Ever fine tune your incredible photograph to perfection with Photoshop on your beautiful Mac screen only to find that your print is a very poor facsimile of your precious work? Let me guess, the print is dark and flat, right? Welcome to the party. In this day of technological whizz bang, you’d think such a trivial matter would be–well, trivial. Yet, so many photographers and graphic professionals continue to pull their hair out over this simple yet puzzling challenge. You probably tried calling the printer manufacturer who probably blames your computer or monitor brand. Maybe the photo lab told you that your color management is way off. And, your geek friend most likely mentioned something about ICC color profiles, yada, yada, yada. I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone and that there is a way out of this maze of color technology hell.
Let’s start with the most obvious suspect–your monitor. You probably got a pretty cool looking one that cost you a decent amount of your hard earned cash. As nice as the monitor may be, it most likely is lying to you. Ever notice how beautiful all the images look on a rich glossy Apple screen? Monitors vary from one to another–even two of the same model. This is blatantly evident when going to a Best Buy where all the monitors or tv’s are showing the same image. Notice how different the image looks from one monitor to another?
The same goes for printers. Printers and monitors are both output devices. Monitors use a dynamic backlit display while printers use inks or light sensitive paper to create colors. The problem is that there is no standard for what a specific color should look like. Let’s say we have an RGB color value of 255,0,0. Without someone defining what that color should look like, all we know is that it’s some shade of red.
Fortunately, some smart people realized that this was a problem and came up with a solution. The ICC (International Color Consortium) agreed on a color standard and developed a system where individual color devices could be profiled and corrected to display a standardized color. Thus, two different output devices could show the same color value with increased consistency.
So How Does It Work?
Spectrophotometers (fancy word for color measuring device) are used to measure ICC standardized color patches. A device that looks like a mouse is placed on the monitor while different color patches are displayed on the screen and measured by the monitor calibration device. Printers will output a color target sheet that has many different color patches which is then measured by a print spectrophotometer. Once the output devices are measured, the color profiling software will generate something called an ICC profile. It is file that has a blueprint of the color characteristics of your output device. This file is then used by your computer to correct the color on your printer or monitor to show the standardized color. This whole act of juggling color profiles on your computer is what we call color management. In the end, your printer should now show colors that are very similar to your monitor.
If you’re serious about getting accurate color from your monitor, it’s a good idea to start with a good monitor. Like most things, you get what you pay for. It doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune. But, you should look for specific technologies when making your decision. IPS is one such technology. It increases your viewing angle and produces more consistent colors. If you sat behind lower quality screens you probably noticed how the color changes when you shift in your seat. Most laptops don’t have IPS displays but there are a few out there. The newer iMacs also use IPS displays. Dell offers great values in their Ultra Sharp series which starts around a couple hundred dollars. If you have a large budget and want the most accurate color, look for reference displays made by Eizo, Lacie and NEC.
Everyone has different needs and expectations when it comes to color management. If you’re even considering getting more accurate colors, a decent IPS monitor and monitor calibration device is a must.