Color Management Systems

Untitled (Anthropogenic Crisis #192801) copyright 2021 Douglas Stockdale

As a visual artist that leans heavily into photography, which means I use a computer monitor a lot, I have become a real advocate of color management systems. This is a process that utilizes a color calibrated device (e.g. puck) in conjunction with supporting software that ensures that what is on my monitor will look exactly like it should on your (color managed) monitor or when a photograph or image is printed on a color profiled paper by my printer. This is a logical progression of the idea of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) that Apple made readily available in the early 1980’s. As artists benefit with the current pro-sumer color management systems that were developed by commercial printers who needed to absolutely ensure that the color files from an Ad agency exactly matched what they printed. Folks did not want that pretty blue dress in the brochure to look anything different than what they would find on the rack. For my color management system, I use a X-Rite i1 Studio system that color manages both my monitor and my printer for the inkjet papers I use.

My only regret is not acquiring a similar color management system earlier, but at that time, I might have had to purchase one system for my monitor and another for the printer. There are stand alone systems for just a monitor that are less expensive for those who do not do their own printing. Since I do my own printing, I needed what I would call a ‘closed-system approach’; image color management from the downloaded files; on my monitor to final output as a print.

Having a color management system is also driven by the needs of my on-line magazine, PhotoBook Journal, which I receive digital image files from my various Contributing Editors as well as the author/photographers that I need to ensure look professional. It provides a common denominator that all images look the same. A color management system readily reduces the hassle of trying to obtain a print that looks exactly what is on my monitor, a fight that I engaged in for too long.

A color management system provides color calibration for the two basic work-flow components; the monitor and a printer. Over time, both of these will have slight color shifts and its necessary to bring these back in line. In the past, the old color-tube monitors were notorious for a slow color shift as these aged, thus required constant adjustments to compensate for the changes. Even the current monitors which seem more color stable still require constant vigilance, such that I do a color calibration at the end of every month. If that seems like much, professional printers will perform a color calibration daily. Even a choice in monitors can help with a color management system, such that when I needed a new monitor, I purchased the BENQ 4K Photography monitor that has a color profile that is set up to match 99% of the AdobeRBG color space and 100% of the sRGB color space. It was actually color managed right out of the box and a year later it only needed one brightness tweak before completing a color profile update.

Another issue to be aware of is the ambient light that might be around the monitor or other reflecting colors that might influence what you see on the monitor. The BENQ Photography monitor ships with plastic black side curtains for the monitor which really reduces ambient light.

The second component is the printer-paper combinations. Like a monitor, the printer-paper interface will change over time, as the printer heads become used, the factor inks will have an every so slight change in consistency from lot to lot, similar to the printing papers from the various manufacturers. Fortunately, the shifts are almost invisible to the unaided and un-professional eye, thus I repeat my color calibrations for my various papers I use only once per year. Inkjet printing results can also be influenced where you live, such as the amount of relative humidity and ambient temperature, which for many of us is modified by the studio environment we print in. Nevertheless, the ‘canned’ paper profiles provided by the inkjet paper manufacturers will get you close, but it is still better to perform a color calibration for each of your working papers with your printer if you are fussy like me.

Last, which is a small detail, is the ambient light I use to look at a print for revaluation. I think most are familiar with the ‘yellow’ cast of normal incandescent lightbulbs, which can also effect the appearance of what was printed in conjunction with the paper’s coating. I have not acquired a color calibrated print viewing box yet (my to-do), while I have installed some 5000k LED ceiling lightbulbs in a corner of the studio for viewing prints after these have had a few minutes to dry down. In the past I know that I have jumped to some erroneous conclusions after looking at a print right off the printer in the wrong ambient lighting. A cautionary tale.

I found the X-Rite i1 Studio pretty easy to use right out of the box for both my monitor and my printing papers in conjunction with my Canon printer. The calibration dial on the puck does not seem to move easily and it takes a bit of practice not to re-engage the calibration process when rotating the dial back to start the process. It does take a little bit of time to color profile the papers as you need to let the ink dry for about 10 minutes after printing before using the puck to scan the color values. Also kinda of fun to watch the 110 plus colors flash on the monitor while the puck is scanning those color values.

At the end of the day, it is rather satisfying after extensively tweaking an image on the monitor to subsequently see that image exactly in print. The very first time it is printed.

By Douglas Stockdale

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