I ruin a lot of nice conversations by bringing up the subject of Lab Color Mode. It's not that people aren't interested in what Lab can do, it simply takes me too long to get to the benefits of this powerful image-editing tool. Like most color-theory discussions, there are few people who consider Lab to be cocktail conversation. One of my failings is that I'm an odd fellow who is actually entertained by color theory. So I need to be careful. Lab color theory is not something most people want to hear about. However, turning listless, lifeless, boring, or damaged photos into exciting images is a topic that many find worthwhile. So, let's start there and see where it takes us.
Photography has always been a magical process. But most color photos come out of the camera as something less than than the original scene. The experience itself of making a photographic image is usually memorable. Some kind of emotional response to a particular subject or scene compelled us to click the shutter. Visual perception is a hugely complex phenomenon. This makes it very difficult for a camera to encapsulate and squeeze our original experience into a two-dimensional, rectangular photograph.
There are a hundred things we could discuss about visual perception and photography. The phenomenon of simultaneous contrast is one them. Simultaneous contrast is a sensation which causes us to alter our perception of two (or more) colors that exist in close proximity. This is most acute when the colors are complementary to one another and it will make them both seem more intense (almost vibrate). Artists have known this for centuries. However, even similar colors will tend to separate from one another and appear more different from one another than they actually are.
Humans are particularly good at detecting color differentiation, much better than most other animals. This enabled us to survive and thrive during the evolutionary process. Our ability to see predators and food in spite of their natural camouflage gave us significant advantage in the forests, jungles, and plains of earlier ages. Today our uses for simultaneous contrast have mostly changed. Today we use it for matching paint colors, designing interiors, and—making and editing photographs.
The problem is that cameras see the world in a more clinical way than we do. They don't have the perceptive processing power of our eye-mind combination. When real-world perception is distilled down to a flat photograph we see everything differently and more clinically. Background objects become painfully obvious. Focus (or lack thereof) and depth-of-field is now much clearer to observe. The color temperatures of our light sources are now apparent. And the colors that seemed vibrant, vivid, and differentiated are now often flatter, muddier, and more muted. The image can lack a certain punch. We can blame this on simultaneous contrast. We perceived the original scene to be more vivid than it actually was.
If we are to revive the emotional and visual vibrance of our original scene, we must find a way to separate, differentiate, and intensify its colors as they are depicted in the resulting photograph. In pre-digital years we did this with a choice of film that might exaggerate color saturation or in the printing process. These days we mostly pump up the saturation or vibrance settings in our image editors. While this seemingly does the job, it doesn't really add color differentiation and separation. It simply boosts the saturation of the existing colors—nice but not quite the same thing as what we originally perceived. This can also deliver a boatload of artifacts to our image.
The answer to our dilemma is Lab Color Mode. Lab is different than other kinds of color-reproduction modes (such as RGB and CMYK) as it separates color information from luminance information. This statement might cause my dear readers' eyes to glaze over like the eyes of a poached fish. So, I'll save that whole dissertation for another installment of this discussion, once I hook you a bit more on the magic of Lab.
For now, I'll ask you to believe the statement that Lab allows us to enhance color in the same way that our minds and eyes do when we behold a scene—a scene that was compelling enough for us to photograph. It allows us to dramatically enhance and even alter color without effecting the foundational, tonal information of the image (because color and tonality are separated from one another and can thus be edited in different ways) and without adding a lot of the digital artifacts that seemingly similar types of editing might yield in RGB or CMYK.
We'll start to explore how this is all accomplished in our next post. For now, check out the sample photo that was enhanced via Lab Color Mode.