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Color by Numbers
Color Management isn’t just a simple formula that all photographers easily adopt into their workflow. Enter the ProLab


Examples from LustreColor. Before (above) and after (below), with the correct color and exposure.

Before you can have a perfect print, images need to be held to the highest color standard. Color management can easily become a thorn in a photographer’s side, however, if they either a) don’t know what they’re doing, or b) just don’t have the time to do the dirty work themselves. Or, conversely, there are photographers who do attempt to take on this mighty task, only to find that perhaps they should have left it to someone more versed in colorspaces, white balance and profiles.

Here’s where the prolab comes in. In the times, when every Tom, Dick, and Larry claims to be an “output expert,” the prolab can take center stage as true color gurus, making the difference between a shoddily corrected image and a picture-perfect one.

To DIY or Not to DIY...

Miller’s Professional Imaging, with facilities in Pittsburg, KS, and Columbia, MO, make sure that all images meet the highest color standard, according to lab managers Nema Velia and Jim Jamison. “Every imaging workflow inside either lab is fully color-managed using the appropriate ICC profiles,” says Velia. “Our customers always decide whether or not they want their files color-corrected.”

A good deal of Miller’s customers don’t do their own color management at all (or do it incorrectly). “It’s a regular occurrence to receive image files that are not in a proper working space,” says Jamison. “Most often this happens when a customer mistakenly applies their monitor profile to an image file. Depending on the degree of manipulation and the extent of the mistakes, sometimes it’s easier to quickly identify a problem with some than with others. When we see these instances, we do everything we can to try and help the photographer understand what workflow changes are needed to improve not only our life, but theirs.”

One of the main solutions Miller’s provides is printer profiles. “In the early days of digital, we shied away from distributing our printer profiles for various reasons,” says Velia. “Believe it or not, for the first few years of digital, many digital workflows didn’t support ICC profiling; some systems were ‘closed’ and hard to manage and access. We took it upon ourselves to try and deal with the issues internally before trying to bring photographers into the loop. We’ve been distributing our printer profiles now for about five years. Over the years, more and more photographers are becoming familiar and proficient with ICC color management.”

Ken Wilson, owner of LustreColor in Canton, MA, explains that their services are all about saving photographers time and money. “We’re principally a wedding and portrait lab,” he says. “Photographers who use us are interested in getting the best-quality work back with as little work as possible for them to do on their own. In other words, they’re busy. They often don’t feel comfortable in handling their own color. That’s where we come in.”

What LustreColor does isn’t such a far stretch from what they used to do before digital took hold of the industry. “Our systems started way back even before digital files were commonplace,” Wilson explains. “We started with film and then moved over to the digital side.”

LustreColor worked with Kodak on the solution they would eventually put into place: the DP2 print-production system. “With this system, we recommend a couple of things to our customers,” says Wilson. “First, we ask our customers to submit JPEGs to us. We also request that they don’t color-correct at all. We certainly do have customers who shoot in RAW and then maybe tweak a little and then convert to JPEG, but usually we tell our customers not to color-correct. As long as that file is well-exposed, we will produce a top-quality print to send back to them.”

Their reasoning for this workflow is evident. “The print production system we use is superior to anything they’re going to use to color-correct working with a RAW file,” says Wilson. “When we color-correct an image using our system, we actually don’t adjust the original file. We color-correct it, and at the time of rendering, the color correction is applied. We always maintain the original file so no information is thrown away and the integrity of that original file remains intact. All our output devices are in sRGB.”

Getting a Grip on a Host of Hues

There are certain issues that tend to crop up in the color management arena, but these labs are accustomed to efficiently and quickly dealing with any problems. “We have customers who change their files too much,” says Jamison. “In some cases, we could make a better print if they would leave the color management to us. In many cases, our customers want to do file manipulation, but without the responsibility for the final product.”

Communication is also key to coming up with the perfect final result, and Miller’s tries to make sure everyone is on the same page. “Customers need to communicate to us exactly what they want, or what they expect,” Velia says. “We have systems in place to put specific information on any customer’s account regarding preferences, as well as the ability to keep a guide print for them on file.” Miller’s also keeps current info. on their website and customer service reps are available for one-on-one help whenever it’s needed.

LustreColor tries to keep things as consistent as possible. “We have what we call a normal set balance for skin tones,” says Wilson. “We were doing film the same way (we had a set value for skin tone on film); we’ve adopted a similar value for digital and we correct for that value.”

For a client who wants to verge outside the normal values, LustreColor is always able to accommodate. “There are overrides we can put into their account so when we print, they’ll get that bias they requested of us,” says Wilson. “It takes a little testing back and forth until we agree on what that bias should be, and then every image gets that bias. But for the vast majority of customers, the normal set value works just fine.”

Another issue LustreColor is faced with often: incorrect white balance. “That makes our job a lot more difficult,” says Wilson. “That also leads to photographers shooting in RAW, correcting white balance in RAW, and then converting to JPEG and sending to us for final correction.”

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