As somebody who spends much of his time writing about, thinking about, or practicing color management, I often hear one question: “How can I make my prints match what I see on my monitor?” The short answer, though it’s the one that those in the business of selling color-management tools never seem to give, is that you can’t. Your monitor is capable of displaying many colors that most printing processes simply can’t reproduce.
The reasonable next question becomes, “But if you can’t make your prints match your monitor, what’s the point of color management?” The answer is that color management can help you get an accurate preview, on your monitor, of how the images will appear in print. In other words, it can make what you see on your monitor match your prints.
The general principle here is that you can always make something with a large color gamut (your monitor) simulate the behavior of something with a smaller one (your printer). That’s the whole point of Photoshop‘s Proof Setup feature: It lets you see on your monitor how your image will appear in print, and make any necessary edits to improve it.
Getting onscreen proofing to work, however, isn’t trivial. It depends on the accuracy and proper interaction of three profiles: the image’s profile (which tells Photoshop what colors the numbers in the image represent), the monitor profile (which Photoshop uses to tweak the data it sends to the display, so that it produces the colors represented by the numbers in the image), and the printer profile (which tells Photoshop what colors your printer can print, and which numbers it needs to be sent in order to print them). (If all this talk of profiles is confusing, check out “Out of Gamut: Getting a Handle on Color Management.”)
In short, if you want color management to work for you, there are a number of things you need to do before you even think about making prints. The good news is that none of these tasks is difficult on its own. Setting up effective color management simply takes a bit of forethought and work.
Calibrate Your Monitor
To give color management any sort of try, your first step should be calibrating your monitor. This is a necessary and crucial step — not a mere nicety or some hair-splitting indulgence you’d allow yourself in an ideal world. Your monitor is the window through which you view all your color, and to generate the results you want, your color-managed applications must have an accurate indication of what color your monitor displays in response to a given set of RGB numbers. The only source your applications have for this information is the monitor profile, and it needs to be accurate if you want to see and specify color at all accurately. Without a reasonably accurate monitor profile, it’s pointless to go any further.
If you’re serious about trusting what you see on the monitor, an instrument-based calibration package such as ColorVision’s PhotoCal or OptiCal, or GretagMacbeth’s Eye-One is a worthwhile investment, because it will take the guesswork out of the process, but prices begin at a few hundred dollars. However, a visual calibration tool such as Adobe Gamma or the ColorSync Default Calibrator can still provide good results, and you probably have at least one of these tools on your system already: Adobe Gamma comes at no additional cost with Photoshop, installing automatically as a control panel on the Mac and as a control panel applet under Windows. ColorSync Default Calibrator comes as part of the Mac OS: Look for the Calibrate button within the Monitors and Sounds control panel.
To use Adobe Gamma or ColorSync Default Calibrator effectively, make sure to follow these steps:
- Stabilize your ambient lighting as much as possible. Our eyes adapt to changes in ambient light, but monitors don’t. If you calibrate the monitor when the rays of the setting sun are coming in through a west-facing window, it’s a safe bet that colors will look very different in the cold light of morning.
- All visual calibrators use an existing profile as a starting point. You’ll get much better results if that starting profile bears some reasonable resemblance to the correct profile for your monitor. If your monitor has switchable white points, you’ll get a better result if the profile uses the same white point setting as the monitor. If you can’t find anything better, the sRGB profile is a decent starting point for monitors with a 6500K or D65 white point.
- If you use Adobe Gamma, use the option that lets you set the individual red, green, and blue gammas rather than the Single Gamma option. It’s often difficult to see any change when you’re trying to match the blue square to its background, but if you set your desktop to a neutral gray, and watch what happens when you adjust the blue slider, it’s a lot more obvious: Just tweak the blue slider until the gray background looks neutral.
When using Adobe Gamma, choose the option that lets you adjust individual red, blue, and red gammas.
Mac users should note that the Default Calibrator in ColorSync 3.0 often produces monitor profiles with very yellow whites, due to a bug that got fixed in ColorSync 3.0.3. Either upgrade to the newer version or use Adobe Gamma instead.
Unless you have good reasons to do otherwise, I generally recommend calibrating monitors to D65/6500K white, with a gamma of 2.2. But color management doesn’t really care what standard you use, as long as it knows what that standard is by way of an accurate monitor profile.
When you “calibrate” your monitor, either by eyeball or with an instrument, you actually do two things. One is the actual calibration of the monitor, which simply means putting it into a known state, with a specified white point and gamma. The other is to create a profile that describes that known state — a process often known as characterizing the monitor. Most so-called monitor calibration tools conflate the two processes into a single whole, but they are still really doing both things.
One implication of this is that there are two things that can go wrong during the calibration process. It’s quite possible to get a good monitor calibration but a bad monitor profile. (Conceptually at least, the converse is also true, but I’ve never seen it happen.) If things appear normal in non-color-managed applications, but seriously out of whack in Photoshop and other color-managed apps, it’s a sure bet that the monitor profile is off the mark. In Photoshop 5 or 5.5 you can check by temporarily turning off “Display Using Monitor Compensation” in the RGB Setup dialog box, but in Photoshop 6, monitor compensation is always turned on: Photoshop 6 displays everything through your monitor profile, so it better be as accurate as you can make it.