Testing: Palette Modular Controllers

By Norman Chan

A custom controller setup designed with photographers and video editors in mind.

I was recently sent Palette, a modular controller system designed to assist with photo and video editing. The freeform system, which raised funds for development and production on Kickstarter, just launched pre-orders to the general public. I've been testing it with my Lightroom photo editing, and found that it's sped up parts of my workflow. Additionally, it's changed the way I think about some photo-tweaking settings, like color temperature, for the better. Here's how it works.

Palette is a system of physical buttons, dials, and sliders that, though its Mac or Windows desktop software, tap directly into keyboard shortcuts or compatible Adobe apps. Its innovation (and cost) lies in the modular design--each module is housed in a beautiful and lightweight aluminum chassis. An OLED-equipped core power module is the only thing that plugs into your computer via USB; the rest of the modules snap together with magnetic connections. Each module has one data connecting side that needs to be adjacent to another module for the daisy-chaining to work, but the result is that the system is fairly freeform. Up to 16 modules can be powered off of one power core.

On the desktop side, the companion app actually recognizes the physical arrangement of modules, showing your configuration on screen. From there, you can create profiles for compatible (or custom) programs, assigning functionality to each of the modules, as well as adjusting the color of the module's LED light border. For example, in my Lightroom profile, I assigned one arcade-style button to toggle a zoom, another to alternate between original and edited photos, and the sliders and dials to various Develop tools. The physical design of these modules dictates their purpose to three basic types of control: the button is suited for toggling functions, the slider for adjusting a limited range, and the dial for bi-directional adjustment of incremental values. The upshot is that Palette works best if you are already familiar with the tools in your Adobe apps and have an idea of how where your workflow can be optimized.

For my testing, I loaded a large batch of unedited RAW photos from a recent convention and used Palette as a way to adjust white balance, exposure, highlights, white levels, and shadows. Normally, I would be clicking each of these settings on the screen with a mouse, and typing in numerical values for each to make my adjustments. For example, for a batch of photos taken indoors, I can blanket adjust the white balance to a specific value, and do the same with exposure. Using the sliders on Palette to make those same adjustments saved and little bit of time switching hands from mouse to keyboard (I kept one hand on the keyboard, and the other over all the Palette controls).

But the revelatory thing was that I became less reliant on the numerical values of my adjustments, and focused more on the photo itself. Instead of setting a photo's color temperature to 5500K because that's what past experience has shown would be suitable for that environment, adjusting by slider took my mind off of the numbers. The picture would tell me how I should edit it, not preset values. That same feeling of being liberated from numerical values applied to using Palette's dials for my other essential Lightroom tweaks. Photo editing felt more fun.

But while I'm enjoying using Palette for Lightroom work, I don't think it's something I would be willing to spend several hundred dollars on. $200 gets you a starter kit with one core, two buttons, a dial, and a slider, which should be enough for avid Lightroom and Premiere Pro users. But that's a lot for a custom productivity controller, which can end up taking a lot of desk space. It's a specialty tool that currently is limited to only a handful of apps. Native Adobe compatibility is really solid, but I would wait to see what other software suites Palette's devs enable for it down the line.