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Digital Color Management - Tips for the Beginner

written by: Caroline Thompson•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/22/2010

Color management is all about getting the same color output that the imager or photographer sees on the monitor. Following a logical system of calibration, profiling and setting all equipment to equal color balances can achieve correct color reproduction.

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    Color Management Theory

    Color management has always existed, but it was just a different process with film photography. It all boils down to getting the same color in the print, on the screen or in a production that the photographer or imager sees on the computer. It really starts in the camera. All cameras introduce some color shift. In the days of film, each film had a profile that shifted towards a particular color. Kodak film tended to be on the magenta side and Fuji film leaned towards the green. Photographers would choose a film based on the particular way the film rendered color. Other corrections were done in the darkroom. Color hues and tints could be manipulated and removed. Photographers used white balancing and gray cards to set reference points to use in the darkroom. Most of the color management depended heavily upon the photographer and how they saw color, but there was a certain amount of profiling with film and development chemicals. So color management is not a new term or process, it is evolving along with the other areas of photography.

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    Why Color Manage

    Everything has a color profile. From the monitor the image is viewed on to the paper it is printed on each item reproduces color in a particular fashion that may not be the same as the source. Another factor to consider is the end user calibration. Not everyone color balances and this can lead to color shifts in the final output because of a perceived color difference. If every piece of equipment is calibrated and color balanced, then they will represent color the same. This results in a greater consistency in the product.

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    Steps to Color Management

    Color management starts before the shutter is pressed.

    • Camera settings - Two ways to color manage in the camera are white balance the flash and set the internal settings for the type of situation that will be photographed. The internal settings need to be color balanced when the camera is first purchased. All cameras have a small color shift.
    • Monitor calibration - The next stop for the image is the computer. It is important to calibrate a monitor to the lighting in the room where the imaging is done and to get accurate colors on the monitor. A monitor ICC profile is generated. The monitor profile is the next step in color management. That profile is put in a file on the computer for other output devices to use to interpret color.
    • Imaging Software Preferences - After the image is downloaded to the computer, it will be opened with an image editor (i.e. Photoshop). The image editor will have a preferences window. These settings need to be set for the particular color space the photographer uses. There will be specific settings for the system type (i.e., Mac or PC), Web colors, print colors and other color settings that will determine how the various output devices interpret the color.
    • Image profile - Next is the profile that is saved to the image after editing in the image editor program. This profile puts a note on the image to tell the printer, or other output device, what the original settings were in the preferences of the program.
    • Output device profiles - All output (or input) devices need to be profiled and calibrated. Printers, scanners and other electronic devices that will be interpreting images from the photographer. These devices are calibrated according to the instructions for the particular device and then a profile is generated and put in a file. These profiles are what the photographer will need to set when they are outputting to that particular device. In this way, each device will be able to render colors the same as the other devices.
    • Paper Profiles - Photography paper manufactures have ICC profiles for all their papers. These are available for download on their websites. When printing, use the image profile to send to the printer and in the printer paper dialog box use the paper ICC profile. This will ensure an accurate color representation from the printer.

    It is amazing to see the difference in quality and clarity between images printed using color management and ICC profiles and prints without color management.

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    Calibration and Color Balancing Articles

    Here are some tutorials on how to calibrate and color balance output devices.