WARNING: This is a high-level overview of a highly complex subject that ultimately advises several resources for the photographer to help minimize color management nightmares. There are ton of products, concepts, and techniques that are intentionally missing from this article. I’ve tried to break it down to the recommendations I’d give a friend who is struggling with color management nightmares without boring them with weeks of lectures and discussions on this sophisticated topic.
How well do you see color?
Click here to take a test that will test your color IQ. I highly recommend this for those who think they can visually calibrate their display. In case you are wondering, I got a 35 on a calibrated display (without my glasses or contacts on), so you can imagine how that score would probably be much worse if I was on a non-calibrated display.
Tim Grey's Color Confidence: The Digital Photographer's Guide to Color Management and many similar books on the complex subject of Color Management have been written to guide photographers though the hassle of understanding all of the variables involved with how your capture device (your camera), display device (your monitor), your editing software (i.e., Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, etc…) and your output device (a web browser or printer) all have different ways and limitations on how they display color, and what is required to get all of these devices in sync with each other.
If just one link in the chain is converted improperly, it’s easy to get inaccurate results in your final output, so understanding this topic is essential for photographers to express their artistic representation of color in a way that will allow other calibrated displays to show accurate results. The sad truth though is that many people don’t calibrate their displays so all bets are off and it’s Forrest Gump calibration – you’ll never know what your gonna get! This is why understanding color spaces and working with calibrated profiles is essential to getting accurate output!
Calibrate Your Display - A Beginners Solution
For the past couple of years I’ve been very happy with my Pantone Huey as my monitor calibration device. Since most of my output was for the display, this solution was sufficient for my needs. If you fall into this camp, then I highly recommend this product as a cost effective starting point into monitor calibration. If you have more than one display attached to your computer, you must purchase the huey pro as the non-pro version only supports one display.
The next step up from the Huey, which I highly recommend as your starting point, is the i1 Display2 (available on Amazon, B&H and Adorama). If you are graduating to doing your own printing, regardless of how inexpensive your printer is, I highly recommend you move up to a device that can also profile your printer and papers.
UPDATE: X-Rite now has these new products that replace the products mentioned in this section. They are NOT spectrophotometers, so they can’t do printer profiles, but they are colorimeters so you they can calibrate your display. What’s great about these over the ones mentioned above is that they support wide color gamut display calibration which neither the Huey Pro or i1 Display2 supported. For printing I still recommend the ColorMunki Photo or greater as this article suggests.
ColorMunki Photo Color Management Solution – Calibrate Your Display to Your Printer for WYSIWIG results
ColorMunki Photo Color Management Solution by X-Rite is more than just a display calibration device, it also allows you to calibrate your printer to the paper you are using to provide an end to end color management solution. What does this really mean? It means you can have your display match your printed image as close as possible (up to the limits of your display and the natural differences between a backlit display and a printed image).
Seeing is believing
A picture really speaks a thousand words here though, so I’ll start with a few examples. First, let’s take a look at what my color management dialog looks like in Photoshop CS4 when I try to print one of my images on an inexpensive Canon PIXMA MP560 Wireless Inkjet All-In-One Photo Printer
I can’t demonstrate what a calibrated display looks like, but if your display isn’t horrifically off then the above photo should look very pleasing from a color perspective with warm (but not red or pale) skin tones and nice vibrant blue water (but not way over saturated).
I did my first print of the photograph above by telling Photoshop to just print this image using the printer driver’s settings as I did not have a custom profile for the Office Depot High Gloss Premium Photo Paper (the worst paper I’ve ever used). Here’s my printer driver settings:
This is what a typical consumer would do and expect to get good results. However, the results I got in this case, and every prior case when printing from this printer without a color profile were horrific. Compare the before (left) and after (right) below, where the accurate print was done AFTER I used the ColorMunki Photo to generate a paper profile for this paper:
This photo of the two prints don’t really do it justice as the before on the left looks worse than you see here and the after one on the right looks significantly better than what is shown. However, I think you can see the most important point – the before is horrific and the after closely represents what is shown on the screen (in fact, in real life it was identical on my machine). WOW, what a difference this made on a printer that cost less than $100!!!! Who says color management is only for expensive pro printers, right?
For those who are interested, here were my settings AFTER creating my paper profile using the ColorMunki (described later in this article):
Those paying careful attention will notice that this version lets Photoshop manage the colors and I use the printer profile I created with my ColorMunki, which is why the results are so much better. Now, let’s show you how easy it is to use the ColorMunki Photo to calibrate my display and generate a paper profile.
ColorMunki Photo Calibration Demo
I’ll skip some steps here, but screen shots of nearly the entire process can be found here for those who are interested.
While you can perform your calibrations for your display and printer separately, here we’ll do them together since we are just getting started. The net result of this process is the creation of a profile which will be used by your Windows or Mac operating system to accurately display the colors on your display and to give your printer driver the info it needs to render those colors accurately to your printer for the paper used in this profiling. Here’s where we begin:
Next, we’ll choose what type of display we’ll calibrate:
You’ll also notice here that I chose the Advanced feature so I could have my display adjust based on ambient light conditions which is important as your results will vary based on the light in the room near your display.
After your ColorMunki calibrates itself and measures the ambient light in the room, you are ready to hang the ColorMunki from your display so it can read some test patterns and make the necessary corrections. Here’s a few pictures to demonstrate this process:
Here’s a photo that shows the ColorMunki in position after being placed its included case:
Color patterns are shown as you see here:
and this data is collected and matched against the values they should be to create a difference that is used in your profile to begin displaying everything on your monitor the way it should be displayed without any modifications. After this process is complete a profile is generated and stored in the appropriate location on your computer so that your display will be immediately updated to show accurate color. if your only output target is the display, then you could stop here (and could probably get away with just a Pantone Huey as your only solution).
However, if your target is print, it’s now time to get your display and printer in sync with each other by creating a printer profile. It should be noted that printer profiles are only good for one type of paper and that 8x10 or larger paper is required (I use letter size), so I recommend you do this every time you change to a new paper (unless you have generated or acquired an accurate printer profile already).
Be sure to select the correct printer and give the profile a name you’ll remember (printer name not required as it will be pre-pended to the paper name string).
After clicking Next, you will now be prompted to print a test chart. This process is critical to your success so pay close attention the instructions on the screen, in the help file and the related videos included on your setup discs.
ColorMunki knows what these colors should look like when you scan them later on your paper, but the wizard displays them as they should appear. It’s common to have entirely different results on paper from the print, which is why profiling is so important.
When doing your profiling, it’s important to turn off all color management in your printer driver. Turn off ALL color management in the printer driver as shown here for the Canon MP560:
When you are done, be sure to save all of your printer driver settings to a preset (which most printer drivers support now) so that you can recall these values to reproduce the same print results. Here’s the name I chose for my preset (which will be shown in the Commonly used Settings list):
I now know that every time I print from ColorMunki when profiling or when I am using my custom profile that we will create here. For this example I chose the paper name, but if the values aren’t going to change whenever you are using the ColorMunki or its generated profiles you could just call it something like “ColorMunki Settings”. These are the printer driver settings required to get accurate results.
This will cause a sheet of paper to be printed with a test chart. You will use the ColorMunki to scan the test pattern printed on the paper you wish to profile as shown here:
The profiling software will now generate a second pattern based on the results it got from the scan to make sure it understands how the colors on the paper appear differently from the way they should be. When this is done, you can scan the second page and the wizard will let you know which line to scan and if the measurement scan was successful:
When this is completed, your profile is generated using the name of your choice:
Now when you print or soft proof in Photoshop, you can use your newly created paper profile so that your monitor will display the colors similar to the way they will be printed:
It’s also critical for letting the print dialog (shown earlier for Photoshop) know what type of paper you are printing to so it knows how to put the right colors of ink down on that specific paper. Here’s an example of choosing a custom profile in Lightroom (all versions):
Other applications such as Aperture, Acrobat, and more will all use these color profiles as well. Fortunately many paper and printer manufactures provide profiles for download on their web site so that you don’t have to do this, but many argue that for the best results it’s always a good idea to generate your own. The validity of that statement is a bit skewed though as generally profiles that are provided by manufactures are done using more expensive spectrophotometers, but ColorMunki does allow for an iterative process where you can get more test patterns using some of your photos as inputs to create highly tuned paper profiles for your workflow. One of my favorite Fashion Photographers and printing mentors, Douglas Dubler, highly recommends this process for generating the best possible print results.
It is important to note that paper profiles must be generated for the exact paper AND printer you are using, so if either of those variables change a new paper profile must be created. It is therefore sometimes easier and faster to just generate your own profile than it is to hunt down the profile for your exact printer and the paper you are using (especially if you have an older, inexpensive and/or unpopular printer). While you may use a little ink and paper to do the profiling, you’ll waste far less than if you get horrible results as i did in my before photo (and many other prints using that printer).
This headache of printing is why I had frequently in the past advised people not to do their own printing, but rather leaving it in the hands of third parties who specialize in the process as the cost-effectiveness of doing so made a lot of sense to me. My position on that has changed a bit as I am doing this series, but if you aren’t willing to invest in a product like ColorMunki to calibrate your display and profile your printer, then I still stick to my advice of using third party services for all your printing needs.
Click here to see my friend and Canon Explorer of Light Rick Sammon discuss HDR and color calibration. Skip to 7:00 if you want to get to the color display and printer calibration part using the ColorMunki Photo.
PowerPoint presentation of my ColorMunki Photo 101 Presentation
On December 15th, I gave a presentation to the Seattle chapter of the Pacific Northwest Color Management Users Group (SCMUG) where I demonstrated the ColorMunki Photo as discussed in this article. For those that attended that session, you may find the PowerPoint slide deck here (directly links prohibited – all links should point to this article).
My review of Chromix ColorThink Pro is also available on this site, and my review of the NEC PA Series displays will be coming soon. You may also enjoy my printing series and discount coupon code page as well as the Read This First topic for a wealth of information on this web site.
Thanks for attending and welcome to RonMartBlog.com!
If you are a photographer, after you purchase your camera and lens your next purchase should always be a display calibration device. A huey is sufficient if you are a beginner doing printing via third parties, but as soon as you switch to doing your own printing (regardless of the cost of the printer) then you really need a device like a ColorMunki Photo to get the best possible results. The other ColorMunki devices mentioned on X-Rite’s web site are not for photographers, so stick with the Photo version. There’s also more expensive i1 based solutions for those who will make a living from their prints, but for most of us the ColorMunki is going to meet our basic needs for accurate printer and display profiling.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: ColorMunki Photo
While I purchased my own Pantone Huey, X-Rite did provide me with a ColorMunki for use in this article and in my printing series. I will get a commission if you purchase from the links for Amazon, Adorama, and B&H shown in this article, so show your appreciation of this article by using these links!