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The Color Management Works

December 12, 2012

Back when digital imaging was still a developing technology, Color Management was developing too…  but always a few steps behind the latest, greatest printers, cameras and software.  Today, the technology has matured, and Color Management works. We’ve moved into to “Color v2.0”.

Color v2.0 is about using Color Management for all your imaging systems to enhance your production and presentation standards.  Not only for accurately displaying color and predictable inkjet printing, offset proofing and web-based control, but for managing all your color, whether it be getting the best from your laser printers, managing color in RAW file processing, fine-art reproduction, even CD and DVD printing to assure you’re putting your best color “foot” forward.

Colorv2.0 is about using the tools in new ways for better solutions.

We are Color Management consultants who know the tools and systems of the new level of Color Management capabilities.  We understand what works, what doesn’t, and how to get the last, best bit of color performance from your imaging systems whether it’s a small design shop or a commercial printer.

Below are some “Case Studies”, some examples of projects we’ve tackled and solutions we’ve developed, and here are our “vitals”:

 

Recently I got a note.  “If we can match the color of this sample, we can lock in a huge job from this new client…  We need your help.”

Here’s the Sales side of Color Management.  I’ve done a lot of work for this client, tuning up their offset proofing system, profiling their wide-format printers and even their CD/DVD thermal printing, but still, this particular color – a deep, rich maroon – seemed elusive.  It was particularly troublesome when printed on different systems, yet, the product had to match, and getting the client in the door (and keeping them) depended on their Color Management.

Starting with some good printer profiles we got close with a few tweaks.  Fine-tuning the rendering with some finessing in the RIP got us the rest of the way.  They nailed the color, and locked in the client for the job, and many more to come.  Total time elapsed: about 4 hours.

The first round of printer profiling for this client was also about Sales.  They needed their wide-format printer to match their offset press’s output, so a very large, and very particular client’s work would all look the same…  and good.  That was a simple case of fixing their workflow with some fresh profiles, and bringing the wide format printer in line with the GRACol standard used in the offset industry.

But here’s the cool one.

Once more, “If we can match this color…”, but the stakes were astronomical.  Again, it’s red, and other shops had tried and failed to hit the mark with the flatbed printing process required for this particular media.  If they could hit the target, it was a multi-million dollar contract, a new press, and possibly a new facility.  This one would kick them into the next level.  This one was also a huge challenge.

Of course, we started with a good profile, and tight workflow from pre-press to output.  They had several problems to start with, including the way they were building and delivering the files.  This required some fairly intensive rounds of communication to establish exactly what the client wanted, what they were supplying, and what my client could work with to get the most out of the printer.  This, on projects of this scale, is a great example of where the Color Management process starts: Communication.

We finally were able to develop a strategy of tight color, some “bumps” on the printer, along with some compensating adjustments to the files to keep all the other colors in line.  From our standpoint, it was as tight a color match as we could get, but the final word was the client.  We were all holding our collective breath.

Finally, the word came back down through Sales.  They got the job.  Total time invested, about 3 days.  Payback?  Huge.

Color Management is usually thought of in terms of QA or efficiency…  but when you include it in your arsenal of capabilities, for doing the “impossible”, then it’s an enormously powerful tool for closing sales, attracting clients and keeping them happy.  How many times have you heard your teams say “… it’s the best our printers can do, the client’s going to have to be satisfied with it.”?

You can be sure of one thing.  Whether you’re using Color Management as a Sales tool or not, your competition is.

Profiling printers isn’t just for the Fine Art or Prepress printers.  I’ve had a lot of fun over the years with a “try it and see” method of profiling pretty unconventional output devices.

Xerox-Phaser-8560-N-MainThe first time I got my eyes opened to what you can get away with was a photographer printing his promotional mailers with one of the “solid ink” Xerox printers, the Tektronix models.  I used them a lot, even printed the first versions of my first book with one and loved the print quality…  but it never occurred to me that they’d profile well.

He used a basic CMYK profiling tool and produced prints that were far beyond what I imagined the printer could do – almost photo-quality, but certainly giving any offset process a run for it’s money.

Since then, I’ve profiled not only the Phaser solid ink printers but literally hundreds of laser printers of every description.  One of the comments I love is, “It’s the office laser and the color from it is crap…  but what can you expect?”  If left to it’s own drivers, most laser printers are simply horrible color.  Profiled, they can print quite well.  In some cases, remarkably well.  Many, many designers put together layouts and print them out on the office laser to present, with apologies for color, to their clients. Imagine if the colors were reproduced faithfully?

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 5.43.51 AM

Speaking of apologies for color, did you know most projectors can be profiled?  How many times have you seen a presentation where the speaker is constantly saying “…well, this color is obviously wrong, but…” ?

Using the i1 Pro system I can actually place the device in the path of the projector and it will measure the color, just as if it was sitting on a display. The better the performance of the projector, the better the result.  If you’re running a premium quality projector without a good profile, you’re getting about 50% out of what the thing can do.

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 5.50.29 AMProbably the funniest (from a Color Geek standpoint, mind you) profiling project has been the Rimage Everest CD/DVD thermal printers I profiled recently.  It really was just a, “Hey, I wonder if these things can be profiled…” idea, at the start.  We began by simply running the PDI target to see how bad it was printing with the standard drivers and it showed several characteristics that gave us some hope, and some flaws that looked like simple (and common) profiling issues.

In this case, the challenge was printing the target image on the CD.  I took the basic i1 RGB page and fit it to a couple of CD templates, and then fabricated a little bracket device so I could read the patches without missing the mark.  Once I tried that, and got some promising results with the RGB workflow that’s common with these printers I built some CMYK targets and tried a true CMYK workflow.  The result was a surprisingly accurate print.  What started as almost a little geek joke ended up saving the staff a huge amount of work.

Got an unusual printer challenge?  Don’t sell it short…  bring it on!

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Here’s an interesting story of applying processing and color management standards to streamline production:

Ross-Simons, one of the country’s most successful fine jewelry retailers, faced a staggering challenge. They support 14 retail locations, an online store (named a “Top 500” site by Internet Retailer Magazine in 2005), and a quarterly catalog, first mailed in 1981, that now tops 60 million catalogs mailed all over the world every year.  Color, size, cut and polish are all critical to the customer, and Ross-Simons needs their photography to show it all, accurately.

While some companies can have in-house photo studios, the sheer number of products in the Ross-Simons catalog and limited time-frame means that multiple photographers all over the country are all working on various stages of the projects. Jay Dunn, as VP of Creative, was seeing a huge degree of variation in the photography coming in from the studios. Considering each studio was using different cameras and different practices in processing and delivering the files, it’s no wonder.

“In our last catalog run we spent over 600 hours for post-production Photoshop time in color adjusting file standardization and retouching. We really felt that we could cut that in half if we could somehow standardize the Color Management and processing…It’s not that we’re unhappy with the photographers’ work. In fact, we feel we’re partially to blame. We just have never been able to tell them what we want.”, said Dunn..

The first step was simply to isolate each of the factors that was causing variations in output.

First, the photographers used different cameras – a Leaf Aptus75, a Valeo 22, a Sinar 54, and even a Nikon D200, with software that was just as varied. Since there were over six different makes and models of cameras, lenses and lighting, we had to synchronize the color rendering of each camera to match the others. In this case, it wasn’t so much an attempt to match the cameras to any “industry standard”, more that they needed to match each other.

Second, we recognized that the problem wasn’t simply the photographers: a complete end-to-end, or “Capture-to-Press” solution, was needed. So collaboration and agreed standards were key. In this case, the best way to make sure that this was reasonable and understood was to bring all of the vendors together – 24 people in all – to review process, standards, and best practices in a full-day meeting… to form a consensus.

Third, once this consensus was reached, Ross-Simons needed to give the entire team a set of guidelines – from exposure, capture and processing settings to scaling, sizing and color management standards – right out to prepress and proofing, including a communication “loop” from the press back to the photographers. We were able to create a capture, RAW-processing and color management workflow that worked from end to end, and establish lines of communication to reinforce, and correct, the process, during the process.

Ross Simons’ problem was very common, but we had an unusual opportunity to create a new solution. Rather than apply a fix after the fact, by trying to profile the cameras – a notoriously inaccurate and ineffective approach – we elected to go to the RAW files and standardize the processing at the capture level. Each studio had a set of guidelines for file delivery, as well as individualized processing settings to assure one camera would look like the next, regardless of the make, model, lens or lighting used.

Using our experience and training in RAW file processing as well as our considerable experience with the individual digital camera systems, we were able to minimize the differences in color, contrast, and look between all of the cameras, and establish a standard of file quality and specifications between all the studios.

“When I reached out to Tech Superpowers, what I needed was the insight of a professional photographer, fused with the knowledge of the digital and technological advances, to create a cost-effective, efficient, multi-user, multi-city, photography and asset management workflow.

They far surpassed any expectations I had… and engineered a strategy that allowed photographers and color houses in seven different cities to align to standards and protocol that created speed-to-market and cost advantages worth large dollars to our organization.” – Jay Dunn

Given the cost of a trained Photoshop artist, cutting 300 hours for each one of four catalog runs per year… that’s a solution that you can take to the bank.

DIY Color Management, in many cases, is a great, cost-effective solution.  You can easily make the case that, in this age of Color v2.0, using basic Color Management is easy and effective, and you’d be on-target.  So, why hire a consultant?

Solving Troublesome Issues

Obviously, you may consider hiring a Color Management consultant if you’re having trouble with some specific issues…  printers not behaving, monitors that seem to be out of whack, or you’re trying to do something like getting better press-proofing from a system that maybe isn’t the best at press-proofing.  Certainly, you can invest a lot of time and effort into learning how to do it yourself, but, at the end of the day, is that what you’d like to be spending your time doing?

Getting Good Information

Part of the challenge in using the “Google School of Color Management” is that you’re never quite sure of the information you’re reading.  Much of what’s online is fairly dated information…  practices and work-arounds from the days when Color Management was an imperfect science.  Other online sources are simply mistaken.  Much of what you read on the web is simply information that’s been parroted from previous sources, without any attempt to verify or validate the source.

Sorting the good advice from the bad is a formidable hurdle.

When things don’t work the way they should, it’s hard to know if the “solution” is simply wrong, or you’ve employed it incorrectly.  Trusting the advice of a trained Color Management consultant can save a lot of trial-and-error, yet be just as informative and educational as attempting a DIY fix.

Getting a Grip on Goals

The very first thing a good consultant will do is to start asking questions, and usually the first is “What are you trying to accomplish?”  Simply having a chat with a knowledgable consultant will help you get a fresh perspective on your production goals, putting an end to what often becomes a cyclical trail of confused concepts and goals.  Most often we see this when dealing with proofing and emulation profiles.  Are you trying to give your offset printer a print they can use for a target?  Are you trying to show your client a proof of what they can expect the offset press to do when reproducing their files?

Getting a Second (and Authoritative)  Opinion

One thing’s certain.  Where Color Management is concerned, everybody seems to have an opinion about how it “should” be done.  This can lead to a couple of scenarios…  either it’s just done wrong, or, because you have several cooks stirring the broth, you have a workflow that has no coherent method.  Either everybody is doing things their own way, or a process is a mix of mis-steps.  Within a workplace or team, it may be hard to get one voice, no matter how authoritative, to be heard.  Enter the consultant.

When a trained Color Management consultant is pulled in, and achieves results, generally a team will welcome the solution.  Training, documentation and explanations are a big part of what we do, and the efforts are welcomed.

Seeing Possibilities

More often than not, when we’re evaluating a client’s production there are several times the question “…did you know you can…?” comes up.  A fresh set of eyes, as well as a complete understanding of what the tools can do almost always leads to pushing the system a little further and getting a little more out of it.   These seemingly little suggestions can open up a whole new realm of capabilities for a team.  For instance, not too long ago, while working for a busy commercial digital print shop we noticed a pair of very good quality thermal CD/DVD printers humming away.  “Did you know we can profile those?  How is the color coming from them now?  Are your clients satisfied?  Do you have to work hard at getting good color on a CD or DVD?  Would you like to be able to match the color on the disk’s offset printed cover better?”

Simple questions…  but they led to some basic profiling, and a huge time and work savings for the CD/DVD printing operators, as well as a much higher level of print quality.  Translate that to more a profitable production and more pleased and impressed clients.

The Increasing Volume of Technology

Though more sophisticated technology generally makes a task easier, as technology becomes better it mushrooms into more areas of our daily lives.  Land-based phones gave way to cell phones, which now have blossomed into smartphones.  What you once simply picked up and dialed now is so sophisticated and powerful that some may need to take a class on how to operate their latest, greatest handheld device.  There’s not an area of our lives that remains untouched.

Yes, Color Management works, and is fairly easy to implement if you know what you’re doing…  but for many, it’s just one more piece of a technology puzzle they’d prefer not to wrangle with – especially if they can get fast, effective help.

It’s an honest question.  Why hire someone to come in and calibrate your displays when you can buy a calibration system for short money – often cheaper than one calibration session – and do it yourself?

It’s a simple answer.  When you buy a $125 calibrator, you’re using, well, a $125 calibrator.  When you hire me to calibrate your displays, I’m using the i1 Pro.  Besides being part of a complete system for building every kind of ICC profile, it’s a more accurate measurement device.  It costs more, too.  Think around eight times more.

The cheap calibrators are colorimeters.  They’re a basic device that measures color based on three filters.  For the cost, it’s an effective solution, but has some limitations.  The i1 Pro is a spectrophotometer.  A spectrophotometer measures light energy at various frequencies across the entire spectrum of visible light.  It’s more accurate.  And more expensive.

Is there a difference?  Yes.  I’ve done some fairly comprehensive testing on many types of displays, and in some cases a colorimeter will get you pretty close to the results of the spectrophotometer.  In some cases, it won’t.

Simple as that.

Is it a good idea to run a cheap colorimeter on your displays periodically?  Certainly, but it’s more of a ” better than nothing” scenario.  Is it a better idea to have your displays calibrated periodically with a spectrophotometer?  Emphatically, yes.

At the very least, it’s a really good idea to calibrate your display with your low-end device, then calibrate it with a good spectrophotometer, then compare the two profiles.  It will be pretty obvious if you can live with what you’re running, or if you need to consider moving up to a spectrophotometer.  You can then make the choice – do you need to buy one, or is it better to have someone come in and do it for you, with their equipment?

 

As the tools of Color Management get more sophisticated, using them has gotten easier.  Many times trying to get your head around how to handle your own Color Management is complicated by past processes (that weren’t that effective), internet “lore”, rumors and half-correct “advice”.  Today, with good tools, it breaks down into some fairly simple steps.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Use an accurate display.
  2. Color Settings in Photoshop.
  3. Color managing in Photoshop.
  4. Turning off Printer Color Controls.
  5. Understand your viewing light.

First, you need a good, “color accurate” monitor.  Simply, if your monitor can’t display a color, you aren’t going to be able to see it.  Make sense?  If you’re trying to hear the subtle tones of a Cello on your boom-box, it ain’t gonna happen.  You need good speakers.  Likewise, if you’re trying to see all the colors in that sunset you just shot on an personal or office-level computer screen, you’re not going to.  It’s simply not a ble to “shoot” that kind of color fidelity.  Here’s our favorite line of Color Accurate displays: the Eizo ColorEdge, for one example.

Second.  You need to calibrate it with a good device.

Calibrating a monitor with a good device like the i1 Display, shown here, ensures you’re working with the same standards as every other Graphics or Printing professional out there, if you calibrate it to the common industry standards.  Cheaper devices (and frankly, the i1 Display is not a lot of money) will give you inferior results.  Calibrating to your own personal preferences will give you unpredictable results.  Calibrating it to industry standards with a good device like the i1 Display will guarantee your color-accurate display is, in fact, accurate.  (The standards for the printing/photo industry are a Gamma of 2.2, a White Point of 6500K or D65, and a Luminance of 120.)

There are, of course, more sophisticated devices.  Do you need a really expensive device like the i1 Pro?  Well, it does a better job, certainly.  It’s more accurate, but for most people it’s a lot to spend – around $1500 – and possibly worth it to hire a consultant with the equipment and the expertise.

Finally, you have to make sure that when you send the file to the printer, you’re controlling where the color is managed.  This is where things have gotten a lot simpler…  Photoshop and your Operating System, especially on the Apple side, are now talking together.  Here’s how that works.

First, make sure your Adobe applications are handling color correctly.  Go to Edit>Color Settings and set it to North American Prepress 2.  This will get you 98% of the way there.  If you want to go the last 2%, open up “More Options” ans select “Perceptual Rendering” as your Intent.

Now, open a file.

Since you’ve set your color settings in Photoshop correctly, you’re working in Adobe RGB (1998) as a Working Color Space.  You hit Print.  (File > Print)

You get this screen:

Make sure you’ve selected “Photoshop Manages Color”.

You select the printer/paper/ink profile in the pulldown that says “Printer Profile”.  This is not a “close enough” or near-guess case.  Your printer profile has to match your printer, your paper, and your inksexactly.  90% of the issues we here from printers stem from using a profile they thought was “close”.

Now you’ve Color Managed your file. You have to let the printer driver know it needs to lay off any additional color adjustments.

When you hit “Print”, in the more recent versions of software like Photoshop CS5 and Apple Snow Leopard, the setting you just made will turn the Printer Color Management to “Off”.  That’s of crucial importance, and where most people goof.  Here’s what it should look like.  In CS5, the button that says “Page Setup” is different, it will say “Print Settings”.  In previous versions you just hit “Print” and, in either case, it takes you to this screen:

Hit the button that says “Layout” and you’ll get this, where you select “Color Options”:

From there, select, for Color Management, “Application”.  Hit “Print”, you’re done.

This is shown for the HP Printers, if you’re using Epson, it’s the same process, except you have to make sure that the correct media is set in the Epson Driver. The first selection is called “Print Settings”.

Select that, and set your paper type.  Here we’re printing to Premium Luster.  Now make sure your Epson Color Controls are set to “Off”, as shown.

You’ve made your print.  You’ve successfully, and correctly color managed your process.  How hard was that?  Are you done?  Not quite yet.

The single piece of the puzzle that goes ignored most often is the viewing light.  If you take your nice print and go into your bathroom or kitchen and try to evaluate it there, it’s going to look green.  The cool-white fluorescent lights are not white, they’re slightly greenish.  If you put it under your halogen desk lamp, it’s going to look brownish-red.  If you hold it up to the window, you’re going to get the blue sky lighting the print.  Think you don’t need a standard viewing light? Think again, it may well be the single most important part of your workflow.

This is a GTI PDV-e Desktop viewing light.  There are several models, of varying sizes, features and prices.  You can have all the Color Management in the world at your fingertips, but if you can’t evaluate your prints under some sort of standardized light source, you’re essentially working blind.  If you don’t believe it, do this little test.  Make a print.  Look at it with window light.  Now fluorescent lights.  And finally, look at it under a halogen track light or desk lamp.  The more subtle and neutral the print is, the more dramatically you’re going to see the color shifts.

Now, you’re done.

It really is just that simple.  If you’re interested in learning all the whys and wherefores of how a Color Management system works under the hood and how you can tamper with the controls, there are countless groups, forums, webinars are resources that can lead you down that tortured path.  Better yet, you can buy my book.  If, however,  you just want your prints to come close to what your screen is showing you, then this is all you need to do.

Happy printing!


(photo courtesy of Lucia Prosperi.   ©Lucia Prosperi, 2012   All rights reserved.)

If you consider Color Management to include capture, processing, output and viewing, it brings some pretty interesting implications to Fine Art reproduction techniques. In the last few years we’ve developed some remarkable new methods – many considered heresy by traditional photographers – that produce equally remarkable results.  It’s based on a few simple ideas.

First, the original should be photographed under the same lighting conditions (if not under the actual lighting) in which it was created.  Not only the color of the light, but the quality and direction is of crucial importance to capture the work as the artist saw and created it.

Second.  The work needs to be color managed from the point of capture using a RAW level “profiling” system.

Third, the entire system must be working at the highest level of Color Management standards, with the appropriate protocols in place for the capture system, the processing and the printer’s unique characteristics.

Finally, the print must be evaluated under the same light that the original is viewed under.  If the print is to be shown under slightly different lighting, a final evaluation must be made under that lighting as well.

It’s a fairly simple concept, and with today’s Color Management tools and proper training, it’s a simple process.  It yields amazing results.  We have, for the last few years, had several opportunities to use these methods and have produced prints enthusiastically approved by the artist within two proofs.  The most resounding endorsements?  “Yes.  That feels like my painting.  It’s what I was trying to get the painting to say.”

Read more about this process at The Atelier Print, here.

The Complete Color Survey

December 7, 2012

Want to know where you stand with your Color Management?  Do you have questions that don’t seem to get answered, problems that don’t get solved or goals that don’t seem to ever get met?  Take a minute and go through our “Complete Color Survey”.  We’ll review your system, see what you are looking to accomplish, and see if we can suggest some solutions.  You’ll hear back from us within one day.

All information you provide is confidential, and will be used solely for the purpose of evaluation of practices and procedures.