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Grokking The Gimp
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6.2.2 Color Correcting by Balancing the Neutrals

A powerful method for identifying color casts is to measure the color of pixels that, in principle, should be neutral gray. Neutrals must have equal components of red, green, and blue. If they don't, that indicates the presence of a color cast, and you know that a color correction must be made.

Figure  6.13

  
Figure 6.13: Image with a Color Cast? The Measured Pixels Say Yes!
Figure 6.13

illustrates a case where the identification of neutral pixels allows us to color correct the image. In the image, the arcade of palm trees casts shadows over a white sand path and, in principle these shadows should be neutral in color.

There are a wide range of values for the shadow along the path, and it is possible to measure dark, mid-range, and light shadow values. In Figure  6.13, these are referred to as shadow, midtone, and highlight neutrals, and their values, measured with the Color Picker,  are shown at three different points. (The Color Picker is located in the Toolbox and is represented by the eye-dropper icon.) Measuring color in an image with the Color Picker displays the color in a rectangular patch in the Color Picker dialog and gives its R, G, and B values. Measuring a color with the Color Picker also has the effect of setting the Active Foreground Color patch, in the Toolbox window, to the measured color.

For the three measured pixels shown in Figure  6.13, you can see that there is a distinct blue tinge for each one. Not only do the color patches shown in the Color Picker dialog look blue, the measured R, G, and B values show that there is a significant deviation of the blue values from the red and green ones--too much for the color of these pixels to be neutral. Using the color notation introduced in Section  5.1, the color patches shown in the Color Picker dialogs have the values 33R 35G 52B for the shadow, 111R 132G 179B for the midtone, and 173R 172G 206B for the highlight. The measured R, G, and B values for each point clearly indicate that there is too much blue.

It is true that shadows sometimes appear blue. However, this is usually true in winter away from the equator and is due to the natural filtering of the sun's rays by the earth's atmosphere. The blue color cast measured in Figure  6.13 is more likely due to the tendency of film, especially slide film, to produce blue casts when photographing under natural sky light. In any case, at an equatorial location on the earth, we would expect the fuller spectrum of the sun's light to create neutral shadows when these are seen on a neutral background.

In addition to the blue cast, there may also be a slight red deficiency in the midtone range. In the following discussion the blue color cast and the red midtone deficiency are corrected using the Curves tool.

Figures  6.14

  
Figure 6.14: Using the Measured Pixel Values to Modify the Red Curve
Figure 6.14

and 6.15
  
Figure 6.15: Using the Measured Pixel Values to Modify the Blue Curve
Figure 6.15

illustrate how the Curves tool is used to correct these color problems. Figure  6.14 shows a modification to the red curve and Figure  6.15 to the blue. For each, the procedure is identical. The red and blue components of the measured pixel values are used to place control points on their respective curves. This is shown in part (a) of each figure. The accurate placement of the points is facilitated by the Information Field found in the upper left corner of the graph area. The control points are then moved vertically up or down to new positions, which remaps the ranges of pixel values between them and makes the measured pixels neutral in value. The displaced control points are shown in part (b) of the figures.

Again, the goal in displacing the control points is to make each of the measured pixel values neutral. This means making their red, green, and blue components equal. In this example, this is accomplished by moving the red and blue control points so that their values are made equal to the measured green values. The accurate repositioning of the points is made possible by the position Information Field displayed in the upper-left corner of the graph area. Note that the numbers positioned near the control points in Figures  6.14 and 6.15 are not a feature of the Curves tool; they are placed there to clarify the procedure.

Thus, on the red control curve, the shadow, midtone, and highlight values are moved from 33, 111, and 173 to the measured green values of 35, 132, and 172. On the blue control curve, the shadow, midtone, and highlight values are moved from 52, 179, and 206, again, to the green values of 35, 132, and 172. After the operation, the color values for the three measured pixels are 35R 35G 35B for the shadow, 132R 132G 132B for the midtone, and 172R 172G 172B for the highlight--all three neutral grays.

The result of color correcting the neutral pixel values is shown in Figure  6.16(b).

  
Figure 6.16: Comparison of the Original and Color Corrected Images
Figure 6.16

For comparison, the original image is shown in Figure  6.16(a). It is quite clear now that the original image did have a blue cast and that this has been eliminated in the corrected image. Measuring the pixel values along the tree-lined path shows that, overall, the balance is much better and most of the tree shadow values are now neutral. Furthermore, the rest of the image has taken on a much warmer look. The trees are now bathed in a yellow light, corresponding better to what we might expect from a tropical sunlit scene.

There are some practical questions about the color correcting procedure just described. The first is, why were the blue and red channels matched to the green? For the three measured pixels there are a total of nine ways to make the three neutral. However, in practice, it is typical that two of the channels are almost the same and that one is quite different. When this is the case, as it is for the the measured shadow and highlight values in the preceding example, the choice is clear. When it is not the case, some experimentation may be necessary.

The second question about the procedure is, why measure three points? The method doesn't require three points and, amazingly, often a single point can suffice to color correct the entire image. However, matching a shadow, midtone, and highlight image point provides additional insurance that the color in each range is properly balanced.

The Curves tool has several features that facilitate the positioning of points on the control curves. Clicking the mouse button in the image window produces a vertical bar in the graph area of the Curves tool. The bar position corresponds to the pixel value the mouse cursor is over in the image window. Clicking and dragging the mouse button interactively updates the position of the vertical bar. In this way, it is possible to see where different pixel values in the image are located on the control curve and helps to discover the locations of shadow, midtone, and highlight pixels. In addition to input position information, Shift-clicking in the image window automatically creates a control point on the curve in the active channel of the Curves dialog. Control-clicking on a point in the image window produces control points on each of the Red, Green, Blue, and Value control curves.

In addition to the Curves tool features, a very useful tool for exploring and discovering color problems in an image is the Info Window   dialog. This dialog is found in the Image:View menu and can also be invoked by typing C-S-i in the image window. The Extended tab of this dialog interactively reports the R, G, and B pixel-color components when the mouse is in the image window. The advantage of the Info Window over the Color Picker  for measuring pixel values in the image window is it remains open while using the Curves tool.

There are two lessons to be learned from this section. First, color correction can be very easy. Measuring only a few pixel values across the shadow to highlight range can color correct an entire image in a few minutes time. Second, the color correction obtained in this way not only fixes the individual measured pixels but usually corrects the entire image. Third, the Curves tool is the only one which can be used to correct the image based on measured pixel values. For these reasons, the Curves tool is the most precise and the most powerful tool for color correction in the GIMP.

Grokking The Gimp
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