I was standing in the kitchen the other day with my mother and my 6-year-old son, and found myself—as I do so often—providing computer tech support for my mother. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but my septuagenarian mother was having trouble with a computer concept, and I was getting frustrated trying to explain it to her.
My mother is a painter, and she recently purchased a discontinued-but-excellent large-format Canon printer so she can make prints of her work. Naturally, she wants accurate color reproduction, but unfortunately she’s trying to get this accurate color with a 7-year-old Mac mini and a CRT monitor with an image burned into the screen.
Why, she lamented, did her inexpensive photo printer create the colors she expected without doing anything, while prints from her expensive wide-format printer are under-saturated and so dark as to be inaccurate?
This isn’t the first time I’ve explained this; usually I explain these concepts to a class full of photographers who, presumably, have a better understanding of digital imaging than my mom, and yet, it’s always the least-understood part of the digital workflow chain.
That’s problematic, because accurate color in photography (or accurate tonality in monochrome work) is obviously a key goal of any creative professional. So why is color management so hard, and how can the process be simplified enough to not only make sense, but to implement easily?
The Language Of Color
Both of my mother’s questions have to do with color spaces and the language of color. As a quick primer, there’s a big range of colors visible to the human eye. Every imaging device reproduces some much smaller amount of those colors—there are no devices used photographically that reproduce every color humans can see. The colors they can reproduce are called their color space.
Different types of devices use different methods to create their colors. Monitors and digital cameras use red, green and blue to make the colors in their color space. Printers use cyan, yellow, magenta and black to represent their colors. A printer with an 11-color ink set can produce a wider range of colors than a four-color printer. A high-end monitor has a wider range of colors it can display than a cheap model.
Since color is described as language—made up of individual elements that work together to create a bigger picture—we can think about color management with the analogy of human languages.
It’s particularly helpful to imagine colors as being language. In our analogy of languages, a camera and a monitor speak similar languages, since they both use the RGB color space. If we say they both speak English, then a monitor might speak American English while a camera speaks British English. Most of the descriptions are the same, but a few need a bit of simple translating. If you know that a “flat” in Britain is an apartment, then when you’re listening to someone from England complain about their “flatmate,” you simply internally translate what they’re saying.
To simplify this analogy, we’ll use 8-bit color where RGB is measured in values between 0 and 255, with a value of 255 meaning 100 percent of the color is present. In this system, something perfectly red would be R=255, G=0, B=0, for example.
So let’s pretend there’s a square of pink paint, which you photograph with your camera and the camera records R=214, G=37, B=152. You open up that image on your monitor, but the monitor has a slight blue cast to it (something that’s pretty common, so when it displays that pink color, some blue is unintentionally present). The result is that the camera’s recorded value of R=214, G=37, B=152 ends up looking on your display like R=214, G=37, B=162. That’s the difference between cotton-candy pink and a sultry lipstick.
To return to our language analogy, if there isn’t translation of these colors, when your camera says “display bright pink,” the monitor will display instead a more intense pink with a bluish tone. If you’ve created a monitor profile, the operating system instead translates “display bright pink” from the camera to “display bright pink but reduce blue by 10” to the monitor, and now they have the same color.
I often say this is like translating things from different regions of the same country. For instance, where I live, squirrels are gray, but in some areas squirrels are brown. If I said, “It’s the color of a squirrel,” that could refer to two different colors depending on who I’m talking to. If I know I’m talking to someone from a region with brown squirrels, I would pick a way to describe gray that didn’t involve a squirrel.
When an RGB device like a monitor talks to a CMYK device, though, that’s like English being translated to another language like Spanish. That requires a good bit more translation work, and both languages don’t always have the same concepts. A color that’s reproducible on a monitor (vivid pink, for example) might be difficult for a printer to create because no matter how you mix CMYK inks, it doesn’t quite add up. To make that cotton-candy pink, a CMYK printer needs to use a value like C=0, M=83, Y=29, K=16. Notice that these values are all way lower than 255, so to create a vivid pink, the printer has to lay down less ink than for, say, magenta (M=255). To reproduce something very vivid, it has to use less color, so it’s never going to be perfectly pink.
For instance, where these colors don’t map correctly, most high-end printers add additional inks. When the computer says “print cotton-candy pink,” instead of setting the printer value to C=0, M=83, Y=29, K=16, it knows to say “Set C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=0 and use the light, light magenta ink set to 255”. (Yes, there is such a thing as light, light magenta ink.)
There are a few places where this color gets translated. The operating system plays a large role in this translation, acting like the United Nations of color management, but a printer can also manage color through its internal processor and the print dialog box, and photo-editing programs like Photoshop can also perform this translation.
This brings us back to the central question that confused my mother—why do cheap photo printers tend to reproduce colors well, but when you add a professional device to the mix, color goes haywire?
The first answer is that some time ago, many of the computer and office equipment companies got together and decided upon a standard color space called sRGB that describes how colors should appear in a standard office lighting environment using typical office-quality devices. Computer monitors, all-in-one printers, photo printers, scanners and more all speak the sRGB language, which means they don’t have to do a lot of translations.
It’s not that inexpensive photo printers happen to produce more accurate color; it’s that they’re designed to be used in an environment where devices speak the same language. Take an entry-level monitor and connect it to an entry-level printer, and you’re standardizing the language and also the vocabulary.
When you add a professional device to the mix, or when you begin to calibrate your devices, the assumption changes. Once you’re using non-standardized devices with custom color profiles, the assumption is that you’re familiar with the steps needed to perform the translations correctly.
The most common issue, and the one faced by my mom and by the many students I’ve met with the same questions, is that they only manage a part of the color chain. Printers (and other devices) use translations called ICC profiles to perform their color translations, and it’s essential to select a profile that matches the paper being used. One of the first mistakes is using a printer with the incorrect profile. Print to Premium Photo Glossy paper while the print dialog box is set to Premium Photo Semi-Gloss paper, and the color will be incorrect.
But even if you have the right printer profile from the manufacturer, individual devices vary from unit to unit. The Premium Photo Glossy paper profile might not reflect what the head in your printer is capable of producing. That’s why high-end printers create their own profiles for each batch of paper and each set of inks they use.
Another common mistake is not managing the lighting in your editing environment. The colors on your monitor (and on the printed page) look different depending on the ambient light. If you sometimes edit after dark with low ambient light in the room and sometimes during the day with light streaming through the window, your on-screen colors will look different, and so your adjustments will be different.
Tools Of The (Color) Trade
The first thing that photographers should do is look for devices that offer as wide of a color “vocabulary” as possible. A new LCD screen will be more accurate than one that’s several years old, and a device that’s designed to have a wider range of colors is better than one with fewer colors. The new MacBook Pro has a display that uses Apple’s Wide Color to display a wider color range than any previous Mac laptop screen, so using that MacBook Pro will result in more accurate color, if properly set up, than an older MacBook Pro. (For more on Apple’s Wide Color, check out the article digitalphotopro.com/gear/imaging-tech/apples-wide-color/.)
High-end monitors can display even more colors, more accurately. For the desktop user, the 31.5-inch BenQ SW320 Photography Monitor is a 4K UHD display that produces 99% of Adobe RGB and 100% of sRGB color space, with a true 10-bit panel. At $1,400, the SW320 and monitors like it are some of the best investments you can make in an accurate color chain.
To ensure correct end-to-end color, you need to evaluate the color displayed or reproduced by each device. This is a generally straightforward process, though most people don’t do it or don’t do it correctly.
It starts with profiling and calibrating your devices using a color-management tool. We’ve used the X-Rite i1 Display line of tools and the Datacolor Spyder5ELITE, both of which provide excellent and simple color management in relatively inexpensive packages.
Both tools create profiles (check the color vocabulary) of your devices, calibrate them (bringing them back into a known range of performance), and then create the color translation table used by the operating system and programs to adjust colors. The process takes just a few minutes and is largely hands-off.
Both the i1 Display and the Spyder5ELITE have ambient light sensors, which can adjust screen brightness to compensate for changes in studio lighting, eliminating some of the need for separate profiles for different lighting conditions.
Once monitors are profiled and calibrated, the operating system uses this profile to create more accurate colors on screen. This isn’t the end of the color management chain, but it is where most people stop the color management process.
For those printing, it’s at the very least necessary to download the ICC profiles for the type of printer and types of paper being used. Most printer manufacturers have ICC profiles available for download on their websites, and the paper manufacturers all maintain downloadable profiles on the currently popular high-end printers.
X-Rite and Datacolor make color-profiling bundles with the tools needed to calibrate and profile displays and printers; however, some printers include built-in color profiling and calibration, and many printers have built-in profiling tools and/or the ability to integrate with a hardware calibrator to create individual ICC profiles.
The ColorMunki Photo kit from X-Rite is a $500 bundle that includes a device that can calibrate and profile printers, displays and projectors. The single puck-shaped device measures both reflective and transmissive colors to evaluate a variety of different devices. A step-up solution, the i1Photo Pro 2 bundle also calibrates those devices but uses a more sensitive measurement device.
Datacolor’s Spyder5STUDIO is another excellent bundled solution for calibrating every device in a studio and also costs $500. The kit includes the Spyder5ELITE, SpyderPRINT and SpyderCUBE, a small device useful for measuring white balance in a scene.
Regardless of the price or the package, having a complete color workflow management solution is essential. With a good color profiling and calibrating device, the imaging chain is able to be properly controlled, ensuring accurate color across the range of devices and from creative to client.
Of course, you could stick with low-end printers and uncalibrated monitors, but an end-to-end color management solution is probably a better idea.