Color Management in a Nutshell

Background

In my Over the Gamut and Through the Woods column from August 2004, I made an attempt to explain how to use color management and ICC profiles. In this article, we take a step back in order to discover whether or not we really need color management and we'll discuss some alternatives. As you can see by the August 2004 article, moving into a color managed workflow requires the use of ICC profiles which you may not be familiar with initially. In addition, acquiring these profiles is not always free and may require at least some minor investment. Ultimately, your investment of some time and money can pay off in the form of more accurate color on screen and in print, but is it worth it?

The naked eye

Assessing color by eye is a simple process that involves some very complex issues. We may look at a printed photo and discover that it looks very dull with washed out colors. This is a simple assessment but it can be caused by a multitude of problems. Simply cranking up the saturation on the image and reprinting may solve the problem to your satisfaction, or it may create other problems like loss of detail in bright colors like blue sky. You might even look at a printed photo in your office under fluorescent lights and notice that a blue flower looks too purple, only to take the same print to a window and the flower appears the proper shade of blue under outdoor lighting.

Assessing our needs

Rather than try to understand all these interactions, why they happen, and the possible fixes, let's ask ourselves some simple questions to help us determine whether or not we really need to step into the world of color management and ICC profiles.

  1. Are you happy with color in your photos? This is ultimately the driving force behind color management for most people. If you take photos with your camera, print them, give them to friends and family, and everyone thinks they look great, you probably don't need color management. The only problem here is that many people who used to think their prints looked perfect say they didn't know what they were missing after they tried a true color managed workflow. It is very difficult to "imagine" how your photos could look better on screen or in print without seeing the difference. If you strive to get the best reproduction of your photos and you are open to the possibility that they can be improved, read on.

  2. Do your photos look very close to the same (color-wise) on screen compared to your prints? A common problem with non color managed workflows is that there are often differences in color when you compare a print to what gets displayed on your monitor. Everything might look reasonable until you run across that one purple sweater that just doesn't look right in print but looks fine on screen, or the orange beach ball that looks fine in print but looks too yellow on screen. If you are generally happy with the way your photos appear on screen and in print but you find a few of these scattered nagging issues, color management and the use of ICC profiles is the most straightforward way of correcting "oddball" problems with color. Trying to correct them using other (manual) image editing methods often corrects the problem at hand, but creates a new one somewhere else.

  3. If you've decided to try a color managed workflow, are you willing to make the investment in time/money? It takes some time to learn how to use ICC profiles, learn where to activate them in your software, and learn how to use different options that relate to the use of ICC profiles. My Over the Gamut and Through the Woods column from August 2004 goes a long way toward that understanding. It may take a few hours of reading and using your ICC aware software to get up to speed, but we're normally not talking weeks/months of experience or anything really overly complicated once you understand the basics. As far as monetary investment, see below for a breakdown.

The color management investment

Time and money are the major costs of a color management workflow. It will take a little reading to understand how to use ICC profiles in a color managed workflow and may actually complicate your workflow a bit if, for example, you change from one type of photo paper to another and now find that you need to acquire a new ICC profile for the new paper. In a non color managed workflow, you would just print on the new paper and experiment a bit. If you see something you don't like, you can change some print driver options or tweak the image and reprint. In a color managed workflow, use of the new paper is less of a manual effort and more of a scientific measurement process. While it may take some extra time up front to print test targets and create an ICC profile for the new paper, it does at least guarantee some level of color accuracy and in the long run may save a lot of time by eliminating reprints, manual tweaks, and fiddling with image edits.

So let's say you'd like to give it a try, but what about the monetary investment? If you use your monitor as a "draft" view, are mainly concerned about color accuracy in prints, and don't do a lot of image editing with respect to color, you might be able to get by with just profiling your printer to create an ICC profile for the printer. A low cost printer profiling tool such as my own Profile Prism is a good investment for getting color accurate prints by allowing the profiling of any printer/ink/paper combination. Such a tool will cost about $79. But what if you don't have a scanner? A good flatbed scanner is required to be able to profile a printer because a scanner is used to "read" the printed target along with a reference target to make the adjustments in the profile. If you have an old scanner or your current scanning software is inadequate, the scanner may not be good enough to create accurate printer profiles. If that's the case, add about $100 to $120 for a good scanner like the Canon LiDE 80 that is capable of creating excellent printer profiles when combined with scanner based printer profiling software.

Starting from scratch, we can now create our own printer profiles for any inket or dye sub printer, paper, and ink combination for a monetary investment of about $200. Considering the price of ink, photo paper, and time, that's not bad, but what about the monitor? If you do decide to do some edits and work on color in your images, your monitor may also need a profile because the edits you do on screen might not look the same when you print. Although your printer is printing accurate color via a printer ICC profile, your monitor may have some issues with accuracy. You can do a visual "calibration" of your monitor using a monitor calibration tool like Adobe Gamma or the monitor calibration tool that comes with Profile Prism, but realize that this is not as accurate as profiling. To create a truly accurate profile for your monitor and "close the loop" on color management, you will need to buy a colorimeter that attaches to your monitor. The colorimeter takes actual readings and creates an accurate profile. You can get a good monitor colorimeter with software for $250 to $300 at places like ColorVision or Monaco Systems.

When we add these up, we're at $500 to take total control of color. The input device (camera) needs a profile too, but it is beyond the scope of what most people will be able to do to create camera profiles. The better/professional cameras usually come with a "color space" setting which is the same thing as a profile. For example, set your camera to sRGB color space, and all images from the camera will be in the sRGB color space profile. Set it to Adobe RGB, and all images will use the Adobe RGB profile. If not specified or selectable in your camera, sRGB is the only real choice. Just remember that a full color managed workflow requires an accurate ICC profile for both the input device (camera/scanner) and the output device (monitor/printer). If you are missing an ICC profile on either side of the input/output equation, accuracy may be questionable.

Go or no?

Ultimately your decision on whether or not to adopt a color managed workflow will depend on your wants and needs. If you are a professional or a semi-pro who occasionally sells prints or does work for publications, you will probably want to use color management because the benefits will show in your work and your time/money invested will come back to you. Color management via ICC profiles is currently the only method of dealing with color that can actually ensure some level of scientific accuracy in the results. If you are a "casual shooter" who prints a few photos from time to time and you don't consider digital photography a hobby, you may be hard pressed to justify the time and money investment required in a color managed workflow.

This certainly doesn't mean you need to be a pro to justify color management. You might simply be someone who takes pride in their photography and you want that to show in your photos. Different combinations of equipment (cameras, scanners, monitors, and printers) work better together and you might be using a combo that produces very adequate results without fooling with color management. On the other hand, you may be someone who has been plagued with inaccuracy in certain colors in your prints and you want a better way to solve the problem than the endless moving of sliders in your image editor. Some problems are very difficult to solve by manual tweaking but are easily solved using color management. Here is just one example of how different equipment can render different results and how color management can bring them together in a scientific, measurable way with no (or very little) manual tweaking.

-- Mike Chaney