Hands On: Palette modular photo editing controls

Palette’s analog controls make digital editing more efficient

Palette isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a look for creatives who spend a significant amount of time editing photos.

Photographers love physical buttons more than a kid in an elevator. That’s why Palette introduced an assortment of USB-powered, customizable buttons, sliders, and dials to turn the task of processing photos back into a physical one. But don’t get too nostalgic – Palette’s physical controls speed up the editing process (Sorry, darkroom fans).

Being a physical button kind of person myself (I was probably the last 20-something on Earth to finally trade in the keypad phone), I was eager to take Palette for a spin – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Modules customized to your liking

Palette’s different control options snap together with magnets and – provided you maintain a connection with the core module, which connects to the computer via USB and supplies power – you can arrange them pretty much any way you like. The modules are lit, which both tells you if it is connected properly and makes it easier to use in the dark. The core doubles as a mini screen that displays what mode you’re in and, when you touch a control, the setting that you’re adjusting. Despite being held together with only magnets, the connection is solid enough to move Palette from a desk to say, the couch (anyone else Netflix binge during long photo edits?).

Palette allows you to edit without taking your eyes off the image to find a keyboard shortcut.

Palette modules can be used with preset profiles, or customized to a number of different controls for Lightroom, Photoshop, and several other programs (including Premiere Pro CC, Final Cut Pro X, Illustrator CC, and InDesign CC). Using the Palette app, you simply click on the module, choose a control you’d like to set it to, and then save the custom profiles so you can quickly access them later. Swapping through different profiles is as simple as assigning a button to the task (just save then close any profiles you’re not currently using, so you don’t have to click past them).

For example, in Lightroom, I used four different profiles: sorting, exposure, color, and detail. I closed the sorting profile (which wasn’t a custom set but a preloaded one) after I had flagged my photos, then used a button to swap between the custom editing profiles I created. I used an exposure set to adjust the highlights, shadows, blacks, and whites, and then created a separate profile for color options (largely white balance and red and orange luminance for skin tones). I included sharpening, noise reduction, and a straightening tool in my final profile.

The Palette sliders tend to make larger adjustments while the dials seem to offer more minute control. I initially expected to like the sliders best, but I actually ended up preferring the dials. The sliders are more reminiscent of many Lightroom controls, but they also have a starting and ending point – after switching profiles, once you touch the dial, that setting goes to wherever you left the last slider. That’s great when you’re editing similar photos since a slight touch gets you the same adjustment, but when you swap Palette profiles and shadows suddenly becomes saturation, you may end up dialing down a setting that you simply wanted to bump up just a touch. While not a big issue, I preferred the neutral start of the dials after swapping profiles.

The buttons – well, I don’t have to explain a button, right? They’re helpful for moving to the next photo, adding flags, and quickly bringing up the before and after, just to name a few. While not as essential as the dials and sliders, the buttons are nice for keeping your hands on the controllers instead of using a keyboard shortcut. Assign a button to swapping profiles and you can easily add settings for more than the number of dials and sliders that you have.

As you make adjustments with the controls, a small pop-up shows what you’re controlling and, in Lightroom, the screen jumps to that section of the Develop module.

Time saver

I started using Palette hoping to cut back on editing time and the physical controls delivered there as well. In some cases, using Palette cut the editing time almost in half. While using the mouse to adjust the different exposure sliders in the basic panel isn’t horribly slow in the first place, turning a dial to straighten instead of drawing out a crop box and then dragging a corner, is a big speed improvement.

The biggest time saver for Photoshop users is likely Pallete’s adjustment layer controls.

While I expected Palette to speed up edits, I had no idea how efficient it would be for sorting through Lightroom catalogs. Normally I’d spend a little over seven minutes flagging favorites from 250 RAW files – with Palette, I sorted through the same number of photos in about four minutes.

For my editing style, Palette saved the most time in Lightroom where all the whole image edits were made, essentially without ever touching the mouse. In Photoshop, I used the dials to adjust zoom and brush size while controlling the healing brush with the mouse. The biggest time saver for Photoshop users is likely Pallete’s adjustment layer controls, where touching a slider or dial set to a certain adjustment layer will automatically add in that layer for you.

Palette comes in sets, ranging from five to fifteen modules. I reviewed the eight-module Expert kit, and since you can easily hit a button to swap profiles and change the function of the controls, it was plenty of controls for me (and offers a good value). The smaller kit didn’t seem to make much of an impact on editing times – and I liked the organization of using separate profiles.

palette-dials
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Palette was surprisingly easy to set up and had a significant impact on the amount of time I spent on each photo. My biggest (and perhaps only) complaint is that sometimes after the controllers went into a sleep mode, the button to switch to the next profile was a little slow to respond.

Conclusion

Editing without Palette is like shooting photos with a single button, while editing with the system is like shooting with enough buttons and dials that you don’t have to take your eye from the viewfinder to make adjustments. Palette allows you to edit without taking your eyes off the image to find a keyboard shortcut and, in many cases, can make a pretty significant dent in the time spent on each photo. While there were a few minor hang ups and a few settings that I wished I could assign to a control, Palette is a very well thought out system and is certainly worth a look for anyone who spends a significant amount of time editing photos.

Highs

  • Improves editing speed
  • Easy to use
  • Multiple profile options

Lows

  • Sometimes slow waking from sleep mode
  • Expensive for hobbyists or non-creatives

B&H Palette

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