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 the author

Jason Row

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. His images have been licensed to companies such as Cunard, Ethiad and Virgin Atlantic as well as multiple newspapers and magazines. As well as shooting stills he is now creating travel stock video in 4K. He maintains a travel stock photography site at Jason Row Photography You can also catch up with him on Facebook at Facebook/TheOdessaFiles

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