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Predictable Color

March 17th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot


We spend hours bent over our computers crafting the perfect image before sending it off to a lab or album company, only to see it butchered in the final print. So, how do your get your prints to exactly match what you see on your screen?

You can’t.

All right, that would be a really short article. So, lets talk about getting color that is pretty darn close from screen to print to album.

Why is this so hard anyway? That can be a complicated question to answer. In part, because when you look at a photographic or inkjet print or press printed album you are seeing the effect of light reflecting off of colored dyes or ink sitting on paper. When you look at an LCD monitor, the light you see is being transmitted directly through red, green, and blue filters. To make matters worse, every monitor and printer is capable of displaying a different range of colors. The hardware, software and workflow used to describe colors and get them to display and print as accurately as possible is called color management.

The subject of color management is so complex, you could write a book about it. In fact, a number of people have. One book I recommend is Color Management for Photographers by Andrew Rodney. His Web site is also very useful for learning about color management. Since resources like these can teach you almost everything you need to know about color management, I’m going to try to simplify the process and cover only the 5 most essential steps to getting your monitor to match your prints.

Step 1: Get a Good Monitor

Not all displays are created equal. At the time I wrote this, one could buy

  • a 22″ EIZO ColorEdge display for around $4,400
  • a 24″ NEC Multisync Monitor for about $1,150
  • a 24″ Apple Display for around $900
  • a 24″ Acer Display for about $330.

All of these monitors are LCD panels and they are nearly the same size, so why the enormous price disparity? A couple of important reasons are that the more expensive monitors can display larger range of colors (gamut) and they are more uniform in how they render color across the screen.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your monitor–yes, the one that came bundled with the computer at Costco–probably stinks for judging color. If you didn’t spend $500 or more on your monitor, you could probably do a LOT better.

Look at reviews and get recommendations from other photographers when buying your monitor. Your display is the window that you are going to be judging all of your work on, so it makes sense to get the best one that you can afford. Right now, NEC’s SpectraViewII monitors are getting high marks from photographers. They have a wide gamut and come with hardware and software that does an excellent job of calibrating and profiling the monitor.

What if you work off a laptop? Bad news! Laptop screens are generally designed to be lightweight and low power rather than to have accurate color. The good news is that it is usually easy to attach a more accurate (and larger) monitor to your laptop. I know, I know, you got the laptop so that you could do your color correcting on the couch. OK, you can still follow all of the steps below and work off your laptop screen. The accuracy of your color may suffer somewhat, but will be better than before.

Step 2: Use a Hardware Based Calibrating and Profiling Tool

Keep that checkbook out. Now that you’ve got a decent monitor, you need to make sure it is outputting the most accurate color that it’s capable of. In the old-timey days of digital (like 2005), a lab would send you a print and tell you to adjust your monitor to match it. If that happens to you now, run, don’t walk, to another lab.

You may also have a software-only calibration tool like Apple’s Display Calibrator Assistant or Adobe Gamma. These programs walk you through calibrating your monitor by eye. Unfortunately they aren’t sufficient for your needs as a professional photographer. Please, don’t go there.

The only accurate way calibrate a monitor is by using a hardware based calibration tool. This is basically a little puck that you put on your monitor while you run the software it came with. The calibration software will walk you through two basic tasks:

Calibrating – here you tweak your monitor’s brightness, contrast, and perhaps even red, green, and blue channels to bring the display as close as possible to a state of showing perfect color.

The software will probably ask you what to use for a gamma value. I recommend using 2.2 as your gamma.

It will also ask you what to use for your monitor’s white-point or color temperature. Here you can use either 6500K or “Native”, which is the displays native white-point.

Finally, and pretty importantly, you need to set a luminance value for the calibration. Luminance is a value of how bright the monitor is. I recommend a setting of somewhere between 90 and 120 cd/m2. That will make your monitor look very dim until your eyes get used to it. But if you remember that we are trying to get your monitor to emulate a piece of paper, you can understand why it needs to be that dim. Straight from the factory many monitors have a luminance of 200 cd/m2 or more. If you adjust your images on a monitor with that kind of brightness, you’ll probably see that they seem too dark when you get them printed.

Some displays, notably Apple’s, don’t really give you much ability to change anything except the brightness. That’s OK, as you’ll be profiling the display in the next step.

Profiling – now that your monitor is calibrated as closely as possible to showing perfect color, we want to know how far off from true color it is. During the profiling step of the process, the calibration software will display a series of solid colors underneath the puck that is attached to the monitor. The puck precisely measures the colors displayed on the monitor and notes how far off each color is from what the true color should be. The software then creates a ‘monitor profile‘, which is a file that describes how the monitor deviates from true colors. The software asks you to name the profile and automatically saves it in the correct place on your computer.

Software that is color management aware, such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, automatically uses this monitor profile to compensate for that monitor’s differences when it displays an image on screen.

Some good monitor calibration devices are the i1 Display 2 and mirthfully named ColorMunki from X-Rite and the Spyder3 from DataColor

Step 3: Set Your Working Space

Now that the monitor is set up and profiled, the next step is to adjust your Color Settings in the software you use. Here we will briefly discuss Color Settings for Photoshop, but the same general principles will apply in any professional photo editing software.


The Working Space is the default color space that Photoshop will use when you are editing images with it. It also is the default color space that will be used if you create a new image. There is a different color space setting for RGB, CMYK, Grayscale, and Spot color images. For images that you send to a lab, or even many press printers, you should be primarily concerned with the RGB working space. The two most popular RGB color spaces for photographers to work in are sRGB (often labeled sRGB IEC 61966-2.1) or Adobe RGB (often referred to as Adobe 1998).

Which working space should you use? It’s up to you, but in general, Adobe RGB will give you a larger color gamut which is great, especially if you have a high end inkjet printer in your studio. Just remember that your lab or press book provider won’t be able to print all those colors. And if you put a photo on the web, you’ll need to convert it to sRGB first, or it will look odd in most web browsers.

If you’re new to color management and you typically get prints at a lab rather than printing in-house and want the most consistency in the photos that you print, give to clients, and post on the web, you might want to use sRGB.

It is important to note that you should NOT set your RGB working space to be the same as the monitor profile you created in the last step, or the same as your printer profile. Doing this will severely limit the number of gamut colors that appear in your images.

Step 4: Embed your Color Profile Into Your Images


It is also critical that the files you send out for printing have a valid ICC profile embedded. Without an embedded profile, the recipient of the file won’t know which color space your files were created in, and will not be able to accurately print them. When you save a file from within Photoshop, you will see the checkbox for Embed Color Profile. Always leave it checked.

At this point, having followed the preceding four steps, your monitor will show a pretty good match to the output that you get from your lab. Send out a few test prints and instruct your lab not to adjust them in any way. You’ll probably be very pleased at how closely they match your monitor when you get them back.

There is one last step you can take though to get from being ‘in the ballpark’ to really, really close, and that is…

Step 5: Soft Proof Your Images

Photoshop has the ability to simulate what an image will look like when printed on various output devices. In order to use this feature, you need Photoshop version 7 or higher, a high quality profile for your display (like you created in Step 2) and a high quality profile for the printer (and paper) you’ll be printing on. Many labs and press printers can provide you with a profile for their printer and paper combination. If you are printing in-house, your printer manufacturer or paper manufacturer should be able to provide you with a printing profile for your specific printer/paper combination.

Once you have obtained a profile for the printer you are using, you can install it on a Windows PC by right clicking on the file and selecting “Install Profile” from the menu that pop’s up:


You can also install the profile on the PC by moving them into the C:\WINNT [OR WINDOWS]\system32\spool\drivers\color directory.

On the Mac, you can install the profile by moving it into into /Library/ColorSync/Profiles folder.

Open an image in Photoshop and in the View menu, select Proof Setup->Custom.


This will open the Customize Proof Condition, or “soft proofing” dialog as shown below. Initially, configure the soft proofing settings as follows:


Device to Simulate: Choose the name of the color profile you just installed.

Rendering Intent: Relative Colormetric

Black Point Compensation: Checked.

With these settings, Photoshop will attempt to emulate what your image’s colors will look like when it is  printed. If you click the Preview checkbox on and off, you can quickly toggle between the image and the soft proof.

To get an even better idea of what the image will look like when printed, you might want to take into account the brightness and tint of the paper that the photograph will be printed on. Photoshop lets you to simulate this by clicking on the Simulate Paper Color checkbox.


When you do this, your image will appear to get dim and its color may look drab. This effect is so pronounced that many Photoshop experts actually recommend that you look away while clicking the Simulate Paper Color button. After a few minutes, you eyes will adjust to the new brightness level.

Click OK to dismiss the soft proof dialog. You can still toggle proofing on and off by selecting Proof Colors from the View menu, or using the keyboard shortcut [Command/Control]+Y.

I like bright, saturated colors in my images, but I know that they won’t always make it to print. The image below gives a flavor of the differences you might see between your original on-screen image, and a soft proof simulation.


See how the red in truck and the blue in the sky lose a lot of their vibrance? These colors just can’t be reproduced on photographic paper. Other colors like the hand and the jacket are less affected because they fall within the printer’s color gamut. Even though the more vibrant colors won’t match what I see on the monitor, they will still probably look good in prints because our brains adjust to whatever medium we are looking at.

Bear in mind that soft proofing does not alter the original image at all, nor does it change the image’s profile. It just simulates the final output onscreen. You can use this simulated state to make changes to the color, brightness or contrast of the image before sending it off to be printed.

Hopefully, after following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to feeling in control of your color. Still, like I said up front, there are a lot of variables to color management, and I’ve only touched on some of the basics here. If you have more questions on this topic, please feel free to ask them in the comments.


About Earl Christie

Earl Christie has written 40 post in this blog.

Earl is a Boston wedding photographer who finds love and magic and wonder in everything he shoots.


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