Colour Management for Photographers

Luca Ragogna, an accredited member of the Professional Photographer's of Canada from Barrie, ON, operates a wedding and portrait studio, as well as a canvas printing company. To view some of Luca's work, please visit: Luca Ragogna Photography and Pic Foundry "What follows are practical steps to setting up a colour management system for photographers. It won’t be an in depth analysis of how or why colour management works but it should get you up and running with good, predictable results from your lab without completely emptying your bank account. I won’t get into calibrating printers this time around, it’s beyond the scope of this post. I’ll try not to get too mired in colour management geekery (although I make no promises). I realize that colour accuracy is of relative importance depending on the type of work you do. For those of us that shoot portraits and weddings, it’s important to get pleasing colour and we don’t want any surprises when we get a print back from the lab. For someone shooting for a large clothing retailer where consumers buy from a catalogue, having a sweater print as teal rather than the intended aqua could mean thousands of dollars in returned product. Someone in this situation should take extra steps during capture like measuring their lighting with a colour meter and including a colour chart to ensure that they can nail the colour exactly. Step 1 - Buy some gear The first thing you have to do is buy a colorimeter or spectrophotometer. There’s no way around this. You can’t calibrate your monitor by eye and any software that claims to calibrate without a hardware device is making empty promises. The two main manufacturers in this market are X-Rite and Datacolor, there are a few other companies making calibrators, but they’re much less common, I say stick with one of the big two. There’s a wide variety of calibrators available and like all things, you get what you pay for. Colorimeters and spectros (as the cool kids call them) are devices that read light to determine colour. The differences lie in how they break light into its component spectrum. Datacolor’s devices fall into a hybrid category they call ‘spectrocolorimeters’. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just lump these all together and call them ‘calibrators’. At around $100 you can pick up a Datacolor Spyder3Express or Pantone Huey Pro (made by X-Rite). They are both aimed at the photo enthusiast market and are both quite limited in their options. The Huey Pro has the advantage of being able to calibrate multiple monitor setups, where the Spyder3Express is limited to a single monitor. These devices are better than adjusting your monitor by eye and are very easy to use, but I find the options a bit limiting for professional use. In the $200-$300 range, Datacolor has the Spyder3Pro and Spyder3Elite. X-Rite offers the i1 Display Pro and ColorMunki Display Pro. If I only needed to calibrate a monitor, I would probably end up buying one of these. These are all similarly featured with White Point, Gamma and Luminance settings being adjustable and all of them can measure ambient room lighting to determine how bright your monitor should be. They can all calibrate multiple monitor setups and all but the Spyder3Pro can calibrate projectors for those of you using ProSelect to do your sales sessions. The Datacolor Spyder ‘Pro’ and ‘Elite’ are based on the same hardware and the differences are in the software, with the ‘Pro’ being upgradable to the ‘Elite’. The i1 Display Pro and ColorMunki Display Pro are very similar devices, with the i1 model being faster and coming with better software. In the $500 range there’s the Datacolor Spyder3Studio SR, a kit that includes a Spyder3Elite as well as a calibrator for your printer and X-Rite’s ColorMunki Photo, a calibrator that can handle monitors, projectors and printers. If you print your own photos you’ll most likely want to buy one of these, especially if you like to use specialty papers. In the ‘over the top’ category are the X-Rite i1 and Isis. The i1 does a fantastic job at calibrating monitors, projectors and creating ICC profiles for printers but at a cost of around $1400. If you need an i1, you don’t need me to tell you that you need one. The Isis is the single best tool for creating printer profiles but that’s all it does and with a starting pricing of around $3500 it’s a tool designed more for commercial printers than photographers. The last option for monitor calibrators is to buy one that’s packaged with a high-end monitor like one from LaCie, Eizo or NEC. This can be a great option since every piece of the package is designed to work together. Step 2 - Calibrate your Monitor(s) So now that you’ve picked up a calibrator, it’s time to get your monitor in line. Thankfully, just about every software package will calibrate in a similar manner and it’s really easy. A couple of caveats. First, some cheaper monitors are incapable of being sufficiently calibrated. Older (white) iMacs, for example, will always be too bright even on the lowest setting. Don’t expect to pick up a 27” no-name monitor for $150 and get stellar results. I’ve found that most brand name monitors can be calibrated acceptably well. Samsung, LG and Dell all do okay. There are some very good monitors that are considerably more expensive and worth every penny. Apple, LaCie, Eizo, the NEC PA series and the HP DreamColor monitors are all excellent choices for photographers. Generally, you want to start with the monitor set to its default settings before you start, but follow the instructions for your own particular device. Usually, the software will ask if you’re calibrating a CRT or LCD/laptop. Then you’ll be asked what White Point and Gamma to calibrate to. White Point is basically the same as White Balance in ACR or Lightroom. It dictates where on the blue/yellow spectrum the neutral grays fall. You may have read about using a White Point of D50 (daylight balanced), it’s a traditional setting used in prepress applications and in practice ends up very yellow. Gamma is a midpoint adjustment in the monitor’s response curve, and does the same thing as the gamma in the Photoshop levels adjustment. Normally, you want to use the native White Point of the monitor or a White Point of 6500K (D65) and a Gamma of 2.2. Those settings have worked well for every monitor I’ve ever calibrated but if your monitor is... er... different, you’ll have to play around to find some settings that work for you. Depending on which calibrator / software package you bought you may be able to choose a Luminance setting. This is the brightness of your monitor. Generally, you’ll want to use a Luminance value between 80 and 120 cdm/2. The brightness of your room will dictate specifically how bright to set your monitor (I’ll talk about room lighting in a little bit). A common problem with print to screen matching is getting prints back from the lab that are too dark. This happens because monitors are predominantly set too bright by default. Manufactures ship monitors so that they’ll look good in the show room. On a wall with 30 monitors in an overly lit electronics store the brightest ones stand out from the rest. Doing your Lightroom edits on a monitor with those settings makes everything look brighter than really is. To compensate, you end up making your images dark. Okay, back to the calibrating. At this point, the software might ask you for a name for the profile it’s about to generate or it might ask you at the end of the process. Use a name that makes sense to you. The software will then tell you where and how to place the calibrator on the monitor and then it’ll run a series of colour patches and generate a profile. You’re done! When you first calibrate your monitor and you’ve set the proper brightness setting, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll feel it’s too dark. This is the point where most people declare color management to be bunk and write a scathing review of their calibrator on Don’t be that person. The beautiful thing about this part is that your brain adapts. After you’ve lived with your monitor for a bit it’ll look normal. I promise. Step 3 - Fix your working environment Yes, your work environment is part of your colour management system. If you calibrate your monitor to 80 cdm/2 (very dim) and put it in a bright room it won’t look right. Same thing with looking at prints under fluorescent office lights or when standing next to a coloured wall. You have to control your environment. Ideally, your work environment would be painted neutral gray and dimly lit with daylight balanced lighting and you’d have a calibrated viewing booth for judging print quality. Since that’ll probably never happen let’s make the best of our situation without spending a ton of cash. It’s a best practice to have neutral coloured walls in your office so that your colour judgement won’t be thrown off. Our brains are amazing at adapting what we do see to what we should see, bright surrounding colour can mess up our perception. Check out for some examples, especially the chromatic adaptation illusions. You’ll quickly see how wall colour can affect your judgement. If you already have bright blue walls and don’t feel like painting, you can minimize unwanted effects through carefully controlled lighting. The first and easiest step is to buy some heavy black curtains to block out any window light. With that, you’ve made sure your lighting is consistent throughout the day. The next step is to turn off the overhead lights and turn on some task lighting. The idea is to keep light from bouncing off the walls and throwing a colour cast onto your work. It’s a good idea to also invest in a monitor hood to control glare. You can easily build one yourself out of cardboard or foam core, there’s a great little tutorial here - The last thing I’m going to mention is for those of you that like to get carried away with things - dress in black. The reflection of the colour of your clothing on the monitor can affect your colour judgement. When scanner operator was an actual job title, the $4000 Radius PressView 21 monitor shipped with a black lab coat. I think this is overkill, but if you’re doing the type of work where colour is crucial it’s probably not a bad idea to invest in some black turtlenecks. As far as actual lighting and light bulbs goes, you’ll want to avoid pretty much anything you can buy at Home Depot or Rona. Regular lightbulbs have a spikey spectrum, meaning the colour of light they give off looks white, but it’s really not. These bulbs make the colour in your prints look wonky and they’re not at all appropriate for judging print colour. If you like to light cigars with $100 bills, you can look at a viewing booth from Just Normlicht or GTI. Otherwise, you can buy some Solux bulbs ( and stick them in a lamp. Solux bulbs match the spectrum of daylight quite well as opposed to a regular “daylight” CFL bulb, as you can see in these charts I lifted off their site. It’s the only affordable, appropriate lighting choice that I know of. There’s 2 types, a PAR type bulb which is a regular screw in bulb and an MR16 bulb which is the kind with the 2 pins. MR16 lamps are harder to come by but can be found online and Ikea and the home improvement stores usually have some type of MR16 track lighting. I bought the MR16 - 35W, 4700K regular version and wish I had bought the black back version since the colour of light transmitted through the back of the bulb is different than through the front. I’m using track lighting with an exposed bulb, if you have pot lights it’s probably a moo point (it doesn’t matter, like a cow’s opinion). When I’m editing I like to have a dim light turned on behind my monitor, just bright enough to ease eye strain with all the other lights turned off and the curtains drawn. If I’m doing something that doesn’t involve judging colour then I turn on the room lights because I find it more comfortable. I use the Solux task lighting for judging print quality. There’s a right way to judge print quality and a wrong way. Holding the print up to the monitor and complaining that they don’t match exactly – while being a time honored tradition – is the wrong way. Of course they don’t match! One is a backlit additive light source while the other is a subtractive medium with a light bouncing off of it. They’ll never match exactly. The better way to judge print quality is to have the monitor and the print positioned so that you can’t see one while looking at the other. Look at the monitor, look away momentarily, and then look at the print. It gives your brain a chance to reset. You’ll be able to see any colour casts, and inconsistencies but your eyes and brain won’t be fighting to reconcile two different technologies that can’t possibly match. Step 4 - Find a lab that gives a damn Here’s the part where it can all break down. Printers have to be both calibrated and profiled. Calibrating is bringing the hardware into a known state and profiling is describing how the printer behaves. Thankfully, today’s high end printers are extremely stable devices but if your lab doesn’t care then print quality goes out the window. Get recommendations for print labs from other PPOC members in your area. A good lab will be willing to make up sample prints and should be able to offer advice on getting the best quality prints. A great lab, with knowledgeable craftspeople making your prints is the final link in the chain. Once you’re working with a lab that’s sending you consistently great prints, use the prints to tweek the brightness setting when you calibrate your monitor. If the image on the monitor looks a bit dingy compared to the print raise the luminance setting when you recalibrate and vice versa. Conclusion You’ll find that if you buy a quality monitor, keep it calibrated with a good calibration device, control your room lighting, and use a quality lab, surprises disappear (mostly). There’s still going to be a bit of a gap that you’ll have to fill in with experience at times. For example, if you order prints on a rag paper that’s a bit yellow or a metallic paper you’ll get to know how images look on that paper and you’ll be able to anticipate what you’ll get back from the lab. Keep in mind that this post only barely scratches the surface of colour management. If you want to learn more you should start with Andrew Rodney’s excellent post on Luminous Landscape “Why Are My Prints Too Dark?”. I also recommend his book “Color Management for Photographers” . I’ve had the late Bruce Fraser’s book “Real World Color Management” recommended a number of times but admittedly I haven’t read it myself. If you prefer videos, check out “L-L Guide to Colour Management” with Michael Reichmann and Jeff Schewe on Luminous Landscape - L-L Guide to Colour Management And finally there’s a very practical guide to colour management at Colour Management


Great article.