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Improving Color Accuracy

If you’re new to the concept of color management, this tip is for you. The topic isn’t a whole lot of fun, because it’s not glamorous, and it’s less about creativity than technical accuracy. It can also be kind of a difficult subject to get your head around. Consequently, a lot of photographers completely avoid the subject and just take whatever their computer provides. It may not seem like much of a compromise, but consider this: if your computer isn’t displaying your digital images accurately, how on earth can you be expected to make good photographs—much less make them better? So in an effort to get more photographers on the color accuracy bandwagon, here are my three simple tips for taking control of the color in your digital images in the most basic way, and ensuring that what you see really is what you’ve got.

-Manual White Balance. I know, auto white balance on DSLRs does a really nice job most of the time, and can be downright invaluable when working in tricky mixed lighting situations or under fast-changing lighting. But trust me when I tell you that if you start taking control of the color in your images from the moment of capture, you’ll be happier with the color you see in the end.

Let’s say you’ve got a scene full of bright colors—a sunset, perhaps—and your camera is set to auto white balance. It might very likely do a nice job. But now switch to a daylight white balance preset and shoot again; chances are good that the colors are even better, more vibrant and beautiful, because the auto white balance wasn’t fooled by the super saturation. If you want to make bright colors look their best, auto white balance is not always your friend.

If you’re uncomfortable working with white balance presets for some reason, you can always shoot RAW files in any white balance setting you like (even auto) and then use your RAW processing software’s eyedropper tool to click on a neutral gray or white area of the scene to dial in the white balance specifically. This may also serve to eliminate some of the warmth from that sunset discussed above, but under normal lighting circumstances it’s the best way to get very accurate color from the start. Custom white balance, whether established in the camera or during RAW conversion, is a great first step to color accuracy in your entire workflow. So invest in an affordable gray card and stick it into every scene you shoot, and you’ll ensure you’ve got something to work with in post.

– Calibrate your monitor. There’s the discount approach to monitor calibration, which is usually built into the software straight from the factory, but for real monitor calibration accuracy you’ll want to purchase a third party hardware/software combo that can not only read the colors produced by your display, but then use that information to create a custom monitor profile. Profilers from X-Rite and Datacolor can be had for under $200, and in my opinion they’re worth their weight in gold. Here’s how highly I think of monitor calibration tools: if you’re currently working in an un-calibrated system, there’s no better investment you can make to improving the quality of your photography than purchasing a monitor calibrator. Given their relative low cost, it’s an investment you shouldn’t hesitate to make.

Once you’ve purchased your profiling system it usually works in a two step process. The first is to adjust your monitor’s brightness and contrast according to the software’s directions, then place the device on your screen and run the calibration program. At the end of this process (during which your screen will flash many different colors and luminosities) the program will prompt you to create a new profile, which you should agree to. (I like to date these profiles so that I know when they’re getting stale; monitors change over time, so monthly profiling is often recommended, though I find myself stretching it closer to 90 days. Kinda like oil changes in my car—and probably about as smart.)

Now that you’re running a profiled system, you know that what you see on your screen is what actually exists in your image file. Someone else seeing your photos on their computer might report issues—but that’s probably because their monitor is not calibrated. Once you’ve calibrated your display, you know that what you see really is what you get.

– The final basic color management control you can take is to use color profiles with your image files from shoot to output. Start to apply color profiles to your digital images from the camera by choosing from capture profiles such as Adobe RGB or sRGB, and setting up your editing software—often Photoshop—to utilize that same color space. There are differing schools of thought on which is better (the “capture the most information possible” camp suggests Adobe RGB, versus the “only capture what you’ll be able to see in the end” camp which suggests the smaller space of sRGB because it more closely matches most displays), but as long as you’re aware of the possibilities, you’re starting off your color managed workflow on the right foot. The mere fact that you’re aware of what the profiles mean is success in my book.

Once you understand a little about how these color spaces work, you can begin to apply profiles deliberately from the moment you make pictures (with the profile in your digital camera) to the end of the process when you send them for printing or publishing. Working with profiles in between essentially means outputting a RAW file with a profile attached. From Lightroom, for instance, you can select an image’s color space right from the Export window. This option means you can tailor your color profile for a particular use. For instance, if I’m delivering a high-resolution print file to a client who is going to publish it in printed marketing materials, I’m likely to start with a wide gamut such as Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB (even larger than Adobe’s space). If I know that client is going to offset 4-color printing, I might even output the file with a CMYK profile so that I can control the conversion and ensure I’m not throwing out any essential colors. I’m likely to make that CMYK conversion with Photoshop’s Convert To Profile tool in order to guarantee that I’m not throwing out any essential colors.

You see, what a color profile is at its core is essentially a note that accompanies an image file that allows different devices (displays, printers, and so on) to understand exactly what the colors should look like. You’d think that red would be red and blue would be blue and that’s that, but in fact because every device has to interpret color, it needs a bit of a guide to do so accurately. The color profile is that guide.

Photoshop’s Convert To Profile tool (found near the bottom of the Edit menu) is actually immensely helpful for switching image files from one profile to another, because not only are you able to adjust profiles for specific devices (a printer may request a particular color space, such as sRGB for instance), with Convert To Profile you can see if, and how, the colors in your image file may change with each new profile.

This really matters when it comes time to output the finished image files—either to deliver those image files to a lab or customer or to print them yourself on paper. When printing, in particular, you’ll want to ensure you’re working with the appropriate printer profiles for your device and paper combination. You can custom-make these profiles with a hardware system similar to that used for profiling a display (output a test strip from the printer, then scan it with the device to interpret how colors are rendered in print) or you can use default profiles that are
often provided with particular printers and/or papers. For instance, to print with my Epson printer and Luster paper, I downloaded a profile directly from Epson that is designed specifically for that paper and that printer. If you’re not interested in the perfect profile that comes from custom calibration, these factory profiles tend to be very good substitutes.

The bottom line when it comes to color management is that these profiles ensure that your devices will be able to accurately interpret the image files you provide to them. And if you know that your devices themselves are accurately profiled, you’ll know that what you see is exactly what you’ll get out of your printer—and that is an empowering way to start improving your photographic results.

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