The Peaks and Valleys of Color Management
by Thomas Franklin
1 of a 2 Part Series
Color management is, by most accounts, the signature challenge of the digital workflow. Vendors variously invoke flossing, eating spinach, and exercise to analogize the process of implementing—and sticking with—a color-managed workflow. One print provider once quipped to me that it was "a dark art."
Sounds painful, yet like most of the aforementioned practices, color management, regularly and meticulously adhered to, will reap rewards.
First, it reduces waste, says Andy Hatkoff, VP of advanced color technology, Pantone/X-Rite, Inc. With a calibrated monitor capable of accurately reproducing colors, soft proofs will more closely align with hard proofs, reducing the number of proof prints necessary to satisfy clients.
"What does every business have next to their printer? A waste pile," states Brian Ashe, director of business development, X-Rite, Inc.
Fewer proofs means less ink and paper waste and a more efficient production cycle. Efficiency is also realized through predictably. Implementing color management will give you an understanding of the gamut limits of monitors and printers, essential information that pertains to which colors can be accurately reproduced and which can’t, says C. David Tobie, product technology manager, Datacolor. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll minimize mistakes.
"Color management bestows predictability and control," according to Hatkoff. "You’ll be able to better predict what your equipment will produce, and you’ll avoid, or at least minimize, unpleasant surprises."
For businesses that specialize in trade show displays, retail point of purchase, and especially fine art or photographic reproduction, quality and color fidelity are the mainstays of a value proposition.
The key to successful color managed workflow is specificity, Tobie notes. "Just as when you simplify a statement, you get less-and-less accurate, it’s also true with color management. The more you rely on canned profiles, the less accurate your results will be."
Creating custom profiles of every monitor, ink, media, and printer used is crucial. Many people pin print reproduction problems on faulty color management tools when in fact, it’s a basic incompatibility between printer and media, Tobie says. Start slow, he advises, by creating custom profiles only for the most commonly used printer/ink/media combination.
Building the profile is the easy part, Ashe says. It’s applying it in a repeatable environment that many end-users struggle with. "People could output a test chart in Photoshop using an out-of-the box driver from Epson with certain print features turned on or off. The next time they go to print the exact same chart with the exact same driver, the settings may have been changed and the results would be different," he adds.
At its heart, color management entails shepherding an RGB file into the world of CMYK printing. Both are device dependent color spaces so as they travel from one device to another, they need to speak a common color language. The profiles created for each device facilitates that communication, but to remain accurate, the devices need to be performing at their optimum state—the state they were in when they were profiled. Regular calibration of both printers and monitors is essential to retaining a color-accurate workflow, Hatkoff states.
Color management is not something you can simply "turn off" or walk away from, Tobie notes. "Photoshop insists on color management, so it’s not a matter of turning it off, it’s a matter of how customized you want to make it."
"Proofing light matters as well," Tobie asserts. The International Color Consortium (ICC) recommends that prints be viewed in a 5000 degree Kelvin light source to simulate day light. However, Ashe notes, only a filtered light box will more accurately represent daylight—and filtered light boxes will cost more than unfiltered ones.
Building profiles that will anticipate the light source at the viewing area can be beneficial for fine art printers who know work will be viewed in galleries. "A lot of people don’t take advantage of this, on the same theory that most people don’t read the directions when they buy a new appliance," Ashe says. Such light-specific profiles are less important for work being viewed "at fifty feet at 50 miles per hour," Ashe adds.
The Tools of the Trade
The backbone of a color-managed workflow is a calibrated and profiled monitor and printer as well as a standardized lighting in which to examine printed output. Monitor calibration tools from Pantone/X-Rite and Datacolor, combining hardware and profile-building software, can run from as low as $89 for Pantone’s huey to $279 for Datacolor’s Spider3 Elite.
For monitor calibration, DataColor’s Spider3 differentiates itself through the aperture size of its sensor, which is larger than the competition, as well as the number of sensors and the ability to calibrate projectors, Tobie says. The larger optical path gives the Spider3 greater accuracy across all monitor types.
The vendor landscape in the color space has undergone several significant changes, with X-Rite purchasing first Gretag Macbeth and earlier this year, Pantone.
"We think there’s now a real end-to-end solution," Ashe says. "We’re not just selling a box; we’re not a single piece of the puzzle."
"We now encompass the full color supply chain," notes Richard Herbert, president, Pantone. "It’s the globalization of color."
Ashe notes that establishing more uniform standards around the globe will facilitate the work of multiple creative and productive centers. "When the New York Times switched to printing color, they put a copy of their profiles online so designers around the world could create graphics that would reproduce correctly on their presses," Ashe explains.
Eventually, many color management tools will be "under the hood," Ashe continues. He mentions HP’s Designjet Z3100, which features a built-in spectrophotometer from X-Rite, as an example. "It will be almost invisible to the end-user, at least that’s where we want to be."
Though the industry has made great strides in reducing the visibility of color management, some level of user involvement is probably unavoidable, Hatkoff notes.
"Color management is part art and part science," Tobie concludes. "It’s not prone to automation."