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Beware of the Colour Management Tar Pit

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Beware of the Colour Management Tar Pit

Why colour management won’t cure all your problems…

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If you have read some of the articles and reviews on this site you will probably know that we consider Colour Management a ‘Good Thing’.

Is there a danger that Colour Management will be oversold and people will be disappointed as becomes more mainstream?

eye-one design items

This article is a few years old, but still largely relevant.
Equipment and software has advanced (such as i1Profiler from X-Rite) but the principles are still the same. Some review links have been updated (2012) to reflect newer versions of equipment and software.

Things to be wary of in Colour Management

Keith has written this short article covering some of his personal views about the business of colour management.

It’s partly in response to many questions he has been asked about just what you can expect and just as importantly what it won’t fix.

The article also includes references to other articles and reviews on the site and web resources that we found useful.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that at Northlight Images, we do not sell any colour management software or hardware, and when asking for advice it’s worth looking at just what the person or company helping you actually sells for a living ;-)

printer profiling targetBut you said it would all be correct if I bought your kit…

It’s increasingly widely appreciated, that to get better and more consistent results when doing digital photography, you really should use a computer with a calibrated monitor.

Note — If you are completely new to the concept of colour management you might want to look at my brief introduction as to what it’s all about

There is an ever increasing range of lower cost hardware that enables you to quickly and simply calibrate your screen.

However, as the products become more widely used, the average expertise of those selling them quickly diminishes.

I’m finding that more outlets are simply seeing adding colour management hardware to a purchase as nothing more than an extra sale.

Nothing wrong in that as such (BTW we don’t sell hardware or software) but I’ve had a number of emails from people who were sold a calibrator and simply told that it would make their prints better.

What can I say? – “yes it might do, but then again it might not”

I’ve worked closely with several of the manufacturers involved and know that they share the same enthusiasm for the subject as I do. It’s not in their interests either when equipment gets sold as a ‘cure for all ills’.

More widely used, cheaper equipment also leads to more ‘reviews’ in magazines that try to jump on the bandwagon. While I have seen some very well written reviews, there is some complete dross, written by clueless individuals whose aim seems nothing more than to create some arbitrary numerical score at the end of an article and bestow some spurious ‘editors choice’ award. If you hadn’t guessed it, that irritates me :-)

Color Management book

I often get asked for suggestions about learning more about the nuts and bolts of Colour Management.

My usual suggestion is Bruce Fraser's Real World Colour Management. My own copy is well thumbed. It's my first port of call if I'm asked a question and I feel I don't quite understand an issue well enough to be absolutely sure of an answer.

Check latest price/availability from Amzon

RWCM  2nd Edition RWCM 

See some other books Keith has on the shelf, on our Books Page

It’s a deliberate choice -not- to do comparative reviews here at Northlight Images – you, the reader, will have to take time and make some effort to understand what the product is about and what you need.

That said, I’m always happy to answer questions about my reviews… (see also our review policy)

It was in response to this and questions I was asked at several of my talks and lectures, that I wrote an article covering the basics of “Why don’t my prints match my screen

The essence of it is that a screen and a bit of paper are completely different in the way the image you see is created – this leads to the (initially) rather shocking observation that your prints will -never- match your screen.

Once you’ve got past that, you can concentrate on getting good prints, rather than worrying about something you can’t actually do anything about…

I should add one little thing that surprises me… it’s that suppliers of monitor profiling kit don’t tell people that their monitor may well look completely ‘wrong’ after initial calibration.

This is most obvious when they have been using a CRT with a high unadjusted colour temperature (all the whites look a bit too blue). When I’ve calibrated people’s monitors for the first time I often suggest they go away for a while and when they come back it’ll be the original settings that look wrong :-)

So, getting your monitor right is the first important step.

Of course if the software you are using does not support colour management (more common on PCs than Macs), then all that effort comes to nothing.

The answer is to use a good editing package for your photo editing – if the one you use does not support colour profiles then bin it. If people ask me what to use then my first suggestion is usually Photoshop Elements – it’s simple to use and handles colour correctly.

But if I just buy…

printer profiling equipmentThis can be the next stage after you get your monitor sorted out. Your prints are still not right, do you go for custom profiles or even look at making your own printer profiles?

Remember though, printer profiles only work if the application and printer drivers you are using supports their use – once again, use that free editing package that came with your camera and all bets may be off…

Just a few simple measurements to make profiles and all will be sorted…

All that kit looks tempting… >>

The Eye One spectrophotometer and accessories with my G4 Mac laptop.

For only a few hundred pounds more than your calibrator you can get even more impressive looking kit and start collecting sheets of paper with coloured squares on them (I just checked and there are four such sheets on my desk as I write this :-)

printer profiling with the colorvision printfix pro

Taking measurements with the PrintFIX PRO

Now I write articles and give talks about colour management, as well as use it for some of my printing, so I’ve (sort of) got an excuse for all this stuff.

If you use several different papers, different inks or different printers then it may well be worthwhile getting the kit. Do appreciate though, that the more you get into it, the more you will need to learn about the principles of what you are doing.

It takes some effort to understand – the majority of people who contact me asking for advice after they have purchased such kit, just need pointing to suitable resources and an appreciation of some of the limitations to what they are trying to do.

It’s also an unfortunate fact that some people’s printers are just rubbish – if your printer and ink doesn’t go well with a particular paper, then no amount of profiling and tweaking is going to help.

Getting the correct media settings (examples) may help, but sometimes it won’t — Get over it, try some new paper or even consider whether that printer you have been using for the last five years is really up to the job…

Remember, profiling will usually make a good printer/paper/ink combination better – it won’t fix a bad setup.

Soft proofing is also something I’m getting asked about more often – it usually comes after monitor calibration and printer profiling have failed to make prints quite match the screen… I’ve heard it talked about in almost mystic tones, as if all you need to know is how to do it correctly and all will be right…

As I’ve said before -your prints will never look exactly like your screen-

The idea is to be able to consistently produce good quality prints that you are happy with. Soft proofing can help, but is not some magical cure!

  • Soft proofing is one way to simulate more accurately how your prints will look – see this very useful introduction by Bruce Fraser (link is to copy)

The pictures below show some of what can happen when you start making your own profiles… :-)

printer profiling test patches

After some tests with the PrintFIX PRO

DIY printer profiling – a godsend to paper and ink manufacturers :-)

black and white printer profiling

Some of the paper and ink used for black and white test with the MonoChromePro Ink set

Beware of the next temptation, to start editing your profiles – it has it’s uses, but once again you need to know when to use it and and why [2015 – ‘very rarely’ would be my answer]

printer profile editing

Profile editing is useful – but still won’t fix a bad printer :-)

The next stage might be to look at perhaps profiling your camera – this is even more specialised. I use it occasionally, for certain commercial jobs, but the ones that -need- it are not so common.

camera profiling results

Camera profiling to deal with unusual lighting

Just like buying cameras and lenses there is the possibility for spending a -lot- more money if you want.

[2015 A colorchecker Passport and DNG profiles is easier for the rare times I tend to use camera profiling. See an example of its use on my architectural photography site blog]

Try and remember why it is you are doing it – for myself it helps me produce better pictures and is a subject I enjoy teaching and helping people understand. Why are -you- doing it??

I know of people who take great pleasure in measuring the MTF functions of lenses… personally I rarely find photographing graph paper that fulfilling :-)

Painting behind radiators

Colour management is a field that holds a fascination for me, but that interest also comes from my scientific background and general intellectual curiosity. When it comes down to it, the different elements of colour management are there to help me get good photographs – and make sure that my commercial work is of good consistent quality and supplied to clients to meet their needs.

If you get into colour management, just remember why you are doing it in the first place. It’s all to easy to become increasingly critical of your results and spend more and more time creating profiles, tweaking them and never being quite satisfied.

Now, my standards may be pretty high when it comes to some of my work (see my Black and White printing test image for an example) but they are realistic achievable targets.

I never forget that while the objective is to produce work that both I and the clients are happy with, it needs to be done as part of a profitable business.

If you consider yourself a perfectionist, then be very careful when getting into colour management – it can be a tar pit that can suck you into always feeling that you could do that little bit better.

I meet a lot of people in the colour management field and I’m relatively unusual in having a ‘that will do, it’s good enough’ attitude to some of my work. The number one warning sign that I suggest to people, is being concerned if knowing that not all the wall behind your radiators is painted – not concerned that anyone would ever see it, but just because -you- know about it :-)

…and yes, some bits of wall behind my radiators aren’t painted – I just don’t care :-)

Just my personal view, but the point is not to forget why you take photos in the first place ;-)

Colour management links and resources

I’ve written quite a bit on this site covering various aspects of colour management and the equipment you can use. In my own work I’ve found that the more I understand the subject, the more I can forget about it for most aspects of my work – It just works… (most of the time ;-)

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More colour management and printing related information

For information about printers, paper reviews and profiling (colour management) see the Printing section of the main printers and printing page, or use the search box at the top of any page.
All colour management articles and reviews are indexed on the main Colour Management page - please do let Keith know if you've any questions, either via the comments or just email us?

Some specific articles that may be of interest:  

  • Why don't my prints match my screen? A short article showing why there is more to getting your prints to match your screen, than just calibrating your monitor. It's the vital first step, but you do need to consider some other factors for best results.
  • Why are my prints too dark - some basic suggestions to this common problem.

Articles below by Keith (Google's picks for matching this page)


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