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The Color Calibrated Workflow, Part 3: From Digital Darkroom to Printed Piece

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

You have great photos coming in, now let’s get great photos coming out!  In Part 1: Uncomplicating Color, we explored the concept of Color Management. In Part 2: Getting it Right in the Camera, we learned about the right choices to make with your camera for accurate colors. Now, in Part 3, we will cover how to get your beautiful photos out of your system as beautiful prints.

A note, with my photography, I handle most digital darkroom processing in Lightroom. I like the ease, speed, and features of this program, and Adobe has worked to make color management one of its foundations. Most of what I refer to below is while using Lightroom. However, if you use Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) in Photoshop, most of the items below are identical in Lightroom to the way you adjust them in ACR.

Good Profiles Equal Good Results

Correct profiles are the absolute cornerstone of color management! Good color management depends in part on having a quality monitor capable of producing a large gamut of colors. But, if the monitor is not calibrated to show colors true to what you are capturing in your images, you will never produce good print or display results.

Invest in a Quality Calibration Device and Software

In photography, it’s easy to blow your budget on fun, cool, new gadgets, instead of investing in the essentials. In my opinion, camera’s are an expense, lenses are an investment. It’s cool to have that top of the line gimbal head, but it’s next to useless on top of a flimsy tripod. And while we would all love to have that brand new curved wonder monitor that can produce 5 gazillion colors, if you don’t have a way to calibrate it accurately, you have 5 gazillion wrong colors.

Personally, I use Datacolor’s Spyders, having started with the Spyder2PRO many years ago for my big CRT. It was a 19” beauty of a monitor, roughly the size of a dump truck. As monitor technology has changed, so has my calibration tool. Older ones were initially designed for CRTs, then LCDs, and now LEDs. Each of these technologies is quite different in the way they produce light and color. If you have a calibration tool you haven’t used for a while, and you upgrade your monitor, you should also upgrade your calibration device and software.

The Spyder5ELITE is my “go to gadget” for color calibration. It’s easy to set up and use, and Datacolor’s included software produces accurate and consistent results, whether it’s on my laptop, desktop monitors, or projector.

Follow the Instructions

The Spyder5ELITE software walks you step-by-step through the calibration process, follow each step carefully to get the best results. Not only do the instructions include how to do the calibration, but also tips for set up, room lighting, and what modes to use.

Avoid “Eyeballing” It

There are a number of visual calibration solutions that promise to calibrate your monitor, including a built-in calibration feature for Windows, free software on the web, and the software included with many new monitors. But, none of these will produce the highest quality profiles for your monitor, which a photographer needs. They all rely on one flawed premise, that you can eyeball your way to a good profile. At its core, the Spyder5 is an optical spectrometer specifically designed to measure the light and color reproduction emitted by electronic devices. As I mentioned in Part 1, we are “squishy”, our eyes adjust to color casts often without us even noticing them. Eyeballing your colors dooms you to poor color output results from the start.

Recalibrate Often

Ideally, you should complete a full recalibration once per month. In the real world, it is easy to put this off. Fortunately, the Datacolor software accounts for this and provides two options to keep you on track, ReCal and CheckCal. ReCAL allows you to use the last profile you created as a base for a new one, speeding up the calibration process. CheckCAL does a quick measurement to see if there have been any significant changes in your monitor that call for a full calibration.

Some Best Practices For Processing

  • Use the most current Process Version available. Process Version 2012 is the latest and greatest, using older versions may result in strange-looking, inaccurate colors.
  • Stay in your non-destructive RAW workflow as much as possible. As soon as you start editing outside the RAW workflow, you have to select a color space which limits your color range.
  • If using 3rd party plugins or editors, export to them with the largest color space they can handle. In order of preference: Pro RGB, Adobe RGB, sRGB.
  • For each set of images associated with a reference shot, use the Sync Tool to speed up your workflow. Make adjustments to your reference shot for white balance and exposure, then copy your settings to the entire set from this image. You will still want to check each image in the series for cropping, dust spotting etc., but this will save you a lot of time in general processing.
  • Soft Proof everything! One of the best tools in the process is the ability to make a copy, compare it to your master file, and make adjustments to make the copy look as close to the original as possible.

Getting it Right in Your Output

I am sorry to once again be a downer, but when it comes time to print your work, there is another complication. Much as no monitor perfectly reproduces what our eyes see, no printer can perfectly reproduce what our displays show us.

Part of the issue is we are dealing with two fundamentally different types of image reproduction; images shown on devices emitting light (ex. computer screens) versus ones produced on surfaces that only reflect light (ex. prints). Prints generally will look flatter and less vibrant than your display, and will also be affected more by the environment they are in. The colors we perceive in prints are affected by different lighting conditions, whether they are flat on a table or hung on a wall, what color that wall is, what material the print is on, and so on.

For the most part, I have switched from in-house printing to having the vast majority done by a professional lab. They have dedicated color specialists, carefully controlled conditions, profiled equipment, and quality checks to make sure what you send is properly formatted and managed throughout the process. For me this makes sense, but for other photographers, it makes much more sense to personally handle the entire printing process. If you choose to print your own, you should consider a dedicated device, such as the Datacolor SpyderPrint, to create your own color profile specific to your printer, ink, and paper combinations. There are also third-party services that will create these profiles for you, based on sample prints you send them.  

Some Best Practices For Printing

  • Soft Proof with Profiles Specific to Your Printer – You can usually download or request profiles specific to your printer or the print lab you are using. Some even provide profiles based on the intended print size and material it will be reproduced on.
  • Check with Device Manufacturers’ and Print Labs for Profile Updates – You don’t want to be surprised if your print lab updates their equipment or changes their papers.
  • Prepare Your Image According to Their Exact Recommendations – Most labs provide workflow recommendations to prepare your files, the color space to embed, minimum resolutions, file formats, etc. If printing in-house, most printer and paper manufacturers will also give you recommended settings to ensure you get the best quality prints.
  • When in Doubt, Ask Questions! – Print labs are in the business of making we photo folk happy by producing consistent and accurate results from the images we supply them. They want to answer your questions so you get great results because doing so keeps you happy and using them. If you run into problems when printing at home, check your print and/or paper manufacturers’ websites for knowledge bases, community forums, or FAQs that will help answer your questions.

Resources from online print lab WHCC, for soft-proofing and product templates.

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

Links

Calibrating your display and looking for an upgrade?

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