Why Color Management is Like Setting Your Clocks
You wear a watch on your wrist to keep track of what time it is throughout your busy day. But if you walk into a room that has a clock in it that shows a different time than your watch, what do you do? The situation is not too dissimilar from the dilemma you face when the color on your monitor doesn't match what your printer produces. To understand what I'm getting at, read on and all will be made clear.
You assume that the time on your wrist watch is correct, right? After all, that's why you wear it. There's a degree of confirmation in seeing another clock that matches the time on your watch. But if the clock in a room of your house shows a different time, then there must be something wrong with it, or else your watch must no longer keep accurate time. Whichever one you trust more will likely become the basis on which you adjust the other so they match. And then all will be well again.
Or so it may seem. All bets are off on whether either clock will actually match the time out in the real world. If you want, you could stay home all the time and ignore this potential problem, but that hardly seems practical. The truth of the matter is that a "closed loop" method of setting your clocks, one from the other, only works if you don't care what anyone else does.
In the same way, you assume the color displayed by your computer monitor is correct too. If you get a new printer and sit down to print your favorite images and everything comes out OK, you'll likely be quite pleased. But the sad truth is that more than likely the color in your prints will be at least a bit off when compared to what your monitor shows. They may be a lot off. And that's when most new printer owners start to get frustrated.
The usual solution to such a problem would be to tweak the color sliders in the printer driver until prints come out at least in the right ballpark relative the monitor. Either that, or the new printer may serve as an eye-opening indication of just how bad your monitor is and you'll decide to adjust it rather than the printer to get the same colors. Either way, once you have them looking reasonably close to each other, all will seem well.
Just as with your wrist watch and clock though, your monitor and printer may match each other, but what if they don't match anybody else's? Post some images on a website or email them to a friend and they will likely complain that the color looks wrong. Attempting to remedy color problems by adjusting your monitor and printer until they match each other only works if you don't want to share your work with others.
To find a solution that does work, let's return momentarily to our clock problem. Rather than adjusting the clock based on your wrist watch or vice versa, a different approach is needed. If instead you set each clock to the correct time, they will automatically match each other. In much the same way, if you profile your monitor so that it displays color correctly and then do the same for your printer so that colors come out the way they should on it, they will automatically match each other.
This is an important point about how color management is intended to work. While you will need a profile for your monitor and one for your printer (actually for the combination of printer, paper and ink used), these two profiles have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Each one has a specific job to do and doesn't need any help from any other profile or device to do it.
Your monitor profile should be an accurate set of measurements for how your monitor displays color. Your computer's color management system can then use this profile to correct for any deficiencies or quirks so that colors come out correctly on your monitor. Likewise, your printer profile performs the same function for your printer.
To take this one step further, it doesn't even matter what monitor you have in order to create a printer profile. Indeed, some of the best printer profiles available are those that come from the printer manufacturer. And they clearly don't know what monitor you have or how you have it set up. Epson and now HP and Canon provide excellent profiles for their photo printers either in the box or as downloads from the web.
For your monitor, you can't just use a profile from the manufacturer. Because of changes over time and other factors, you really need to create your own monitor profile using a hardware calibration tool. But the concept is still the same. It doesn't matter what printer you have, or even if you have one at all, when you profile your monitor. You may even have more than one printer but the process of profiling your monitor doesn't change at all And buying a new printer or monitor won't require you to re-profile the other since each is independent of the other.
So, rather than trying to keep track of what time it is by blindly adjusting one clock to another, you can set each of them to the correct time and they will automatically match each other. In the same way, rather than trying to gain control over color management by working to adjust your monitor and printer so they match, get or make a profile for each so they display color correctly and they will automatically match each other.