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See Through Subjectivity to Improve Color Accuracy in Your Studio

Columbia Sportswear's Jean-Francois Ortiz and Jason Wheeler join us to chat about color.

Screenshot 2022-10-06 at 12.53.28 PM
Head of Community at Creative Force
Head of Community at Creative Force

"Think back to 2015," begins Daniel Jester, host of The Creative Operations Podcast, "and you may remember the dress, a viral phenomenon that taught us a lot about how we as humans perceive color. As a photographer during that time, it sort of felt like watching the world learn a lot about what we already knew. Color can be deceiving, and you never know what someone else actually sees."

Whether the infamous dress was white and gold or blue and black (it was the latter), it's a reminder that there's subjectivity in the ways people perceive color, and a challenge to control how we represent color in our e-commerce content and how much attention we give it in a high-volume production environment.

To delve into the hues, Jean-Francois Ortiz and Jason Wheeler of Columbia Sportswear joined the pod. For this full episode of The Creative Operations Podcast, see Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website. For a quick summary, though, read on.

Beauty (or at Least a Dress) is in the Eye of the Beholder

Before we go on, let's circle back to the dress. A washed-out photo posted to Facebook in 2015, one of a dress by retailer Roman Originals, set off a viral conversation surrounding the phenomenon of how we perceive color.

The issue, according to neuroscientists, had to do with our ways of perceiving natural light. Was #thedress #whiteandgold or #blackandblue? People who assumed the dress to be in a shadow were more likely to see white and gold, while those who perceived direct light most likely saw black and blue. (The dress was confirmed to be the latter—well, at least until Roman Originals released a white and gold version as part of a charity campaign.)

"At the time at the studio, there were dozens of photographers where I was working, and we'd all look at this," Jean-Francois says. "And I still see white and gold! We brought it up this morning, just because I was trying to remember what the color sequences were, and even two folks in the studio this morning, they're like, 'Wow, we see black and blue.' And it's just, like, how are you seeing black and blue? That's amongst photographers!"

"I'll be honest with you JF," Daniel says, pulling up the pic. "I see white and gold right now, the one I'm looking at. But again, who knows if this has been manipulated at this point."

"The fact that two photographers are seeing two different colors on an image that's on the screen doesn't bode well for us when we're trying to talk about subjectivity," Jean-Francois says.

The crux of the problem, especially as it concerns e-commerce content studios, is that, even when our color is balanced and accurately represented on our screens, an item photographed casts light, and people, even those with terrific color recognition, can differ in how they interpret that light.

"You can get into a lot of the deep science on this," Jason adds. "When you talk about metamerism. You can physically have two items that are red sitting next to each other, within an environment, and see those as the same color because our eyes just aren't able to absorb the nuances of that color spectrum in the way that it's actually being illuminated off the object."

Raise your hand if "metamerism" is a new word for you. (Glad to know it's not just us.) It's "a phenomenon where the color of two objects appear the same under a particular light source but have different spectral energy distributions." So when we think about the different material compositions of the items we shoot in our studios, not to mention the different types of light sources we provide and the angles of those light sources, there's plenty of room for subjective interpretation.

The Almost-Antidote to Subjectivity: Consistency!

So if color perception is so subjective, is color control in our studios a lost cause? Not at all. There are so many things we can do to limit subjective interpretation. But for us to not be introducing even more variance into the matter, we have to operate in a repeatable, trackable process.

"The thing I feel we're responsible for—in the studio and in the e-com industry—is to create a consistent product," Jason says. "And in order to create a consistent product, we have to put a process in place. We have to put some type of metric in place that we can pin up against so we can ensure that what we're producing is going to be the same time and time again—making sure we're hitting our neutral marks, making sure we're hitting the color spectrum we're targeting."

By having that repeated process, you give consumers a baseline through which they can view all of your content.

"Whether your studio is working in 55 Kelvin or if you're targeting a D65, whatever it is you're targeting, make sure that's your benchmark," Jason says. "That's what you're producing, time and time again so that when your customers are seeing your product, they're seeing a consistent product, which is going to ultimately translate into confidence. Knowing that every time they're going to look at your imagery and receive your product, they're going to see the same thing, time and time again."

It's an area where the industry has at times fallen short of its capabilities, Jean-Francois notes.

"This is where we lose trust," Jean-Francois says. "We output marketing assets that are more environmental or editorial in nature, and then there's the PDP. And lots of times our editorial imagery doesn't match up with the PDP, and they're being shot at different times in different locations, and in certain cases by different teams. What's important is having a process in place where someone is seeing all of this."

You can see how the process ties back to the macro-level, circumspect level of organization. At Columbia Sportswear, operations are organized enough that Jason and Jean-Francois can get more time to market their products, allowing time to make necessary changes so that PDP and editorial tell the same story.

"Luckily we have the luxury of recreating assets several months out before they're hitting the site," Jean-Francois says. "We have the time to place checks so we can catch this. That's not the case in a lot of other businesses where the time to market is much shorter. You'll get those variances between the editorial shots and the PDP shots. That's where I think you lose trust. Everything we can be doing on e-com workflow, it all goes out the window when the consumer sees those two images side by side on the landing page, and then they get into the product and it's a completely different color."

So how do we offset so much subjectivity in color perception? With consistency. By being organized and repetitious, we can control the controllable and garner trust.

There's No Substitute for a Product Sample

Seeing, as we do, that different substances reflect light differently, it's all the more reason to have product samples that you can test in advance of a shoot. Because you will need to adjust your lighting, potentially in drastic measures, to get an item's color accurately conveyed in your content.

"You guys probably experienced this working in the outdoor industry, which is that a dark canvas doesn't have the same—it's not going to reflect the same specular highlights that a nylon is going to reflect," Daniel says to Jason and Jean-Francois. "So you can have those two materials in exactly the same color, and the nylon is going to look dramatically different than the canvas is going to look."

Having a swatch is no replacement for having a sample, Jean-Francois points out.

"We'll be asked to color-author or color-correct garments," Jean-Francois says."We might get it in blue, and they want to do it in red. And it's like, 'You have the swatch, you should be all set to go with that.'"

But no swatch or CAD block is going to fully replicate samples, not when a given color appears so differently in denim than it does in polyester. “In some cases, we may not get the garment—the actual garment itself—until we're way downstream, and those assets are being flowed to our site," Jean-Francois says. "And then we may have to go back and retrofit. That's a challenge in itself around color when we don't have the right product in the studio to shoot."

And while, as Daniel mentions, color-change technology has improved so much that those retrofits don't have to be as painful for a studio's process as they once were, there's still a compelling case to obtain and track samples for the sake of color integrity in your work.

How Bright is the Future of Color Consistency?

So we're being mindful of ways that different materials interact with light sources. But aside from handling light on our end, in the studio process, how do we account for brightness or lack thereof on the devices where consumers are engaging our content?

"For the most part, it feels like everyone has gone to tablets or devices with screens that you're assuming that the color is going to be accurate, but then you don't know how brightly they're looking at things," Jean-Francois says. "And there's just a vast difference between how I'm looking at my phone to one of my friends looking at it who has their display cranked up all the way—the colors just come out a lot richer."

So there's still a need, from a quality control standpoint, to see how our colors render at various brightnesses and to adjust, and to have a researched strategy as to what level of brightness we're aiming to satisfy in our content. Maybe someday we'll have different sets of assets to address a screen's standard brightness and its nighttime mode. For now, though, it may be a matter of audience insight—knowing what devices and times of day your consumers view your content, and shooting with that display brightness in mind.

Consumer Device Screens Catch up with Studio Monitors

While the brightness issue persists on user devices, at least the technology of the actual screens has improved and become more streamlined.

"I think back to a few years back, and we used to put a ton of effort into trying to get within, like, 5% in the studio with monitors we were using, and a ton of effort goes into that," Jean-Francois says. "And I remember again a few years back, the conversation was around, 'Well, we don't know what kind of monitors they're looking at. Are they on uncalibrated monitors? We have no idea what they're seeing on the consumer side.'"

For the longest time, that was where the consumer conversation stalled, with a feeling of helpless resignation. "The fallback, historically, has always been, we ultimately can't control what our images are being viewed on," Daniel says.

But there's been a shift in technology available to the general public, closing the gap in quality between a studio's screens and its audience's devices. "We're getting to the point where most people's consumer monitors are capable of many of the same things," Jason says. "The stuff we have in the studio might be technologically more advanced than what the consumer has, but ultimately what's being displayed is probably pretty close."

It's a positive development but one that takes away some of the old excuses we had in our days of helpless resignation. "From a studio standpoint, it's going to become a bit easier for us to push things through quicker and more consistently with the confidence that our customers are viewing our products on a consistent medium," Jason says.

Even as the technology of personal device screens improves, it's worth testing your content on a handful or two of leading phones, tablets, and computers in an effort to maintain consistency.

Give the Same Detailed Care to Vendor-Provided Images

When we talk about having consistency in our content's color representation, we're talking not only about our in-house content but also our vendor-provided assets.

"We used to put in a ton of effort on the product that we were shooting in the studio, but at the same time—and this is not at my current location, this is a former employer—when we got vendor-provided images, we wouldn't really check those and we'd throw those to the sites," Jean-Francois says.

Your studio should use style guides and maintain workflows in a way that applies to both in-house and vendor-provided imagery. Add procedure to your post-production for vendor-provided shots where needed, to remedy your lack of control over lighting when those were shot. But to Daniel's earlier point, color correction has never been easier.

In this crazy world of black and blue versus white and gold, you have the tools and outlook to minimize subjective interpretation by being consistent wherever possible. To get in-depth on the topic, consider the merits of a designated color seer staff role, and hear a horror story about taking a product out back to shoot it with an iPhone, catch the entire episode of The Creative Operations Podcast. Stream or download it on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website.