What is… Colour Management?

Matt tackles colour management, explaining what it means and how it can improve your final results



Most of us have at some point looked at an image on a computer or printed it and found it didn’t quite look right. Maybe the colours were undersaturated, or there was a cast over neutral areas, or skin tones appeared unnatural. Whatever the reason, it’s likely that colour management may have been able to stop this from happening.

Colour management is a term related to the controls we can put in place to make sure colours are translated accurately as an image moves between different devices. By taking into account the characteristics of a camera, monitor and printer, for example, it’s possible to make sure that the image ends up how you imagined it would when you captured it.

So why do we get different results? For this most part, it’s down to the wide range of products used for image display and editing, the different technologies on which different hardware is based, and the limitations of these and different file formats. As an image moves between different devices, it may be necessary to convert the colour information from one device to another, all the while ensuring colours stay accurate.

For a number of reasons, such as the differences in colour sensitivity between different people and the various physiological reasons, we can’t be trusted to asses colours accurately. For this reason, we need some kind of instrument that can objectively assess colours so that they can be managed through an imaging chain.

Colorimeters, sometimes called monitor calibrators, are one such product. These are designed to analyse a series of coloured patches displayed by a monitor, and compare them to their actual, real values which are known by the manufacturer. This known as profiling, and this profile can then be used to adjust the monitor’s output to show what it should be showing. The brightness and colour output of monitors also changes with age, so it’s important to do this regularly rather than just once or twice.

Let’s assume your monitor is displaying images with a slightly warm colour cast, but you’re not aware it’s out of line. You may naturally compensate for this by applying a cooler cast to make it look right, but, assuming your printer is reproducing images accurately, the image may print with the cool colour cast. This is where profiling and calibrating your monitor helps.

Similarly, printers can be profiled for the same reason. Given the wide range of printers, inks and papers in common use, it can be difficult to know how an image will turn out. You can download profiles designed for specific combinations of printer, ink and paper to help you achieve more accurate results, although you can also create a custom profile by printing a test chart and either measuring this yourself or sending it off to a specialist to develop one for you.


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