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Color Photo Printing Tips

Color management - or how to avoid red faces and green skies!

By David Fleet

color photo printing

Color photo printing is fantastically simple in the digital age. Everyone can print their own pictures at home on a good quality photo printer and get great prints, instantly!

But the ease of this process can sometimes lead people to assume there literally is nothing to it. In an ideal world we would just upload digital photos to our computer, hit print, and then a watch a perfectly accurate and reproduction emerge from the printer.

But, in reality, this doesn't happen. Color tones can easily become distorted as they go through the various stages of the process - from camera to computer to printer.

Why does color go 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 different ways. They are not as sophisticated as the human eye and define colors through a much more basic process. Plus, they are all different to each other, so the image looks different at every stage.

What is color management?

Color management is a crucial part of color photo printing, and something that people often get confused by. I'm going to clear the subject up for you!

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.


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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. Meanwhile, printers use a different color system, known as CMYK: cyan, magenta yellow and black. Unfortunately, RGB values and CMYK values do not directly overlap - and that's where people can run into problems with color photo printing!

But, luckily, there's an easy solution. Phew! Color management ensures that RGB and CMYK are are coded in the same way on the different devices.

Codes (which are numerical sequences) on their own are pretty meaningless. They have to be defined within what are known as 'color spaces'. A color space defines the color that a code actually relates to. So the same code in a different color space would look very different.

In this sense, color spaces are like different languages and by using what are called 'profiles', it is like using a translator to make sure everyone understands each other.

You can easily install editing color spaces such as Adobe RGB or sRGB. They specify the color range within which you can work, allowing you to edit colors in images in a consistent and controlled way.

So what exactly are profiles? Well, profiles are a defined series of codes, created by the International Color Consortium (ICC), to define colors and how colors are communicated between different devices. Your camera's profile provides a signal to all the other devices in your workflow process as to how to interpret the image that you originally shot.


The color workflow

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.You can 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.


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3. Printer

Now on to the printing itself.

To ensure that your printer will print colors using the defined color space and colour profiles on your monitor, you should download your printer and paper manufacturer's printer profile.

These can usually be found on your paper manufacturer's website and are specific to your printer model. Profiles ensure that the colors are accurately converted from their RGB values to the printer's CMYK values. So they're an absolutely essential feature of good color photo printing.

So, 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 photo printing

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 printing

So that's it. Getting the hang of color photo printing is all about making sure that your camera, monitor and printer are all talking the same 'color language'! Once you start doing this it will become really simple, and printing your photos will be something you look forward to.



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