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Color Management For Photographers (If You Print Your Own Photos You Need To Read This!)

color management for photographers

By David Fleet


It's high time I gave you all a proper tutorial on color management for photographers! Although it's something that everyone who prints their own photos at home can do easily, I thought I'd recruit the help of a pro...

So, meet David Fleet! David is landscape photographer and owner of a fine art photography printing company. His brief for this article: Help PAC readers to banish the plague of orange faces, purple skies and all manner of other color catastrophes for good!

Why does color go so horribly wrong?

It's possible to take a photo of a red flag on a boat that begins to take on an orange tone when viewed on computer, but then appears slightly purple when printed out! How does that happen...?

Because each of the different devices - camera, computer and printer - reproduces color in its own unique way. They kind of speak their own languages, and aren't as sophisticated as our eyes.

color management

Ok, so what is color management for photographers?

Basically, color management involves a process (workflow) of ensuring that first the camera, then the monitor and finally the printer, all use the right 'codes' to ensure that the printed image is as accurate to the original as possible.

Hold up! What exactly are these 'codes'? Well, each pixel on your camera catches color and encodes it as a combination of separate red, green and blue (RGB) values.

These RGB values are used by all color displays and many cameras and scanners. But they're not all the same, plus printers use a different color system altogether, known as CMYK: cyan, magenta yellow and black. This is why color management is so important!

With proper color management, you can be sure that colors are coded in the same way on different devices, by selecting the 'color space'. A color space - Adobe RGB, sRGB etc - defines the actual color that a code relates to.

By selecting the color space in your camera and using a colorimeter for your monitor (more below!) you can ensure that the colors you see on screen are accurate. But to then translate these colors into prints, you need to use printer profiles...


Right, and what are these printer profiles?

Well, printer profiles ensure that colors are converted from their RGB values to the printer's CMYK values, and that your printer reproduces images accurately on specific paper types. You can easily download the profile for your specific printer-paper combination online. Where from? The paper manufacturer websites: Epson printer profiles, Canon printer profiles, HP printer profiles.

But what happens if you're using an uncommon printer and paper combination? or perhaps an old printer that doesn't seem to have any profiles available to download?

Well your 2 main options are:

1. Go ahead and have your printer manage the colors. In brief, this is cheap and easy but the least preferable option. You're unlikely to get great colors with this method. In fact, come to think of it, it's not cheap either, because the ink and paper wastage will cost you more in the end than option no.2!

2. Buy a custom profile from a third party. You can buy profiles specifically made for your printer and paper combination. All you have to do is print off a target sheet or 3 (pages with lots of colored squares on) and post it off to a profiling company (search for one online).

The profiling company will then be able to create a custom profile just for you by measuring the colors that your printer produces. The long and the short of it is that you end up with a super accurate profile, made on high end, expensive equipmet, for not much cost!

color management


Are custom profiles really worth it?

Even if your printer-paper combo has a profile that's ready to be downloaded (which is probably the case), in my view this tends not to give as good results as getting a custom profile created. To be fair, the generic profiles do a pretty good job, but custom profiles are even better. How come?

Essentially because each individual printer performs slightly differently (even those of the exact same model. I know, its shocking!). So if you're prepared to go the extra mile (well, 1/4 mile) it can be really worth sending off for a custom profile, taylor made for your unique printer-paper combination.

I recently did a load of testing on my Epson Stylus Pro 7900 printer. Even though Epson's Professional line of printers are calibrated at the factory to ensure that they all produce very closely matching prints, a custom profile still improved the performance if mine.

Actually, custom profiles don't only improve colour accuracy, they tend also to improve color quality: enhancing hues and saturation by laying the optimum amount of ink onto the paper.

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Step-By-Step Workflow

Ok, now here's how you put everything into practice:

1. Camera

So the whole workflow of color photo printing starts by using the appropriate color space for capturing your images 'in camera'. If you plan on printing your images then I would recommend using Adobe RGB 1998 over sRGB, because it captures a wider color range and so can produce better quality prints. Select this in the shooting menu on your camera.

2. Monitor

Next, you should ensure that you monitor is calibrated using a device known as a 'colorimeter'. This is something that measures and then optimizes the colors displayed on your monitor. Good, affordable devices for this job include Datacolor's Spyder and Xrite's ColorMunki.

Once you have defined your color space in-camera and calibrated your monitor, you are half way there. Now you know that the colors on your screen are accurate.


3. Printer

So, on to the printing itself. The first step is to download the profile for your printer-paper combo, as described above. (Better still, get a custom profile created).

To make a print using your downloaded profile, you first need to select Photoshop or Lightroom to manage colors, as opposed to your printer itself.

Next, select the profile in your photo editing software's color management section. You can see on the right hand side of the image below that I have selected an 'Ilford Smooth Gloss' profile.

color management

Then you need to go into your printer's settings and turn color management off so that the printer does not override the settings you are using in your photo editing software (this is crucial, as not doing so can undermine the whole thing!).

One other quick point to note is to make sure that you use the paper manufacturer's media and quality settings. These are provided with the print profile to ensure accurate prints.

color management

That's it guys! My run-through of color management for photographers. Like all things with photography, once you get things into a system it becomes second nature. But I understand it can be pretty confusing at first. I really hope this guide has helped you make sense of how to manage color!

The creative and technical aspects of post-production are really nicely explained in this introductory guide from DPS.

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