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As a photographer, you spend plenty of time capturing the perfect moment, evaluating the quality of the light and understanding how to process, store and print photos in digital darkroom programs like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture. The last thing you want to worry about is whether the colors in your photos will be as vibrant, as rich, or as accurate as you saw with your eye and adjusted on your monitor.
That’s why digital photography has become the choice among professionals and amateurs alike; digital ensures your photo preview on the back of your camera looks close to the same as the photo printed on your inkjet, through a digital photo lab or posted online. You get this kind of quality because of effective color management that’s built into every step in the digital workflow and embedded into your photographs. While this process isn’t yet perfect, it is quite robust and requires only a minimal introduction into the technical underpinnings for you to make color management work for your photos.
The goal of this four-part series is to help you improve the color consistency and color accuracy in your digital photography workflow from image capture to print. We’ll begin this month with Part I, a high-level overview of color management—what purpose it serves and how it works. Part II addresses the cornerstone of an effective digital photography workflow—the monitor—with recommendations on how to select an appropriate monitor and how to calibrate and profile the monitor to ensure accurate on-screen color. Part III helps you configure the color management options in the major image editing and correction applications. Part IV tackles color management in the print process, a source of frustration for many photographers.
The knowledge you’ll gain from these articles will take you beyond simple button pushing and give you a deeper mastery of color management because you’ll not only learn how to use it, but you’ll learn how and why it works so well.
The Role of Color Management in Accurate Final Photos
The philosophy of color management is simple. Digital photographs should look the same at every stage of the digital photography workflow. From image capture to print, your photo should look substantially the same, without significant color shifts, changes in contrast or loss of highlight or shadow detail.
In concept, color management is rather straightforward. In practice, it’s significantly more complex. Fortunately, the hardware and software used to implement and support color management has become significantly easier to use and more effective than it was even a few years ago. This makes the benefits of color management accessible to everyone, not just serious professionals with full-time studio assistants. If nothing else, learning to calibrate your monitor effectively, adjust color settings in your imaging software and deftly navigate the options in your printer dialog will make your digital photography workflow faster, more effective and far less frustrating.
ICC-based Color Management: The Foundation of A Successful Workflow
Conventions and standards help make life easier. When you get into any car, you know the gas pedal is on the right and the brake is to the left of the gas. This convention allows a routine to become automatic and prevents you from having to figure out how to work a car every time you get behind the wheel.
This is the idea behind the International Color Consortium (ICC). It is the governing body for color management standards, development and implementation. Like having the gas pedal on the right, standards-based color management makes it easier for software developers to support color management and for end users to use color management effectively by setting standards that most everyone can agree upon using.
The greatest contribution of the ICC is the creation of a modular, ICC-based workflow which makes it easy to prepare a single photo for many different output purposes. Prior to ICC profile, film was scanned and a digital file was created for optimal reproduction on one type of printing press. If a client wanted to change papers or use a different printing method, the file would need to be rescanned as each digital file would only print correctly on one device. This was referred to as “closed loop” color management. The creator of the digital file needed to know exactly how the digital file would be used, otherwise the photo would not print correctly.
We’ve come a long way since then. Today, a photo you create can be printed on your inkjet printer, uploaded to a photo-sharing site where your friends may order prints or a photo book. All this, created from a single file. This is color management in action.
The Secret to Success: Color Profiles
The secret to the success of color management is the adoption and use of color profiles. A color profile mathematically describes the color and tone characteristics of a specific device including paper and ink type, where appropriate. The range of colors reproducible on a given device is commonly referred to as a color space. Through the use of color profiles, we can convert a photo between different color spaces, without significantly changing the appearance of the photo.
You’ve already been using ICC-based color management whether you realize it or not. Whenever you print a photo on your inkjet printer, a conversion occurs between the color space selected on your digital camera or scanner and the printer’s color space used to ensure the colors are correctly matched between your camera and the printer. Often, this takes place automatically behind the scenes in the print software. If your print looked good, this process was successful. If not, poor color management was to blame.
To help ensure the next print is successful, let’s look at how color management works from a deeper perspective.