Editor’s Note: A special thanks to our partner Datacolor for helping us to bring more information about color calibration to you.

The Color Calibrated Workflow, Part 1: Uncomplicating Color

It should be pretty simple, I see a colorful flower, I take a photo of it, download it, print it, and it should look just like what I saw. Except, many times it doesn’t. Capturing and reproducing accurate colors was once one of the most frustrating and time-consuming things in the realm of digital photography. It can cause no end of problems for both beginners and seasoned pros as it is a complex process with required steps which, done incorrectly or out-of-order, will produce poor results. However, it has become much easier and understandable over the last few years.

Fortunately, there are a variety of techniques and tools available to help give you consistent color results fairly quickly. In this series, I will explain my approach to color management, and share tips for keeping consistent color as you take photos, download, view, and print them. By using consistent techniques, and tools like the Datacolor SpyderCube and Spyder5 ELITE as part of your digital darkroom workflow, you can conquer the complexity of color.

Color Management

Color Management is probably one of the most complex areas of photography, mired deep in the realms of how light is created and how it behaves according to the laws of physics. As we capture and then reproduce photos, there are a number of speed bumps we have to consider to produce correct color, including:

  • No one sees color exactly the same way.
  • Light takes on different color casts due to its source, what it passes through, or what it bounces off.
  • No device is yet capable of producing all the colors that the human eye can see.
  • Every device has a limited range of colors it can reproduce, known as a gamut.
  • This gamut is distinct to each device and can vary over time.

We Are Squishy

Now for some highly technical observations: Our eyeballs are squishy. Take my word for it, don’t poke yourself in the eye. In other words, they are flexible, and this flexibility is part of how we adapt to different lighting conditions. Our brains are also squishy, not just physically, but in the sense that we are flexible in the way we interpret sensory information to make sense of the world around us. Being the biological organisms we are, none of us is truly identical. Very subtle differences in our genetic makeup, the shape of our eyes, acuity of our vision, etc., can make a huge difference in the way we perceive colors. The way our brain processes color can also be affected by our mood, health, surroundings, even what you are wearing.

Think about the color of a cardinal, a deep vibrant red. No matter what time of day, or in what light conditions we see it, we know a cardinal is a specific red. Our brains use past experiences combined with current sensory information to interpret that the cardinal in front of is indeed red, and is also the same red as most other cardinals. Thanks to our “squishiness” we see “cardinal red”, even though that red takes on different shades from different directions, at different times, and in different conditions.

Computers Are Not Squishy

Computers don’t think and adapt the way we do, they are not “squishy”. A computer doesn’t know what a cardinal is, or that it is a specific color of red unless we tell it in a way it can process. Color management is how we bridge the gap, converting the colors we see with our analog brains and eyes to a digital language the computer can understand and use. Red to a computer is a string of numbers, it doesn’t have any other way to interpret what red is other than through how we program it to.

See below how differently the computer interprets color when we input differences in the white balance settings for a photo.

Although it lacks our flexibility in interpreting the physical world, a computer has a consistency in processing we lack. If I tell it “cardinal red” is the RGB values (189, 32, 49) or hex code #BD2031 or CMYK values (0, 83.1, 74.1, 25.9), all different color languages that translate color for a computer, it will always be those values. Then I can share this same information with every other device I use, so they are all interpreting “cardinal red” as the same color.

The wrinkle in this is no two devices display colors exactly the same, and no devices see color the same as the human eye. Every device can produce only a limited number of colors. This color range, or gamut, is distinct to each device and can vary over time as electronics age or printer nozzles get clogged. With displays, we have a variety of technologies, subject to variances in their manufacturing, with a different gamut of possible colors they can produce. With printers, we have other issues, including different types of inks, different spray patterns, different ink amounts being deposited, different absorption rates by the materials being printed on, and so on.

OK, We Get It, Color is Complicated! Now What?

I know that sounds like a lot to contend with, but don’t give up hope color crusaders, this is where color calibration and device profiling comes in!

Color Calibration

This is how we make sure the red we see, the camera records, the monitor displays, and the printer prints out, are all as close to the same as possible.

Color calibration tools like the Datacolor Spyder 5 measure exactly what color a device produces given a specific color input, and then creates profiles to capture this information. When we download images to our computers, these profiles are used to check the colors of each pixel and see if it is a color within the gamut of the intended display or print output. If not, there is a gamut mismatch. Then the software uses the profile to make an intelligent compromise and substitute a color that is as close as possible to the original. This is determined from a lookup table (LUT) of color values stored as part of the device’s profile.

Color calibration and profiles enable our computers to have a degree of flexibility and make smart color choices, so your output looks more like the colors you saw through your camera’s lens. Color calibration and using good profiles should be a foundation of every photographer’s digital darkroom!

Be sure to check out the rest of the articles in this series!


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