to explore and to stumble, to fall and to rebuild.
To construct the world we wish to see.
To purchase Capture One 12: www.captureone.com (affiliate link—the 50% sale is still on as I write this but I believe it’s ending soon)