Magazine Article


Color Management Basics
What is color management? Why would you want it? And how do you get it?

Color Management. Two words that have been used, misused, abused, and kicked around since the inception of digital imaging. But what does it really mean? What is this mysterious concept, and how does it help us?

In its simplest form, color management is the science behind consistent color. What does that mean? From the first day I sat in front of a computer and learned how to manipulate an image with Adobe’s Photoshop software, the biggest issue I had to deal with was how to get my image to print the way it looks on the screen. Learning how to achieve that became a mission that I’ve pursued to this day. And I’m happy to report that I’ve had tremendous success with it.

But it wasn’t easy at first. Back in the early days of digital, the only way to get a printed image to match what you saw on the monitor was to open a file, print it, and then mess with the monitor controls until the image on the screen matched the print. That’s fine if you only print on one device. But when you have to print to several different printers, or worse, send your image to different labs or service bureaus, you can see how changing your monitor to match each printer can be a daunting task. And yet, to this day there are some labs that tell photographers to mess with their monitors to match their match print, and they call that color management. My response to them is, “Call me when you practice real color management and I’ll be happy to work with you.”

Understanding and Applying Color Management

Fortunately, technology has evolved and color management has become much more reliable and easier to work with and understand. This is thanks, in part, to the International Color Consortium, or ICC. It standardized the way we understand and address color. In doing so, it developed the concept of profiling, which is a way of telling a computer how a device “sees” or reproduces color. The science behind this is complicated. Fortunately, we don’t need to understand the science. We just have to know how to apply it.

Let me give you a simple example. If I have my monitor display 100% red, and I have my printer print its version of 100% red, and I put them next to each other, I can guarantee you they will not match. Why? Because pure red phosphors on a monitor cannot possibly look the same as red ink printed on paper, which we see by means of reflected light. But thanks to color management, a profile can exist on the computer that describes the characteristics of our monitor, while another profile describes the characteristics of our printer. Color management software uses those two profiles to “translate” the red on our monitor to the printer, so we will see a closer match than we had before.

Notice I did not say we would have an exact match. Most devices have characteristics that just don’t reproduce colors the same way—just like a monitor, whose colors are produced by luminescent phosphors, will display some colors that an inkjet printer just cannot physically reproduce with the inks that it uses to print. The important thing to remember is, since devices don’t all reproduce color the same, color management does not and cannot guarantee an exact match between devices. What it does guarantee is consistent, predictable color every time from every device that is color-managed.

What does that mean? It means, for example, if a print is a tiny bit bluer than it appears on our monitor, it may be close enough to be acceptable, but more importantly, we can predict that every print that comes out of that printer will be that same touch bluer than our monitor. What that means to us is, we’ll know exactly what we can expect from our printer every time we print. If that difference wasn’t acceptable, we can make a slight correction before we print the image so it looks the way we want it to.

From a purely economic standpoint, color management helps us save money by not wasting paper and ink (or dyes or chemicals) on test prints and reprints. It also allows us quicker turnaround time on producing our finished prints. From a service bureau’s standpoint, less waste and money saved translates into higher profits. And, as a side benefit, by turning around a job faster, they gain a better reputation with their clients.

(Ed. Note: Look for a continuation of this topic in upcoming issues of PTN.)