Monday, August 2, 2010

Photographing Tea: Color Calibration

I don't know much about photography, but I do take a lot of pictures with my pocket digital camera, and I know the basics of how to use a photo editing program (GIMP, The GNU Image Manipulation Program, being a free software alternative to Photoshop, is my program of choice).

The appearance of dry tea leaf contains a lot of information about a tea: the shape of the leaf, how tightly it is rolled, the texture, and not least importantly, the color, all tell you something about the tea. This post focuses on this one aspect of photographing tea: color.

Color can easily be edited. Can you spot the originals in this photo I've taken? Both the top row and bottom row have one original, and three edited pictures of a type of loose tea. Can you, on the basis of looking at the pictures, identify the type of tea?

Which tea in each row is the original photograph?

The tea in the top row is an oolong. But what is its level of oxidation? The leftmost photograph would have us believe it is a very green oolong with little roast, whereas the third photo presents a more heavily oxidized/roasted oolong, and the other two are somewhere in between.

The tea in the bottom row is a little less clear. The first picture looks clearly like a green tea, whereas the second looks like a Darjeeling or other lighter black tea, and the third looks like black tea.

The answers:

The original image in the top row is the second. This oolong has a greener character but moderate roast. The original image in the second row is the first--this is a Chinese pan-fired green tea.

Even without photo editing software, it is possible to greatly change the color of loose tea in a photograph, by changing the lighting and composition.

This little exercise illustrates the importance of some sort of reference frame for assessing color in a picture.

A Photographic Reference for Color Calibration:

A great example of using a reference for a photograph can be found in the second photograph on this recent post on Fazia Rizvi's tea blog. Look at the cherries, celeries, and peas. It is clear that this tea has a golden color, comparing it to the vibrant red and green of the fruit and vegetables.

So what to do if you're a tea company?

Photographing all your teas under similar lighting conditions, and using consistent editing, is a good place to start. Even if you do not contain a reference frame in all photographs on your website, having some sort of reference somewhere might be beneficial. One of the few companies that does this is Teavana. While at first I thought it looked just like a marketing scheme (and while it may serve this purpose as well), it does make the color of their loose tea easy to assess in photographs.

But in the absence of a reference frame, there are still things you can do to make your loose tea images a bit clearer. A very simple thing to do is to adjust the color levels to cover the full range of values. By adjusting the light levels, one can make it easier for the viewer to see subtle differences in color. It's surprising how many tea companies fail to do this, and display images on the websites with a decisively washed-out look.

Not only do bolder colors look better, but they communicate more information about the tea. But...make sure to keep your photographs honest: it's also possible to make green tea look like black tea, and vice-versa. Editing taken too far can mislead customers and lead them disappointed when the tea they order. The best photo communicates as much information as possible, and looks as close to what the tea actually looks like when it arrives.


  1. I use a Canon DSLR for my tea photos on Chicago Tea Garden, and I know exactly what you mean about color. What I do is set up my photo area then I take a photo of just the plain white background. Many SLR camera's have a "custom white balance" mode where if you supply a photo of "what should be white" to the camera it will normalize the colors so that the photographs are actually the colors of the real product you are seeing. Here is one I just did this weekend of Hwang Cha: notice the white background actually is white, meaning that the color of the tea is actually the color of the tea as well.

  2. I really like your photos, by the way. =)

  3. Thanks! I love doing it, its fun. Great post about this -- it really is something that doesn't get enough attention.

  4. I just took all my photos last night with a Canon T1i with a 180 F3.5 L Macro lens using a bamboo wood background for the dry leaf and a white background for the wet leaf. The pictures of the liquor I took with a Leica M8 because the macro lens I was using got too close.