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The Art and Science of Color Management

How to Achieve a Color-Accurate Workflow

by Thomas Franklin

First the good news: the tools for achieving a color managed workflow are getting easier to use and more sophisticated. Now, the not-so-good news: implementing color management is not a simple process that can be completed once and forgotten about. It requires constant attention, intervention, and yes, practice. Your labor will be rewarded however with fewer re-dos, improved efficiency, and above all, satisfied customers.

Based on a series of interviews with end-users, vendors, and color experts, we have compiled a brief step-by-step guide for implementing color management. Look at these as general guidelines to give you a sense of what the process entails. The specifics of your equipment, clientele, and budget will require their own unique solutions.

Step 1: Calibrate Your Monitor
Calibrating your monitor to reproduce the colors of your final output allows you a soft proof right on the screen. First, be sure your monitors are not directly in the path of any harsh light. A device such as Pantone’s eye-one display 2 or ColorVision’s Spyder2express attaches to your monitor and lets you adjust monitor settings through the included software. Older monitors need to be calibrated more frequently than newer ones, which can hold their color longer, says Dan Reid, owner, RPimaging, a color management training firm. The software bundled with the calibration devices typically track monitor performance to ensure it is performing at optimal levels.

It is best not to intermingle LCD and CRT monitors in the same room, advises C. David Tobie, product technology manager, ColorVision, as each react differently to ambient light. Another issue, Tobie notes, is that CRT monitors have a natural gamma of 2.2 but users frequently calibrate the monitor to a gamma level of 1.8, losing some of the available levels. LCDs don’t have a natural gamma but should also be calibrated to 2.2 for uniformity’s sake, Tobie adds.

Step Two: Create Profiles
Every printer, media, and ink combination you use needs a profile¾a file which will tell your equipment how the color appeared when you made your measurement. These profiles are saved and can be accessed in printer RIPs or in editing suites like Photoshop. To create a media/ink/paper profile, you must run an RGB test chart through the printer and use a spectrophotometer to measure the color. You can rely on the canned profiles that the media vendor supplies, says David Wollmann, partner, Aardvark Imaging, LLP., but to truly achieve a color-accurate environment you need to create your own profiles.

According to Lida Jalali-Marschke, founder of ColorManagement.com, you have three general choices for measuring your output: you can use a handheld spectrophotometer, a semi-automatic model, or a robotic spectro. Hand-held spectrophotometers are less expensive and easier to use than the other alternatives but they are labor-intensive and are more prone to errors, Jalali-Marschke says. The semi-automatic spectros, where a substrate is fed through and measurements captured automatically, are faster and have a much lower margin for error. Their weakness, Jalali-Marshke continues, is the variety of media they can handle. "They tend to have trouble with thick or unusual substrates."

Finally, there are robotic spectrophotometers. "They’re real workhorses, but they’re more expensive," Jalali-Marschke says. They are also very high precision and don’t require constant operator invention¾like the handheld and semi automatic machines¾but they are also slow.

Within these three broad options, you’re faced with a whole subset of choices such as the kinds of filters you need and the aperture size of your spectrophotometer (UV filters if you print with UV inks; larger aperture if your print head produces large droplet sizes, etc.).

You’ll also need to test your output in a controlled light source. The International Color Consortium (ICC) has a set of guidelines for viewing output. Also, light boxes and viewing stands from Graphic Technology, Inc., Pantone, Inc., and others will ensure accuracy under standardized conditions.

Step Three: Trust, but Verify
As all monitors and printers drift from their original or profiled state, you need to be sure they are re-calibrated on a regular basis. The aforementioned monitor calibration software will track the performance of your monitor and alert you to when you need to recalibrate, and certain printer software can perform the same function. When should you create new profiles? "Anytime anything changes," Jalali-Marschke says.

Step Four: Admit Problems
Even the experts readily concede that color management can be overwhelming. There are many resources at your disposal should you encounter difficulties. From Web-forums, message boards, and tutorials, to professional consultants like Reid and Jalali-Marschke, there are places to turn for help. "We can come in one day and set everything up or we can teach you to fish so you can eat for a life-time," Jalali-Marschke jokes.

Look for our full feature article on Color Management in the May issue of Digital Output.

Mar2006, Digital Output

 

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