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Moving From Color Manglement to Color Management

Color Management can be an endless source of frustration for some. The temptation to give up on the whole thing can be a strong one, but for those willing to persevere, most will eventually have their "aha!" moment when it finally makes sense and everything actually works. In the mean time, if your colors are coming out more "mangled" than "managed," here are some pointers to help get beyond the frustration.

Profile Your Monitor
There's really no way you can ever get beyond the frustration until you can at least know what your images really look like. If you monitor is off a bit, all it can show you is the combination of its own biases added to your image. Even if you adjust what you can see in Photoshop until it looks wonderful, it doesn't really look that way. As soon as you send those misadjusted colors to your printer or email them to your relatives in Ohio, the frustration will return. The bad colors for the image you spent all afternoon working on will go where you sent them while the biases of your monitor will stay behind to confuse you about what your next image really looks like. It's a viscous trap.

And don't even think of adjusting your monitor by hand. There's really no way. To do this right you need to invest in a hardware monitor calibrator such as those made by X-Rite or ColorVision/Datacolor. These things have come down in cost to the point where you can do a pretty darned good job for around a hundred bucks. I'm betting you've already spent way more than that on your camera and lenses, computer and software, and so on. Install the program, plug the device into a USB port and click "Next" a few times and follow the on-screen directions. Doing this is definitely money and time well spent.

Don't Use Your Monitor Profile or Your Printer Profile as Your Working Space
When you do profile your monitor, the program that came with your colorimeter handles most of the details for you. After accurately measuring the colors your monitor actually produces, the software calculates what is needed to compensate for your monitor's biases and builds a profile to describe its findings. It then automatically puts this profile in the right place on your computer and tells your operating system all about it. Photoshop itself doesn't need to know or care anything about it. Avoid the inclination to change your Photoshop Color Settings based on your new profile. The Working Space in Photoshop describes the range of colors possible in your images, not what is necessary to get them to look right on your monitor.

Don't use your printer profile for your Working Space either. It gets used only during printing, and most of the time you spend in Photoshop comes well before it's time to print.

With very few exceptions, your Working Space profile should be sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB, depending on how adventurous you want to be. Each of these in turn has a wider gamut than the ones before it. That means if you choose Adobe RGB your images can contain a wider range of colors than if you work in sRGB. Even more if you work in ProPhoto RGB. Be aware though that while more colors may sound tempting, each of these in turn also comes with greater challenges in other ways. A bigger range of colors can lead to bigger errors if you don't know what you are doing. To be safe, start with sRGB or Adobe RGB and save ProPhoto for when you feel like you have the hang of things. And if you do decide to go with ProPhoto RGB, make sure you are working in 16-bits per channel rather than just eight so you can accurately describe all those colors.

Avoid Double Profiling
Photoshop is a complex program with lots of features and more than one way to do just about everything. If you read enough color management articles from the web and in books you can find a lot of different color management workflows. If you pull a piece out of one and another piece from another you're going to invite frustration since those pieces may not be designed to work together in the first place. Find some advice that is understandable and seems to make sense and stick with it.

Don't make the mistake of filling in every blank you find with a color profile either in an attempt to roll your own color management solution. There are indeed multiple ways to do this right, but there are even more ways of doing it wrong. On the way from your computer to your printer there are several places where you can convert from your Working Space to your printer profile. You want to do this once and only once. Failing to do it at all will give you a nasty color cast. Converting to your printer profile more than once will only serve to give you a different and perhaps even nastier color cast.

Save for Web as sRGB
The World Wide Web tends to be geared towards the lowest common denominator, and in terms of color management, the lowest common denominator is sRGB. Yes, if everyone else were as hip to color management as you are working towards being, then you could post images online using any profile you like, but such is not the case. If you use a wider gamut color space for web or email images people will probably tell you then look washed out and desaturated to them. Adobe actually makes saving as sRGB easier these days than they used to. All you have to do now is check the "Convert to sRGB" checkbox in the "Save for Web and Devices" dialog.

Take Things One Step at a Time
For historical reasons, the folks from the International Color Consortium who were proud enough of their work on standardizing color management that they used the acronym for their organization when naming color profiles "ICC profiles" made the terminology of color management more confusing that perhaps necessary. But then they were color scientists not photographers so it all made perfect sense to them. If terms like "rendering intent" and "gamut" are throwing you for a loop, take some time to learn the vocabulary before rummaging too deeply into changing things in Photoshop. If you change enough things from their defaults before understanding what you are doing you may just be digging an even deeper hole to work your way out of. It really does all make sense, even it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees when you first start fiddling with color management. If you persevere enough, you will at some point have your own "aha!" moment and become a color management guru yourself. Or least you'll understand enough to be able to print your work painlessly or send a picture to a friend knowing that they have a fighting chance of seeing the same colors you see.

Date posted: October 11, 2009


Copyright © 2009 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Color Management: Feeling Lost?
Color Management: Color Models, Color Spaces and Color Profiles
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Color Management: Monitor Profiling
Color Management: Printing Without Pain, Part 1
Color Management: Printing Without Pain, Part 2
Color Management: Converting versus Assigning
Color Management: Troubleshooting Common Problems
Color Management: The Eyeglasses Analogy
Color Management Changes in Photoshop CS2
Photoshop Color Management Policies in Detail
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