My color management workflow - how to get vibrant colors in your photos
Background: The best way for me to get vibrant colors and not have it look too saturated or incorrectly saturated is by having a good workflow for color management. A long time ago, I interviewed for the Apple iPhoto team and they asked me a color management interview question, and I couldn't answer it. So I did some research after the interview and this is the workflow I use to get vibrant colors below. (disclaimer: some links may be affiliate links to Amazon)
Step 1: color management - have a good main light source
The sun at noon: Having a light good light source is key to vibrant colors. The sun is a great light source, especially closer to noon time. That's when you get skin tones that look true to life. When it gets closer to sunset, everything turns an orange color and correcting for it doesn't seem right. Also the Color Rendering Index (CRI) during noontime is at the most (100), which shows the best range of colors during that time.
Flash: Another alternative is flash which has a a CRI of around 85-90, depending on what flash you use. Personally, I use the Godox system because it gives me flexibility with different power levels of flash and the functionality of having built in receivers and transmitters within the flash unit.
Step 2: color management - use custom white balance
The gray card and Expodisc: Calibrating your camera white balance before shooting or using a gray card so you can easily figure out the correct white balance will help your workflow. For custom white balance setting, I like using the expodisc because I like to see close to the end result of what I shoot. Alternatively if your gray card is big enough, you can take a picture of the gray card and calibrate your white balance to that. Another option I do is to use flash to over power color casts on my subject. Whenever I use flash, I just select flash white balance. It could still be helpful to use a gray card in case the light from the flash hits other objects that bounce on your subject.
Here are some tools I use for getting my custom white balance:
Step 3: color management - editing
White balance tool: If you've taken the appropriate steps, you either don't have to do anything else for editing, or just use the white balance tool on Lightroom and pick your gray card target. This will normalize everything to how it should be captured.
Why it doesn't always work: Does it always work as expected? No. At first I was blaming the tools, but then I later learned that the techniques were wrong. For example, let's say I didn't use flash in the photo below to over power the color cast:
She could have a green cast on her skin. Even if I used a gray card and corrected in Lightroom, the skin could look "correct", but the white balance tool would also shift the colors of the entire image. Also, because the sun is now hitting the trees and grass, the CRI would be affected.
Calibration: Before you start truly editing the photo though, make sure your monitor is calibrated. Your monitor could have a color shift, be too bright, or too contrasty. Calibrating it will help match your edit to an output like a print. I use the X-rite Pro system below for calibration. Alternatively, I know some folks who use the Spyder system.
Also for colorspace, I use sRGB which is what the web uses as well as most print places.
Step 4: color management - output
Printing and Color Profiles: Depending on where you print, sometimes you just have to save your photo in sRGB and all is well. To maximize screen to print matching, see if your print place needs specific color profiles. Costco for example has their printer profiles located at Dry Creek Photo. After downloading the printer profile, save an additional copy in photoshop via the menu Edit > Convert to Profile using that specific printer profile. If you just open the file in your file system, it may look weird, but the printer will print it perfectly.
For home printing, I use the Canon Pro 100 printer. I find it convenient not having to drive to the store or wait for my print in the mail.