A little time, a little software, and a couple of pieces of equipment add up to better-looking equip
There was a time when color management seemed like an intimidating, confusing prospect. And for those who haven't tackled it yet, it probably still seems that way.
The good news, however, is that current software and operating systems have laid the groundwork for a fairly straightforward implementation of color management. Plus, the vendors of color-management tools are following suit with products that are tailored to every application and user"?from digital-photography newbies just trying to get a good print, to print providers striving to ensure work for their customers is accurate, to prepress professionals preparing files for 6-color presses.
Color management, as it's practiced today, relies on descriptions of the characteristics of the different hardware used to represent images"?scanners, digital cameras, monitors, printers, and presses"?to make sure the image is represented the same way by each device. These descriptions are called "profiles," and are in a format that has been set by the International Color Consortium (ICC)"?hence, "ICC profiles." Profile-savvy applications and system software interpret the descriptions, and so "know" how to translate color as seen by a camera to the same color as displayed on a monitor to that output by a printer.
No more voodoo
"The big change going on right now is that all of the software is accessing ICC profiles"?Photoshop, InDesign, the rest," says Paul Hultgren, applications support specialist for GretagMacbeth.
"Just in the last couple of years, the software is making ICC profiles available to anyone. It's not voodoo anymore."
Eric Magnusson, president of Left Dakota, maker of profilemanagement software, agrees: "The technology works great," he says, but also notes that it wasn't always so, and not all that long ago. He recalls that trying to implement color management with Adobe Photoshop 5, for instance, was confusing at best"?and certainly enough to make people think they were better off not dealing with it at all. "But Photoshop 6, 7, and CS make it hard to make a mistake," he says.
"Color management was only a buzzword 5 years ago. Now everyone recognizes it as a critical need," says Tyler Andrew, PR manager for X-Rite. How critical? Well, TrendWatch, the industry consulting and forecasting group, reports that 17% of production and design firms, for instance, indicated they planned to invest in color-management software in 2004, while 9% of those reporting indicated they would invest in color-measurement tools or equipment (also in 2004). These are big numbers for this area.
Color management has become critical for a variety of reasons. For one, most workflows are becoming almost entirely digital "?film is, if not dead, at least not doing well. That takes away one of the main reference points for what the "right" color is, and without such a hard-copy reference, it's vital that everyone is speaking the same color language"?at least technologically.
"One of the things that's making color management grow," says Gary Theriault, account executive for ColorBlind, "is that traditional proofing has changed. You can use a soft proof or an inkjet proof much more cost effectively."
Also, print runs are getting shorter, which requires more efficient operation. At the same time, the printing workforce is seeing more turnover than it used to, so it's less likely that there will be experienced color experts available to work on a piece. That points to the need for "flying by instruments" and automation in the printing process.
There are also changes among the customers of print vendors. X-Rite's Andrew points to an increasing segmentation of the market, with novices who need a relatively quick and easy solution to getting good color on the one hand, and professionals who need to manage color all the way through the prepress and printing process at the other. Based on a study it commissioned, X-Rite segments the market into three stages: Create"?having to do with planning, design and capture, and review of images; Prepare "?covering checking, fixing, and preparing initial proofs; and Execute"?which takes the project through the printing press stage. (As a result of this study, the company has divided its product line to address those three markets.)
Hultgren agrees that the market is becoming segmented and also has addressed this. "GretagMacbeth has always been up at the very high end," he says. "As of about 3 years ago, we began to aim at a lower level." GretagMacbeth now offers the Eye-One line of products aimed at creatives, designers, agencies, photographers, and so on; but it also offers the ProfileMaker line, addressing the needs of press operators and other high-end printing applications.
And speaking for all manufacturers, David Tobie, product technology manager for ColorVision, says, "We're trying to reduce the complexity of the user experience."
Doris Brown, vice president of marketing for Pantone, points to the continued breakdown of the who-does-what barriers in the graphic-arts workflow as another force in bringing in new users: "There's been a real knocking down of the roles between designers and prepress houses," she says. "We've seen in the past year a tremendous rush in the designer community to embrace color management."
The new users, however, bring new assumptions with them. Andy Hatkoff, vice president for electronic color systems at Pantone, says, "Because color management has become democratized, the end user expects it to just work, because it's there." Old-school printing hands knew that getting good color usually required some compromises; now, people just expect their print to look like their monitor.
Andrew at X-Rite says, "There is an expectation today that what you see on your monitor is what will be printed." Or at least that you'll get the same color you got from your desktop printer at home:
"I'm finding that my customers are learning more about color than their print vendors, and the printers more than their manufacturers," says Magnusson of Left Dakota. "Photographers and content creators who are struggling to do the things right spend the time to learn it." But vendors downstream end up wrestling with multiple file formats and color spaces. "If you're a closed-loop operation, you can do anything you want," he says. "But if you're going to interface with others, you need to work to the industry standard."
Profile creation: scanner, camera, monitor
So what equipment lets you work to the industry standard? Basically, you need ways to create the ICC profiles for each of the steps in your workflow. That means you need some kind of hardware- software combination to create profiles for your scanner or digital camera; your monitor; and, of course, your printer.
The scanner part is relatively easy: You scan a standard target of colored squares, and software analyzes the results"? comparing the color values to the expected values, and making a profile for your particular scanner. From then on, your profileaware applications know how your scanner "sees" color and can compensate for it.
Profiling a digital camera is similar. You set up a target, ideally with the controlled lighting you will use for your photographic sessions, and shoot either the same target you used for your scanner or a standard photographic color sample. Many scanners come with targets, and the scanning software has a feature for creating the profile. Alternatively, you can use third-party software such as that available from X-Rite/Monaco.
The next step in the workflow is probably the most important step in color management: calibrating and profiling your monitor. This is the only way you'll be able to truly rely on your monitor to display the color you're going to get from your printer.
There are simple visual-calibration tools that show you colored squares and gray boxes and ask you to make choices as to the best matches. These tools are better than nothing, but they are inherently subjective, so it's hard to get consistent results.
The better way to go is to use a sensor, such as ColorVision's Spyder, Monaco's Optix colorimeter, or GretagMacbeth's Eye- One Display. You attach the sensor to your screen (or, in the case of an LCD monitor, hang it over the top). The associated software sends a series of color patches to the screen under the sensor, and then compares the input from the sensor to the known color values. The software adjusts the display to make it more accurate and creates a profile for your monitor. And keep in mind that this is not a one-time step; you should do this on at least a weekly basis.
Profile creation: printer
The final element to profile is your printer. Actually, for best results, you should consider each combination of printer, ink, and media as a separate "output state" that requires its own profile. These days, most printer manufacturers provide off-theshelf profiles for their own printers in combination with their own papers. Such prefab profiles are a start, but for best results, again, you're better off making profiles for your own particular output states. That's something you'll have to do, anyway, if you want complete freedom in your choice of inks or paper. Making a printer profile involves printing a standard image"? again, a pattern of colored squares"?and measuring this pattern with some kind of sensor to see how the printed color matches up with the known color values in the image.
You can send the image out and have a profile made for a fee. Or another option is to use a spectrophotometer or spectrocolorimeter, such as the ColorVision SpectroPro, to take the measurements and create the profile yourself. "If you're making money-making prints," says Tobie, "you should own one of those devices." Granted, he's not exactly unbiased when it comes to advocating you purchase this type of equipment, but he has a point: If you're going to generate a lot of profiles, outsourcing them does not make a lot of economic sense.
Profiles can be either RGB or CMYK. Tobie warns that making and implementing CMYK profiles is much harder than working with RGB profiles. In RGB, each color you sample has a single numerical value; in CMYK, you can achieve the same color with different combinations of ink, depending on your settings for black generation and total ink coverage. Five years ago, says Tobie, a PostScript RIP produced clearly superior color to an RGB driver, but now RGB drivers are almost as good"?and a whole lot easier.
With so many current workflows ending with a digital print as the final product (rather than as a step on the way to a press, as in the past), working with RGB profiles may be the best choice for many printing applications. But then, as indicated earlier, most drivers are only set up to handle the manufacturer's ink and paper. If you want to use third-party inks or media, you'll need to deal with a RIP, which means working with a CMYK profile. The RIP gives you control over the channels and curves, but you'll need to know how to use that control to get a good profile.
Depending on which RIP or printer you own, you may wind up using a profiling tool that's specially designed for your output device. Fujifilm, for instance, offers the ColourKit Profiler Suite, a set of standalone software for making and editing profiles that works with other manufacturer's hardware. But the company also offers software that's specially tuned for its FinalProof digital proofer"?"one step away from being a proprietary tool," according to Eric Neumann, product development manager of the Color Group for Enovation (Fujifilm's U.S. distributor). In Neumann's opinion, "tools are becoming very specialized by workflow manufacturer" to take advantage of specific technology in RIPs and printers. This process isn't likely to reach upstream to the design and photographic community, though, who will still want easy, portable solutions.
An important note here: If you're going to produce a CMYK profile for your digital printer, you need to have the right settings on the printer to start with. Often, that means calibrating the output to ensure it's consistent"?are you always getting approximately the same ink densities and tonal values? Also sometimes referred to as "linearizing" or "optimizing," calibration will make sure, for instance, that the printer lays down a 50% dot when the image calls for one. "I went to one place, a big sign printer, and they'd never even linearized," says Magnusson. "Linearization is the very start of color-managing a printer. Just by linearizing, they were amazed at the improvement in their color."
Where's the proof?
Having good profiles for your monitor and printer means more than just making sure that what you see is what you print. If you're making proofs for a press or a remote device, you can link your profiles to the profiles for those devices and have your monitor or printer mimic their output.
An application that supports ICC profiles, such as Photoshop, or your printer's RIP can translate the source color into a "deviceindependent" color space and then back into the target output's color space to make such a proof. Another choice is to use a product such as Link-o-lator, made by Left Dakota, to create direct CMYK-to-CMYK links, bypassing the device-independent space. Left Dakota also has a new product called Ultralinks, which makes RGB-to-CMYK conversions that, the company claims, are better than those made with ICC profiles.
This article, due to its length, is just an outline of what you need to do to get started implementing color management in your workflow. But color-management software is easier to use than ever, and the sensor devices are cheaper than ever, so there's no better time to start improving your output.
Jake Widman is a frequent contributor to The Big Picture.
International Color Consortium Back in 1993, eight industry vendors got together to create the International Color Consortium. The idea was to establish a group that would create, promote, and encourage the standardization and evolution of an open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform, colormanagement system architecture and components. The outcome was, of course, the ICC profile specification, the first version of which was released in the early 1990s. The resultant ICC device profiles can be used to translate color data created on one device into another device's native color space. The format's acceptance by operating system vendors allows end users to move profiles and images with embedded profiles between different operating systems. And, it allows users to be sure that their image will retain its color fidelity when moved between systems and applications. Furthermore, it allows a printer manufacturer to create a single profile for multiple operating systems. Today, the ICC (www.color.org) comprises more than 70 members and honorary members, and the ICC specification is widely used. The group is now working to make the specification more useful to various niches within the graphic arts. Current working groups within the organization focus upon workflow, digital cinema, architecture, and other specialties.