Friday, May 25, 2007
An Argument For Color Management
It's not sexy or exciting, but calibrating your full image workflow is just about guaranteed to get you better results
If you've set up your digital workflow to be completely color-managed, congratulations! You understand exactly why it's important. If you haven't calibrated your gear because you don't think you need to do it, that's because you haven't calibrated. Confused? It'll all become clear—but only after you calibrate.
It's not sexy or exciting, but calibrating your full image workflow is just about guaranteed to get you better results, whether you make only fine-art prints or regularly deliver work to a range of commercial clients.
Here's the thing about color calibration. It's a lot like using dental floss—there's nothing fun or glamorous about it, but it's something you have to do. The usual argument for not worrying about calibration is that it isn't necessary because you're getting fine-looking prints without extra work just the way things are. Then there's the argument that, at best, all you can do is manage your own colors, and once the file is sent off, it's out of your control anyway, so what's the point?
First, you never do yourself any harm by going through the steps of color management. It's not like you'll suddenly be unable to make a good print or you'll have clients calling to say that the images you sent don't look right. Good color management is a “do–no–harm” kind of thing.
Second, although you might be making fine prints before you calibrate, it's likely that you'll see an improvement after you've calibrated your workflow. Think of it like a car that's out of alignment. It drives just fine with only minor adjustments as you steer, but after you get everything aligned, you find that it steers easier and you don't have to replace tires as fast.
Third, naturally you can't control the color management of everyone downstream from you, but when you start by giving them a file that you know is perfect, that file stands a better chance of making it through the entire production process properly. You never know if everyone else will institute proper color management, but you also never know if they won't.
When was the last time you looked at a print and said, “That's a really well color–managed print?” Obviously, color management doesn't show itself. It's very much a behind-the-scenes player-like the guy behind the guy behind the guy. Color management sits quietly in the background calling the shots so that everything else runs smoothly.
By implementing some color management, you take a lot of the uncertainty out of working with your images. Much of the trial and error of image processing is replaced by efficient work, and that's what it's all about—the more efficiently you can process images, the faster you're done and the more time you can spend shooting profitable images. Color management eliminates variables at all stages of the process.
Let's suppose you've read up to here and now you're a believer in color management, but you don't know where to begin and maybe you're somewhat intimidated. I mean just the phrase is a little standoffish: “color management”—it just isn't a winner. But although the name sounds complicated, the process is anything but. To institute color management, you need a calibration device and the appropriate software; the two work in tandem with each other. Once you've installed the software, you'll be prompted through a series of steps, and at the end of the procedure you'll be set up.
Much has been said about the ability to calibrate LCD monitors. There are persistent discussions that LCDs can't be calibrated, period. It's true that early LCDs were problematic and would shift very quickly, but those issues have largely been fixed within the industry, and current high-end LCDs that are designed for graphics work take to calibration quite well. Even the latest laptop displays calibrate well and stay within limits for extended periods of time. The bigger problem with LCDs today isn't that they can't be calibrated; it's in the way these monitors are viewed. LCD panels are very sensitive to viewing angles. Even models that boast of off–axis viewability look different when seen from different angles. Again, it's a good idea to calibrate any LCD monitor you use for imaging, but be mindful of staying on axis when you're looking at the monitor to get the best results.
Once you're calibrated, it's essential to repeat the process periodically. Monitors drift over time, and you'll need to bring everything back into alignment. A few minutes every few months are well worth it for the peace of mind that comes from knowing you're working efficiently. It's not exciting, but color management is a necessary aspect to your whole image-making process.