Color Management in the Professional Workflow

Experienced photographers love and hate the world of digital photography in equal measure. The love arises from the incredible creative freedom that comes with digital technology. Thanks to image editing programs like Photoshop, any humble workstation can now be upgraded at reasonable cost to a highly sophisticated photo lab with attached litho installation. But that’s exactly where the problem lies and where the feelings of hate come from. Previously, you would give the customer a slide on which the colors of the image could be seen quite clearly with the naked eye. How a photo print was produced from this slide remained a somewhat opaque process for most creative types and was carried out by a printer’s lithographic department.

Color management is expected

Nowadays, for a few thousand euros you can get a fully equipped workstation that technically performs all the stages in the professional workflow from image capture through to printing. Customers accordingly expect photographers to work with true colors. This means on the one hand that photographers must adjust and edit their pictures digitally, in order to compensate for technical deficiencies. On the other hand, it means that photographers must produce results that meet the expected standards not just on their own screens. They must be able to produce finished prints that look the same as on the monitor. Color-true proof prints have also become popular. These not only show a fullquality version of the photo, but also give a preview of what can be expected in the offset print. The technical revolution has turned photographers not just into photo lab technicians but into lithographers too. And many photographers have been defeated by these requirements. Partly because they could not afford the ridiculously expensive systems that purported to be the remedy, and partly because they didn’t know how to properly use this technology which is as highly complex as it is costly.

Calibrating the workflow

Relatively recently, professional systems like the Spyder3Studio SR were introduced, which with regular use promise on-screen color fidelity at the same price as the better amateur solutions. They take over the complex process of calibrating and creating ICC profiles almost completely automatically. If you wish to or have specific requirements, you can of course intervene and use the Help function to answer all your questions in detail – but you don’t have to.

Calibrating the printer on the other hand is somewhat trickier. In the very first step you have to linearize a device, i.e. keep the output as color-neutral as possible. Usually, this is done well enough by the manufacturer’s ICC profiles supplied with the printer. But unlike a monitor, which always displays its colors on the same medium, printers work with different kinds of paper. Different types are used for different purposes: plastic-coated photo paper, matt art paper for fine art and even production paper for simulating offset prints. Each medium accepts colors differently and has specific properties for the printer and for the inks used that must be taken into account in the color management.

Custom ICC profiles

The basic principle of calibrating a printer goes like this: you print a measurement chart to the device and then digitize it back again. A piece of software uses the imported values to create a description of the combination of printer, paper and ink properties: the profile.

Anyone who needs professional standards of accuracy in the profiling uses a spectro-colorimeter such as Datacolor’s Spyder3Print SR together with its software. Depending on the quality required, you can print and measure 225 or up to 729 patches per measurement chart plus an additional grey chart with 238 patches. That’s about as precise as you can get.

This combination of hardware and software is a fast and flexible solution when you want to get back to your real work as quickly as possible: photography.