A Brief Guide to Color Management for Photographers


Digital photography was supposed to be simple. We take a photo, upload it to our computer, share it with friends and print it on our inkjet printer. The results, though can be disappointing, colors not right, too little or too much contrast. One of the main culprits for this, is what is known as color management. Today we are going to take a look at what color management is, and why you should introduce it to your workflow.

All Devices are not Equal

Lets take a look at the tools of our trade, we have cameras, computers, monitors, printers and scanners. All of these tools record or manipulate our image in certain ways and all of them understand color in different ways. They understand color through the use of what is known as a color profile. This color profile basically tells the device that how it should convert a color to a digital signal, in to other words, how this shade of red should be represented as a series of 0’s and 1’s.

Digital devices cannot see anywhere near the number of colors that the human eye can detect, but in order to define what colors can be seen our aforementioned color profile will have a color space. The color space defines exactly how many colors the device can reproduce, this is otherwise known as the gamut.

Mac Color Profile Utility by Jason Row Photography, on Flickr

Why Do We Need Color Management?

The problems with color reproduction arises because every device sees color differently, this applies to camera sensors, scanner sensors, computer monitors and printers. In order to tie them all together we need to introduce to our workflow, color management. Color management brings all our devices together with a consistent color profile and hence color space. So how do we ago about this?

Color Management in the Camera

Starting with the camera, most cameras these days give you a choice of two color space’s sRGB and Adobe RGB. Of the two Adobe RGB has the wider gamut – in other words it can see a higher range of colors. sRGB is closer to the gamut of the average computer display. Generally, if you are wanting the best final image quality for printing, then Adobe RGB should be your choice. If you shoot RAW, you do not need to worry about the color space in camera as it can be set in the post production.

Color Management and Your Monitor

The next link in the chain is the computer and its software. Here, we have two separate things that we need to look at – monitor calibration and the color space of our software. Monitor calibration is important as it defines how you will see your images. If your monitor is for example darker and more yellow than the color space of your images, you will overcorrect the image resulting in poor quality. To calibrate a monitor the best policy is to use a hardware calibration system. This will display a know set of colors and tones on your screen then use a densitometer to measure them. The included software will then calculate exactly how different those colors are from standard and adjust your computer’s monitor to suit via a dedicated color profile.

Monitor color calibration by Lee Bennett, on Flickr

In your editing software, for the most part you will need to set up the color space via the preferences. Again Adobe RGB is a good starting point as this is the widest general use profile. In your software, depending on how you intend to output your image, you can convert the image to a different profile. For example if you are having the image printed at a photolab you might convert to sRGB, as many chemical based photo printers use this as their color space. If printing on a high end inkjet printer you can stay with Adobe RGB, as the printer will be able to reproduce all of the colors within this space.

Color Management and Your Printer

That brings us neatly to the last point in the equation, the printer. Like everything else the printer has its own unique ways of looking at color. Like the monitor it is possible to calibrate the printer using a hardware system or you can also purchase custom made profiles. Assigning a color profile to the printer is actually done when we make the print. In the print window of our editing software there will be an option to choose a color profile. Again, in general, you can pick the generic Adobe RGB profile to get reasonable results, however for the very best quality it is best to have a custom profile for your printer/paper match.

Printer Calibration by Corey Holms, on Flickr

With a little preparation, color management need not be too stressful. Shooting RAW or setting Adobe RGB in camera, eliminates worries at the shooting stage, calibrating a monitor is a once a month process that takes 5-10 minutes and setting the right color space in your software will soon come naturally. Do these simple steps and you will see more consistent color throughout your digital workflow.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Hi Jason
May I cry on your shoulder!
I got a Dell monitor U2713H as a gift from my son who lives in Dubai. He brought it to me in South Africa middle October. I then saw that Dell recommends calibration of the monitor with i1 Display Pro. I ordered one from Amazon and it arrived 3 weeks ago. I did a calibration without any problem making use of one of the USB ports on the monitor and the software that came with the Display Pro (NOT the build in software from Dell). By the way, I also uploaded photos from the camera flash card port on the monitor, without problems. I saved my colour profile. About three days later I wanted to upload photos again from the slot on the monitor………..the card wasn’t read! I the tried to do a calibration again of the monitor using all the USB ports and both software for calibration. Nothing worked from any port/slot on the monitor. I tried the calibrator on my other PC with Samsung monitor, using a USB port on the PC. It calibrated without problems. I the tried to calibrate the Dell monitor from a USB port on the PC, no luck.
I then contacted Dell product service. They were very unhelpful to say the least. Thee first guy accused me of “doing something” to the computer, because it can’t just “overnight” stop working! The second guy asked me to disconnect all cables, turn off the computer and monitor and start all over again. Also to see if any other device like a mouse or flash drive worked from the USB ports on the screen. They DID NOT. So the problem lies with the connections on the monitor.
Are there any suggestions from your side or have you heard of any such problems. According to Dell’s website this happened to other Dell monitor users as well.
Sorry for the long sob story, but I’m desperate. Fortunately my monitor is calibrated on Adobe RGB. I shoot in RAW so I can change my colour without problems. I know the monitor calibration may change over time (that’s why there is a function where you can set your reminder for re-calibration) That is IF YOUR MONITOR PORTS WORK!

Best wishes
Andre Barnard
Cape Town


The only other thing you can try is to use a different USB cable to connect your monitor to the computer. If a known good USB cable does not fix the issue, then the problem is the monitor, period. You may have to escalate the problem with Dell tech support.

Monitor USB ports are notoriously finicky and I have seen this numerous times. Often, it is the cable connecting the two, but sometimes it simply is the monitor. Dell should own up to the problem and replace the monitor.

Sorry to come to this rather late, it just popped up in an online feed.
Colourmanagement is explained here on quite a basic level, but I am sure this was chosen as a good way to get folks started thinking about it so that they’ll try to learn more.
However, may I respectfully disagree with a suggestion in the printing section:
“Assigning a color profile to the printer is actually done when we make the print. In the print window of our editing software there will be an option to choose a color profile. Again, in general, you can pick the generic Adobe RGB profile to get reasonable results, however for the very best quality it is best to have a custom profile for your printer/paper match.”
In most cases setting the printer software’s ICC profile to Adobe RGB isn’t going to represent the printer / paper performance well at all (which is what an ICC profile is used for). But, since the printer manufacturer likely supplies paper profiles for that printer, most users would be better off selecting one of those manufacturer’s profiles to test print appearance. Rather than simply trying Adobe RGB – likely getting a poor result – and then thinking a custom profile is the only way to see improvements.

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