Our friend color management

Posted on March 10th, 2008 | Permalink

Color management, like most other technologies, was invented to solve a problem. A story problem. Let’s say we have three gadgets: our camera Canon, our monitor Samsung, and our printer Epson. All three of them can handle millions of colors, but unfortunately they’re not all the same colors. The darkest red that Canon can capture, for instance, is darker than the darkest one that Samsung can display. So when Canon takes a picture of dark red and hands it off to Samsung, Samsung shows dark red… that is, Samsung’s dark red, not Canon’s. Now the dark red isn’t so dark anymore. It’s even worse when you go to Epson, whose darkest red is lighter than Samsung’s, and far lighter than Canon’s.

Before color management, this is how the world went. A plethora of cameras, monitors, scanners, projectors, printers and myriad other devices handing off their own version of “dark red”, “bright green”, and “royal blue” to each other and expecting the other to treat things the way they did. Graphic artists, knowing that Epson didn’t have as dark a red as Samsung, learned to compensate as they could.

Eventually some of the big companies who created the devices (including Adobe, Agfa, Kodak, and Apple) got tired of hearing graphic artists gripe about having to compensate for color differences manually, and set out to get some peace and quiet in the world, forming the International Color Consortium (ICC) to that end. The ICC established the color profile as a standard way to store a list of which colors a device could handle (a color space), as well as storing other details about how devices behaved.

So now Canon had his list of colors (color space), and Samsung had his, and they could both talk, right? Wrong. While the color spaces stored in Canon and Samsung’s color profiles held a comprehensive list of what colors they could handle, they still didn’t know how those colors matched up to one another. The ICC solved that problem by providing a master list of colors (a color model, like LAB), containing every visible and many non-visible colors, that devices could match (map) their colors to. With that done, when Samsung wanted to hand off a color picture to Epson, Samsung’s darkest red could be matched to the correct spot in the color model, and Epson’s darkest red matched to its correct spot, and programs that used color management would know precisely how different their reds were from each other. From there the programs could accurately convert most of Samsung’s colors to Epson’s, leaving the graphic artists with only the extreme colors to worry about.

And that was almost enough, but not quite. Graphic artists are picky, and while it was all well and good to be able to accurately translate colors between their monitors and their printers, they wanted more. They wanted control. They didn’t just want to translate straight from one set of colors to the other, they wanted to be able to play with it in between. In an attempt to sate the insatiable artists, several companies came up with color spaces that held more colors than the printers and scanners and monitors (a working space, such as Adobe RGB), but not nearly as many as the whole massive color model, giving the artists a color space in which to play that was big enough not to lose any of the colors the devices used, but small enough to be worked with efficiently.

So color management was born. For all its weaknesses (like the fact that to work, every device has to know how its colors match up to the color model), the benefits have been huge. Relatively predictable color can be output from one picture to multiple devices, programs can warn us when colors aren’t going to work in the device they’re going to, and graphic artists are so busy trying to figure out color management they don’t bug the big companies anymore. Color management isn’t for everyone, and often the tools used to implement it are clunky and obfuscated, but the brave and determined have made it work, and when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.


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  1. By Nathan Stone on May 16, 2008

    Very well done Peter. You have taken the complex and explained it extremely well. Maybe someday color management will be plug and play, oh and I have this bridge if your interested….

  2. By Mandy Novotny on July 12, 2008

    Hi there, Mr. Color Guru!
    Question in the color management category‚ĶI’m looking at calibrators, and wondered if you had a professional opinion, as one of those brilliant brains that bridges the photographic and printing worlds. I’ve kind of narrowed it down to the Eye-One Display 2 or Spyder 3 Elite (I’m in the $200 range) Preferences or recommendations?

  3. By Peter Pallock on July 12, 2008

    While both of the calibrators mentioned are very capable devices, there are a few key differences to consider.

    The first thing I would note is the software. The application that comes with the Spyder 3 is a notable improvement over previous versions, and in my opinion a good deal better than X-Rite’s package. Calibration with DataColor’s latest and greatest is about twice as fast as with the Spyder 2 software, and now has an option to simply check your last calibration instead of doing a complete recalibration every time, making regularly scheduled checks that much quicker.

    Next thing to consider is that while both devices measure ambient light, the Spyder takes this a step further and allows you to calibrate projectors, even including a tripod mount for this purpose. Admittedly, I have found projector calibration with the Spyder to be rather touchy and sometimes frustrating, but a difficult process is better than none at all.

    The hardware between the two colorimeters is roughly equivalent, and neither will leave you hurting. That said, in my experience the Spyder tends to measure shadows more capably and give a better neutral gray, compared with slightly warmer colors from the i1Display.

    In the final analysis, though the Spyder has its quirks, given the choice I would choose it over the i1Display or its other main competitor, the Pantone huey Pro.

  4. By Jinja on December 3, 2011

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon http://www.pallock.net and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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