Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not quite foolproof, but it's a big improvement over the stock setup.
The Long Version: Alright, so I'm a joiner - I'm okay with that. Last night when I saw Michael Reichmann's review of the Colorchecker Passport by xrite, nee Macbeth, my eyes went wide and I was bolt upright on the couch. I've had the full-size color checker chart for a while, and had nearly bought the credit-card version a half-dozen times. Its price stopped me - it's a lot of money to pay for something that will take a lot of wear and tear as I'd be subjecting it to use away from the protected confines of studio shooting. Sure, the Passport is actually more expensive, but it's a plastic clamshell design that's strong and self-standing. If the stores hadn't been closed, I would have had one last night.
Instead, I was out of the house before 10am on a Saturday - something that happens only once every couple of months and usually involves a cookie from Starbucks as a bribe. I was actually worried that the local Canadian Tire of camera stores would sell out. (Okay, so it's a very slim chance, but it is possible that there are that many Toronto photographers as skewed as I am.) Happily there was still a half-dozen in stock, and I was on my way back home after a quick detour to the Apple store to pick up a new iPod. It's easy to guess which one I unpacked first - yes, I am that much of a camera geek. I'm also easily distracted and absentminded, so I've added a couple of strips of silver/black reflective tape to help the all-black Passport stand out among the various black cards that I invariably have scattered around when I'm shooting jewellery.
Most photographer's reviews don't mention that the reverse side of the colour chart is a light grey white balance target. It is somewhat redundant, and feels a little like there was some blank space to fill. Perhaps it could be useful when the subject is too far away to use the smaller squares in the two colour targets, but I'm reaching to try to understand this one. It's also interesting that it's a much lighter tone than my various grey cards, so perhaps it's been corrected for the 1/2 stop underexposure that an 18% grey card will cause, but x-rite only calls it a white balance target. Regardless of that mystery, the Passport is a more practical tool than the older Gretag Macbeth card that's also in these photos. The larger charts' size and cardboard 'protective' sleeve makes it excellent for the main studio and not much else.
Taking a brief detour, I've put this photo in black and white to emphasize my favourite Lightroom white balance trick. Using the eyedropper tool is never precise, and I know that my monitor isn't calibrated well enough to judge the hue by eye. Lightroom has a handy "grayscale" button. I hit it, and if the visible colour doesn't change, then I know I'm good regardless of my monitor's accuracy. Easy-peasy.
The Colorchecker Passport is perfectly named - except for the missing U - as it is indeed almost exactly the size of my Canadian passport. Its thickness is half-way between a passport and a Moleskine notebook, which is another classic back-pocked item. It's large enough to be a useful size, but small enough to carry and hold. The design is a clamshell that covers a middle panel with the standard and WB targets on opposite sides, and the way the clasp is done it's simple to just open it to the half that I want to use. With all three panels open it's self-standing, and there are detents in the plastic hinges that let it stand at different angles. Someone put a lot of thought into how this color checker would be used, which is the exact opposite of the traditional and mini charts. I'm very impressed.
But wait, there's more! The Passport also includes a CD with software for building custom Camera Raw profiles. Sure, no big deal - Adobe Labs had a DNG profile generator out in 2008 that does the same thing. At least that's what I thought before I tried it out. I launched the xrite software, fed it the DNG of the (uncorrected) image above, and it automatically recognized the chart and did its thing. All I needed to do was name the profile it was going to create, and it even put it in the right spot for Lightroom to find it the next time it launched. (I'm using the format "yy-mm-dd Lightsource".) But I didn't even need to work that hard; it also includes a Lightroom plugin that creates a new profile without ever needing to see the stand-alone application. For comparison, I tried to use the Adobe Labs software, and gave up on the second step because I couldn't remember how to get it to work. Once again, xrite has just nailed the practical aspects of actually using their product.
After one day, I can't imagine doing any colour-critical photography without using this target. It's more powerful than a grey card and not much more difficult to use. The only problem I can foresee is that I'll be littering my Calibration panel with various presets, but smart naming will help with that. My xrite Colorchecker Passport is about to become indispensable.
Three-Week Update: Now that I've integrated the Passport into my photography, the results have been as good as I hoped. I've been using it for some of my casual photography, where it gives me a white balance reference even if I don't go all the way with a custom profile based on that particular moment of light. For product photography, I'll import all of the images, find the image of the Color Checker that I want to use, create a profile based on it, and then quit and relaunch Lightroom. Once LR reopens, I'll set that image (still open in the develop window) to the new profile and correct the white balance, go back to the library in grid view, select all images, and sync the calibration and WB. Then I'll tell Lightroom to build my 1:1 previews, and go make a sandwich. The sandwich actually takes longer than creating and using the profile.
Before I shifted most of my 'serious' photography to my Nikon, I had all four of my Olympus SLRs profiled using the Adobe Labs software and the full-sized colour chart. This lets me use any body with very similar colour results. There's no reason why I can't also do that with the D700, but now that I have the Passport, it's just as easy to create a profile for each specific lighting setup for even more accurate results. There's still significant value in doing a dual-illuminant profile - not least of which is that it can be included in a Lightroom preset - but ironically that will be more useful for my general photography than the really colour-critical work.
Compared to my stock profile that I'd created through the Adobe Labs software, the xrite profile (left) is significantly more saturated, and I'll also say that it's the more accurate of the two. That's not a huge surprise, since my Labs profile was created years ago and under different light; both are more accurate than the default Adobe profile. I will eventually get around to creating a 'generic' profile for my Nikon, but that won't stop me from taking and using reference shots for profiles and reality-check comparison.
One other nice design feature that's worth mentioning is the little identifiers on the creative white balance target. The neutral squares are square with a little protrusion in the middle of one side; the warm/cool squares have one corner notched out, with + or - signs in varying size to indicate the amount of shift. This makes it easier to quickly tell what adjustment is being applied, even if it's a little out of focus. It's such a useful indicator that it took me three weeks to spot it. You know what they say about photographers: we have a gifted eye for detail.
Incidentally, Michael Reichmann's Luminous-Landscape.com website has always been a favourite of mine, even when I haven't agreed with him. (Can we say Olympus E-1?) He's certainly one of my top three influences for the writing, format, and approach of the camera portion of thewsreviews. I was working in the camera store when he bought the viewfinder for his GF1, and while I recognized him immediately, I didn't say hello. Maybe next time.