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Color Management on a Shoestring Budget

A little color management is better than none at all.

It’s true; setting up a shop-wide color-management system can be expensive to implement. And if you don’t have any in-house color experts, it can be tricky as well. In such situations, it’s probably wise to call in a consultant who can evaluate your entire process and profile at least your most important input and output devices. Color management is being done on many different levels by different print providers, from just calibrating monitors and a couple of output devices to creating profiles for every device and output condition imaginable. Then there are those who are not doing any color management at all. If you’re in the latter group, your time has come.

To be honest, for most print providers, profiling every different type of paper you send out is probably just more trouble and expense than it’s worth. Most consultants recommend you create profiles for your most critical jobs, and generate a generic "happy medium" color profile for the rest. That means lumping similar paper stocks and output devices together. It won’t give you the best possible output, but it will almost certainly keep your customers happy and your output consistent.

Can color management be done at a reasonable cost, without bringing in a consultant, and still yield acceptable results? I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. I say "qualified" here because color management on a shoestring will not yield the best possible results. But it’s also true that even the most rigorous and thorough implementation cannot give you perfection. There are simply too many variables in the process. Differences in inks, papers, environmental conditions, and even in color perception will always be problematic.

So perhaps the question is: How close is close enough? For folks who are not doing any color management, some implementation is certainly better than none. But the good news is that there are products out there that make it possible to do some pretty good calibration and profiling without the thousands of dollars of hardware and software investments the best systems require. A high-quality spectrophotometer costs approximately $3000, and that’s just more than a lot of small shops want to spend. You can’t expect a spectrophotometer that costs a tenth of that price to be as precise, but fortunately, you can expect it to give you results that are acceptable to a wide range of printers and their customers.

The Munki and the Spyder
Both DataColor and X-Rite have a wide array of products including simple monitor-calibration units that sell for less than $100. Of course both manufacturers would prefer to sell you their high-end devices, but they also realize that many smaller print shops simply aren’t able to put that kind of investment into a problem they don’t consider that significant. The shops can deal with the fact that some of their machines are "a little off," at least until their customers start complaining.

But two things are happening. First, customers buying color output are becoming not only more critical of color but also more savvy print buyers. What used to be "good enough" no longer is. Secondly-and quite thankfully-the prices of good color-management software and hardware have come down significantly, and systems that will calibrate and profile both monitors and output devices are now available for less than $500, a price almost any small print provider can afford to pay to get their color right.

One such device is X-Rite’s ColorMunki. At $499 (MSRP), it’s an easy-to-use, reasonably accurate device for calibrating monitors, profiling printers, and reading and importing color swatches from nearly any substrate. There’s a Design and a Photo version, and the difference is in software. Print providers will almost certainly want the Design version. In that version, color palettes can be Picker software. If you also do design work, the extra software that comes with the ColorMunki may be enough to make it your choice.

A couple of warnings though: In its current incarnation, you can only load the software on three machines. You also need an Internet connection to download the software to run the device. And even though the interface is simple and easy to use, some folks have had trouble getting everything set up properly the first time around. Having said that, I have some experience with color-management products and found it to be simple and straightforward and much easier to use than most high-end products.

Another option is the Datacolor Spyder3 Print. Folks have been using the inexpensive Spyder for a number of years for monitor calibration, but Datacolor is now into its third generation of Spyder models. Listed for the same price as the ColorMunki (also $499 MSRP), it does have the advantage of unlimited installations. The overall quality of the two devices is quite similar, with the Spyder3 Print being marketed to a more professional audience. Users who are not familiar at all with color calibration and profiling could face frustration with the Spyder3 Print package. Reviewers report it is a bit more complicated to set up, but it also has some added functionality for more experienced users. I have used the Spyder2 monitor-calibration unit and found it simple to use, and the Spyder3 is said to be an improvement over its predecessor. The Spyder2 Express is still available for monitor calibration only ($79 retail).

The Spyder3 Print package is actually two separate instruments (unlike the Color Munki, which is a combination device); you get both a Datacolor Spyder3 for monitor calibration and a Datacolor 1005 Spectrocolorimeter for printer calibration and profiling. Also available is a Spyder3 Elite Studio product, which includes a step up for the monitor calibration to the Spyder3 Elite (the difference is software) and a protective aluminum carrying case. That package runs an extra $100 ($599 MSRP). Datacolor does not have photo- and design-specific software packages at this point.

Stay on top with scheduled maintenance
Implementing a color-management solution, however, is only going to have value for printers who maintain all of their devices and monitors on a regular basis. It is certainly recommended that monitors be calibrated at least weekly (some folks do it daily since the process takes only a couple of minutes or so). Printer calibration takes a bit longer, but weekly calibration is recommended. Once you have a running record of how much different output devices tend to drift over time, appropriate adjustments in the maintenance schedule can be made. Some printing devices definitely tend to drift more than others.

The point is that all devices change over time, and the only way to keep color synchronized is through regular calibration. Failing to maintain a proper schedule is the primary reason that color-management systems fail to work. It’s not hardware or software; it’s production schedules that get so backed up operators don’t feel they can take the time to go through the process, no matter how quick and simple it is.

The easiest way around this is to mandate a regular schedule for calibration and stick to that schedule. It’s very easy in a production environment to let the scheduled maintenance slide, but this often leads to spending hours troubleshooting problems that could have been prevented by spending a few minutes running a calibration. Software in these devices can warn you when you are past the mandated period between calibrations, but it’s easy to ignore.

Don’t.

Now that plant-wide color management systems are available for the shoestring budget, what are you waiting for?

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