How To Get Excellent Prints Every Time (Color Management Part-1)

Believe it or not, the steps to get excellent print quality actually begin before you create your image in the first place. This article will go through the steps you should be taking every time you create a digital file in a process called Color Management.

What for?

Let’s start with the obvious question: Why? Why do I need to go through color management? Well, the purpose of practicing color management is to be able to reproduce color accurately, consistently, and predictably as you work with your image.

You see, as you work digitally you run into a fundamental problem. Let’s say you were a photographer and you saw this scene.

Sunset by Carlos Sanchez Photography

Being a photographer you’d naturally want to capture it with your digital camera. The real world color that exists in that scene is then recorded into your camera. The next step you take would be to upload the picture to your computer so you can view it. That color information that was recorded is then transferred from camera to computer. Then maybe you’d like to print that picture and hang it on your wall. That color information is then transferred from your computer to a printer, which then transfers it to paper.

Imaging Chain for Color Management

This process is called an “imaging chain”, and it illustrates the fundamental problem we have.

You see, technology speaks a specific language, code. Which means that a color is not a color, it is a series of numbers or letters. Red is not red; red is #FF0000, or rgb(255, 0, 0).  So the problem that exists is that a given “color number” doesn’t necessarily produce the same color in all devices. Your laptop’s idea of what “Red 255” is could be different from what your printer’s idea of what “Red 255” is. This difference with digital color makes it very difficult for you to be accurate,consistent and definitely not predictable with color management.

ICC to the rescue!

So how do we deal with a problem that has to do with coding, a factor that for many of us is way over our heads and seems we have little control over? Well, thankfully, in 1993 a group of industry professionals decided to get together and do just that! They wanted to create a cross-platform color management system that would standardize digital color and allow consumers the accuracy and consistency they were looking for. They called themselves the International Color Consortium (ICC) and they made all our dreams come true with ICC profile specifications.

The ICC profile format was created to provide a cross-platform device profile format. These device profiles are used to translate color data from one device into another device’s native color space. This allows you to move profiles and images with embedded profiles between different devices/operating systems.

Did I Lose You?

Let me describe it an easier way by telling you a story. Let’s say you go to a restaurant and you want to order a spicy burrito. But not just any spicy burrito; you want a medium spicy burrito. You talk to the waiter and you request specifically a medium spicy burrito. The waiter says “No problem, I’ll let the chef know personally.” The waiter tells the chef your request and the chef, with culinary zeal, prepares your food. He then hands the waiter one of his signature medium spicy burritos. The waiter serves you the burrito with much bravado and self-satisfaction at his quality service to you. With the delectable vapors wafting up to greet you with a heartwarming “Hellooo,” you waste no time biting into the delicious morsel, and promptly eradicate all existing taste buds with the intensity of spiciness emanating from the said burrito! Panting . . . rasping . . . breathing flames while you beg, you plead for milk . . . water . . . bread . . . anything to snuff out the inferno raging within your mouth . . .

So what happened? The problem of interpretation is what happened. Your idea of “medium spicy” was very different from what the chef’s idea of what “medium spicy” was. This is the same problem that we have with technology and color. We need something to help convey what we want, so we can achieve the desired result we need. In the case of our story, we need to do what ICC did and standardize “spiciness”.

So if you create a chart that describes what you think spicy is, you could use it to help order a burrito. You would go into the restaurant and ask the waiter for a medium spicy burrito, then present him with this chart:

Personal Chart of Spiciness

This is your “Personal Chart of Spiciness”, and it will let the chef know that “this” number of peppers in the recipe equals “this” level of spiciness. The chef then knows to make an extra mild burrito so that you can taste a medium spicy burrito. This is what ICC did for us for digital color. The ICC profile converts the colors your device can produce, into the colors you want. Thus improving your accuracy, and because the profile is cross-platform you also have achieved consistency.

Now in order to obtain predictability, there a few more things we need to look at.

The 3 C’s

In color management, and the story I just told, there are three key considerations for achieving predictability. And they are called the “3 C’s”:

  • Calibration
  • Characterization
  • Conversion

Calibration is the formation of a standard, like the “personal chart of spiciness”. In the case of color management, it is adjusting the colors of your device to match the ICC standard.

Characterization is essentially how you device interprets color, in the story, it was what you thought spicy was and what the chef thought spicy was.

Conversion is the process of taking this information and applying it to get the desired result. In the story, it was the waiter using your “personal chart of spiciness” to properly communicate your request to the chef in order for you to get the desired level of spiciness in your food.

Understanding these principles prepares you for taking your first steps in color management, Calibration. In the next article, we’ll talk more about calibration and how to use it to achieve excellent print quality.

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