Color Management: The Cornerstone of a Digital Workflow

I realize including the words “Color Management” in the title of this blog post will probably limit the number of folks that actually read this but I hope many will get past that and see just how critical this important topic is when working up still images or grading video footage. Color management, which involves a whole host of things–part of which is calibrating and profiling your monitor–is the cornerstone of any digital workflow involving photography or video. In fact, color management, including how your set up your workspace, what monitor you use and how you calibrate and profile that monitor is much more important than which camera or lens you use, or how many megapixels your camera has.

“In fact, color management, including how your set up your workspace, what monitor you use and how you calibrate and profile that monitor is much more important than which camera or lens you use, or how many megapixels your camera has.”

I decided to write this blog post after having several instances in workshops where I talked about the importance of color management and met with some resistance. By just describing the issues related to color and digital photography, and how monitors out of the box for the most part are not color calibrated to any known color space, I have found that most people come up with a response that goes something like “Well, the colors look fine to me.” In a recent worksh0p, I ran through the entire digital workflow from ingest to a finished print and it was when the print rolled off the Epson ink jet printer looking pretty much identical to the screen that the importance of color management became obvious. Previous to this, the client had just let the printer determine the colors in the final print and that was a disaster in terms of color accuracy compared to using a robust color management strategy. Just because your monitor looks nice doesn’t mean it shows accurate color or is calibrated as it needs to be for working up images.

In my e-book entitled A Professional Photographer’s Workflow: Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, I have an extensive chapter on color management. That chapter has more information about color management than I have seen anywhere else. And when I say anywhere else, I mean everywhere. I have looked hard to find this information for myself and I have pieced it all together after consulting with many color experts and figuring it out for myself. The e-book gets into the nitty-gritty details of color management for photographers and also for those capturing video. Here in this blog post, I don’t have time or space to relay everything in that 57-page chapter but I hope to at least give an introduction to the issues.

First off, as can be seen in the top image of this blog post, controlling the lighting and the brightness of your workspace is critical. You can also tell how crazy I get about color by looking at the walls of my office in that image. I spent over $300 painting my office with color calibrated 18% gray paint I got from GTI. I am not sure I would do that again. But, the point is you don’t want neon pink walls or even tinted walls in your work space if color is important to you. A way to control the lighting in your office will also help. I put up the blinds when working on images so all exterior light is blocked out. Also, making sure the color of the light in your office is Daylight balanced is important as well. Lastly, as far as environment, I wear black t-shirts when working on images. A bright red (or any other bright color) shirt can and will reflect off your monitor and alter your sense of color.

Second, as I have already stated the monitor is the most important piece of photographic equipment you own. I use an Eizo monitor that shows the entire Adobe RGB color space. With DSLRs, most of us typically shoot in the Adobe RGB color space. As shown below, the sRGB color space, which is what 98% of all monitors show is quite a bit smaller than the Adobe RGB color space. Hence, when working on images, if you are working with a normal sRGB monitor then you aren’t seeing all the colors in your image and things can go very wrong in a hurry. [Note: If you don’t know what color space your monitor is then it is sRGB or an even smaller color space.] Another part of this equation is that not all monitors are equal. Most monitors vary greatly from corner to corner in terms of color and brightness.

Third in this series of things to consider about color management, is calibrating and profiling your monitor using a device like the X-Rite i1 Display Pro (shown below on the far left) or i1 Photo Pro 2 (shown below on the far right) is critical. The i1 Display Pro is about $250 and is a great basic monitor calibration device. The i1 Photo Pro 2 costs considerably more but if you need the functionality it offers then it is worth the price. The Colormunki is another good device that I can recommend, though it is a bit dated compared to the first two options. These devices will dial in your monitor so that they show accurate, known and repeatable colors that other devices can replicate. If you aren’t calibrating and profiling your monitor then before you ever start working up an image in Lightroom or Photoshop your color is already off in its own unknown, whacky color space, and doesn’t relate to any other known color space. You might get lucky and your monitor isn’t that far off, but you may not. If you have ever tried to make a print you know what I mean.

In my workshops I state that working up your images on a monitor that isn’t calibrated and profiled is a complete waste of time. I stand by that statement. If you pay thousands of dollars for a high-end camera and won’t buy the $250 device that will help make sure you are seeing accurate colors on your monitor then I don’t know what to say. At the very least, even if you don’t buy an Adobe RGB monitor, buy a monitor calibration device like those shown here and calibrate your monitor. There is a lot more to creating a solid color management system, but calibrating and profiling your monitor is at least a start.

The last part of the puzzle with color management is buying a decent photo printer and making a print after you have calibrated and profiled your monitor. If the print, viewed under controlled, accurate daylight viewing conditions (like in a print viewing box) doesn’t exactly match your monitor then your monitor needs to be adjusted until it does match. This is how you figure out if you correctly calibrated your monitor. Of course, printing involves knowing about printer profiles, or possibly having to make your own custom profiles, which is where the X-Rite i1 Photo Pro 2 excels, as shown below. Printing is not easy, especially if you haven’t dialed in your color management. I think this is a big reason why lots of digital photographers stopped printing their images. But, with excellent color management you can usually hit “Print” once and get a print that looks extremely close to what your monitor is showing if you view it in the correct lighting conditions.

I realize this blog post seems like a public service announcement, and in some ways it is. Digital presents a whole host of issues and problems for digital photographers and very few understand the issues around color management well. I have only scratched the surface here. There is a lot more to consider if you are looking to dial in your color management. If you want all of the answers, I highly recommend my e-book, A Professional Photographer’s Workflow: Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I know many might find it offensive that I am promoting a book when everything seems to be online for free but I have spent over ten years learning everything I could possibly find out about color management and all of that knowledge is contained in this e-book. This e-book is also a real book that is 500-pages long and packed with info. It isn’t your average e-book, as the testimonials on my website indicate. The chapter on Color Management alone would be worth the price of this book. If you are serious about photography, do yourself a favor and get serious about color management.



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