Color Management Demystified; Get Great Prints, Right From The Start

One of the most frustrating aspects of the digital darkroom is getting prints that closely resemble the images that we see on a computer monitor. Are your own prints as impressive as the images in the electronic display? Are they "clean," or do they exhibit an undesirable color cast? And are the hues and tones in your prints as vibrant and bright as they appear on the monitor, or do they seem flat and muddy by comparison?

Problems such as these are common when using a monitor that does not produce a true display of the actual color rendition in digital image files. The solution is color management. While this is a multi-faceted process, monitor calibration is the primary and most important component.

Why Calibrate Your Monitor?
Consider this worst-case scenario that can occur when working with an unreliable monitor. You have opened a technically good image and have enhanced it until the image appears perfect on your monitor. But let's say that your monitor is displaying wildly inaccurate color and tonality. In that case, the actual image is quite different from what you're seeing in the electronic display.

Whether you prefer accurate or dramatic color balance and saturation, you can achieve exactly the intended effect by using a color management system.
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

The actual image file may include an obvious magenta cast and excessive color saturation as well as inadequate brightness and contrast. Your monitor is not displaying these characteristics because its display is inaccurate. When you make a print, the photo will exhibit the undesirable characteristics mentioned earlier. That's because the printer software employed the actual image data and did not work from the beautiful image displayed on the monitor.

Monitor Calibration Options
The generic term "calibration" actually consists of two steps. First, it brings the brightness, contrast, and color temperature of the display as close as possible to established standards. The next step is profiling: using measurements to determine the accuracy of the display. A profile stores details about the monitor's behavior and allows the display to be adjusted to compensate for an inaccurate display. (A profile is a file that describes the color behavior of a device.)

The monitor is a key component in any digital darkroom. Depending on the accuracy of its display, the monitor can either cause a great deal of frustration or complement your skills in making prints of exceptional quality. Photo Courtesy of Wacom Inc.

Either of two distinct methods can be employed for calibration. You can use software to adjust the "gamma" (brightness and contrast) or you can buy a full calibration kit ($119 and up) that includes sophisticated software plus a "colorimeter": a sensor that measures the relative intensity of a series of color samples on the display. Full calibration is a more scientific method that produces far more reliable and precise results. Because a monitor's display changes over time, either of the calibration processes should be repeated monthly.

Calibrating with Software. The simplest and most affordable method adjusting the appearance of a display is to use Adobe Gamma. This utility is installed by default with most Adobe programs. If you use a Mac system and do not own an Adobe image editor, use the computer's ColorSync monitor calibration tool, similar to Adobe Gamma. (Windows does not provide a comparable option.)

A worst case scenario is not typical, but virtually every uncalibrated monitor's color and tonality display is inaccurate to some extent. It's worth examining your monitor image and your prints with a critical eye, looking for subtle differences.

Set the ambient light to a moderate level, open the utility through your computer's control panel, and follow the step by step instructions. When you reach steps that require you to make judgments based on a visual evaluation of the monitor display, do the best you can; consider asking for a second opinion. After the process is finished, the software creates a new profile for use by your operating system and Photoshop--or another image editor that can use color profiles--will employ to adjust all images displayed on the monitor.

Any "software only" calibration is subjective to some extent, because several of the steps are based on a visual evaluation: your perception of gamma adjustment settings. This solution is acceptable for a generalized profile that may be better than your computer's default profile, but it's still imprecise. Calibrating your monitor with Adobe Gamma or ColorSync Calibrator is better than doing nothing at all, and it may increase the predictability of brightness and color saturation in your prints.

Full Monitor Calibration. If calibrating with software only doesn't provide the accuracy you want, plan to take a more scientific approach in order to make prints that reflect your creative intentions. Buy a kit with sophisticated software and a "colorimeter." Full calibration will set the optimal gray balance for your display, so it produces the maximum range of colors, an appropriate white luminance and black point, and superior color rendition.

Calibrating a monitor with Adobe Gamma is a simple process and the absolute minimum that's required in display adjustment. More sophisticated software is available from ColorVision and Monaco Systems, but their full calibration kits are more reliable and effective.

Several colorimeter kits are available for use with both CRT and LCD monitors. The most popular are the ColorVision Spyder with PhotoCAL software ($169) and MonacoOPTIX with EZcolor software ($329); recently, ColorVision introduced an even more affordable option, ColorPLUS ($119.) Any of these will produce a highly accurate display of the tonality, color saturation, and color balance of your images.

Although the process is technically sophisticated and complex, the actual procedure is straightforward and takes about 20 minutes. Using a wizard, the software walks you through the procedure, step by step. After full calibration is finished, the software will make a variety of adjustments and it will generate a reliable profile. This new set of instructions will be used by your operating system and imaging program to adjust the colors for an accurate representation of the image file on your monitor.

A complete and highly effective monitor calibration kit includes both software and a colorimeter sensor. The combination
assures a highly reliable monitor display with accurate color rendition and tonality. Courtesy of ColorVision Inc.

As you start working with a fully reliable monitor, you should find that the display produces substantially greater accuracy in terms of color values. When you make a print, it should match closely the appearance of the monitor display in color rendition and in tonal values except for the natural differences produced by various types of media. For example, papers with a soft finish (such as "watercolor") produce much softer colors and contrast than your monitor.

Problem Solving Tips
If you're not satisfied with the color rendition or brightness of your prints after calibration, you'll need to determine whether your monitor or printer is at fault. For this diagnosis, download a standardized PhotoDisc target image file--with "memory colors" that you can easily evaluate--from (no charge). Make a print of the target image and compare the output to the monitor display to determine which appears to be most accurate. If your monitor proves to be unreliable, recalibrate it, preferably using a colorimeter kit; replace the monitor if it's old and cannot be properly calibrated.

Whether you own a CRT or an LCD monitor or both, the calibration process is virtually identical when using a colorimeter that's compatible with both types of monitors. Courtesy of ColorVision Inc.

Working with a reliable display and a high quality ink jet photo printer, you should be able to make prints with the color balance that you expect. If your printer routinely produces a color cast with a certain type of paper, you'll need to compensate for that tendency, in image-editing software or in the printer driver software. (If your prints routinely exhibit a slight green color balance, for example, make an adjustment toward green.) Also check the printer manufacturer's website for updated profiles: a new set of instructions to modify your printer's behavior to produce more accurate prints.

When using after-market paper, check the distributor's website for any custom profiles. If those are not available, consider buying a pro-caliber custom profile from a company such as ProfileCity ($99 for a single profile; If you use many types of media, consider products such as MonacoEZcolor ($299) or my own favorite, ColorVision PrintFIX ($329), for creating profiles for any type of paper. These options are expensive, so try the other alternatives first to solve any color balance problems.

When you identify the paper type in the Properties dialog box in the printer software, you're instructing the system to employ the color profile that's designed for optimal results with that type of paper.

As mentioned earlier, a full color management system is multi-faceted, with monitor calibration being a prerequisite. You can find additional color management techniques--for cameras, scanners, printers and for Adobe imaging programs--in Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging and particularly in Tim Grey's (Sybex) book, Color Confidence: The Digital Photographer's Guide to Color Management a highly detailed and useful reference guide for advanced digital enthusiasts.

Although a print is not identical to an electronic image that's illuminated by backlighting, effective color management ensures that your prints will come close to matching what you see on a monitor.

A long-time "eDP" and "Shutterbug" contributor, stock photographer Peter K. Burian is the author of a new book, "Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging." ($21 through online bookstores.) Covering all aspects of the topic--the technology, equipment and techniques--this book provides 270 pages of practical advice for photo enthusiasts.