Color Management – III

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So after some wandering about in the previous two posts, it is time to get down to color management. I am no expert at this – I’m just going to share from my personal frustrations and you can see if you can glean anything useful out of it.

We are trying to go from a scene that we see with our eyes, to the camera, to the computer monitor, and finally to the printer. The trouble is our eyes see colors (among other things) differently than the camera. What we see as a deep blue evening sky, the camera sensor may see more as purple. Back at home we transfer the images to our computer and pull them up on the screen. The monitor may see things differently again. It changes the sky to something more like royal blue. To top it off we try to print and the printer doesn’t give us blue, purple, or royal blue – it gives you almost black. Yikes!

Enter color management. The idea here is to adjust each device (well, not our eyes) to align with a “standard” set of colors – a profile if you will. If the camera, the monitor, and the printer can all agree on just what blue means, then they can capture and display an image that looks “the same” all the way through. (It’s up to us and our editing skills to make the blue look like we remember seeing it.)

So, we take a color profile, say sRGB, that defines a standard range of colors and we stick it on the camera, the computer, and the printer. Each device compares images against the profile and matches up the colors. Viola! Perfect images.

Not so fast. In the real world things aren’t that simple.

One big problem with color management is something that happens to a lot of things in the computer world – too many cooks in the kitchen. For some odd reason programmers labor under the false impression that theirs is the only software on any computer. They are not interested in playing nice with the other kids. The operating system thinks it should handle color management for all devices attached it. The video card thinks it should be in charge so it fights the OS. The image editing software thinks it should control the entire flow, so it gets into the fracas with the video and the OS. Meanwhile the printer manufacturer wants its driver to handle the printing and it might mangle an image that we thought was perfect just at the critical point.

So what’s a body to do. I have no idea. There are so many variables involved depending on what your hardware can or cannot do, what software you use, what OS you use, what printer you use, and even what color your walls are painted and how bright is your room lighting. All I can do is tell you what I do and point out some resources. After that, you have to sort through it all until you are happy with your specific set up.

My guiding rule on color management is: eliminate as many variables as possible. The fewer times an image is “adjusted” the less chance there is of getting it screwed up. Double adjustment, especially with conflicting color profiles, will trash an image pretty quick.

OK, here is what I’ve got: I have a Windows XP machine. I have tried a lot of image editing software, but mostly I use Corel Paint Shop Pro XI to edit and print. I have an Epson R1800 printer with the latest drivers installed. I use an old CRT monitor. My video card is so old that I have drivers, but no manufacturer supplied utilities to manage the card configuration (at least that is one variable out of the way). I take my shots with a Nikon D200.

I used to use JPG files from the camera. That meant that the camera had to convert the raw files to JPG using a color profile. I haven’t even gotten the images out of the camera and already I’m on the slippery slope down into a color management quagmire! These days I use the raw files directly – one “adjustment” avoided.

Since I have no utilities from the video card manufacturer, some more variables are gone. However, my monitor has some buttons on it (brightness, contrast, color temperature). How do I set these so that it is showing me the “right” colors? The best way is to buy one of those hardware jobbies that reads the monitor and tells you what to do and creates custom color profiles. I don’t have one – maybe I’ll put it on my Christmas list. I have to use my eyeballs.

There are many web sites that will help you adjust your monitor. I’ll put some URLs at the end of this post. These pages usually display a set of targets on your screen and you tinker with the monitor settings until the targets look a certain way. This isn’t perfect, but it worked pretty good for me after some trial and error and it is free.

Now we pull the images into Paint Shop. Photoshop from Adobe has full blown color management features built into it; Paint Shop has pseudo management. The important thing to remember is that any settings in Paint Shop only pertain to itself. They do not effect the images when viewed outside of the application and they have no effect during printing. This is not always obvious (especially the printing part) from the program or the documentation and confused me for a while.

I use the monitor calibration built into Paint Shop even though this is sneered at by some color experts, but then those guys would sneer at this whole post so what are you gonna do. Remember this only effects Paint Shop. Don’t think that this is somehow standardizing the monitor across the board. This just gets Paint Shop comfortable with how you have adjusted your monitor.

Next I set the color working space. This tells Paint Shop what color profile to apply when opening images. The standard profile is sRGB. This is a good starting place. I personally use AdobeRGB which has gotten me into trouble a couple of times as we’ll see later. I check the “use embedded profiles” radio button. Cripes! Embedded profiles – we’ll get to that later too.

Finally I set the color management. I use the “basic” setting and the monitor profile I got from the calibration step along with the profile for the printer that came from Epson. I set the rendering intent to “pictures”.

These settings give me a pretty decent starting point. From here I can edit my images and expect to get good results.

On the other hand we have yet to set up the printer driver and what about those pesky embedded profiles and why is it that sometimes my images look terrible when viewed in a browser on another machine?

One more post and I’ll give color management a rest for a while – I promise.

URLs to monitor adjustment pages:

http://www.jasc.com/support/kb/articles/monitor.asp

http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/viewing.html

http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/article_pages/match_prints_to_screen.html

MDW

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One Response to “Color Management – III”

  1. Bernie Kasper Says:

    Looks like I use some of the same techniques as you Mark, I use CS2 and an old crt as well, I shoot with the d200 as well. I do have a serious monitor calibration problem as well, so I might get some use out of your links, hopefully I will get a new monitor for Christmas.

    Sitting in front of a computer is the part of digital photography I disdain, a lot of what I do is trial and error and if it comes out to my liking I print it, most of the time it does. I just need to be more organized on how I set my work flow up I guess. This is a nice post, very in depth and full of great info, nice work.

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