Your guide to color management for print and digital photos

  • The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

Like it or not, today we tend to keep family photographs and cherished memories only in digital format.

Most of the images we see on a day-to-day basis are on a screen of some kind.

I’m convinced that the future of our photography will be digital distribution and display of imagery in a form of wall-mounted monitors with rotating landscape images or family portraits hanging in our living rooms, or galleries on our cell phones or whatever device comes next, or the like.

The advantages of electronic images in terms of color, flexibility, accessibility, are just too overwhelming. As a result fewer and fewer people are likely willing to display an actual physical fine art print on their walls.

Yes, digital photo storage is a good idea. However, technology is ever-changing and leaves us with a feeling like we need backups of our backups. There are various formats for digital photographs and videos and those formats need software to correctly render those objects.

Sometimes the standards they use to produce those objects fade away and are replaced by other alternatives and then software that is supposed to render images can’t render older formats, hard drives fail or images are accidentally deleted. As a result the images are no longer visible and we lose a part of family history.

I absolutely believe there are people passionate about actual physical prints like I am. Printing is part of our industry and as photographers we should embrace it. And our challenge in this new world is to educate our audience on what a print can be and to make those prints as amazing as possible.

A printed photograph is emotive and personal. A printed photograph is archival, and there’s something beautiful about a photograph being archival. It means that it’s going to be here for the next generation to enjoy, and that’s important, because I know that this image isn’t going to fade in one, two, three years’ time.

Printing makes me a better photographer. A printed photograph completes my vision as an artist. Everything from how I process an image, how large I print it, and what paper I use for that particular print is guided by my artistic intent.

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you’ve never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

And, perhaps you have been printing already but haven’t been getting quite the results that you’d hoped you’d be getting.

And it’s very easy, sometimes, to blame an album manufacturer or a lab, and saying “their printing is not that good!” Well, maybe there’s a little bit more to the story, maybe we need to do something at our end to fix things.

What is color?

Our eyes can distinguish more than 10 million colors. What we see as a color is actually our eyes picking up a part of the spectrum of light. Light that appears white to us such as light from the sun is actually composed of many colors.

The primary color system that photographers deal with when shooting and manipulating digitally is known as additive colors. When the red, green and blue phosphors of a pixel are illuminated simultaneously, that pixel becomes white (additive color system).

The colors that make up subtractive system are cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) (CMYK). This system is used for printing our images.

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

What is color management?

Digital photography was supposed to be simple. We take a photo, upload it to our computer, share it with friends online and then print it.

The problem with most devices is screen quality. Not every electronic device has the same quality screen for displaying photos.

We have to understand that each device, online service, web browser and printer handles color differently. The color gamut describes the variety of colors that can be used by a specific device, also can be referred to as a color space.

But the good news is they understand color through the use of what is known as a color profile. This color profile basically tells the device how it should convert a color to a digital signal.

What we capture on our camera has to be translated electronically to a monitor and then the monitor has to translate that information again to a print. Color management brings all our devices together with a consistent color profile and hence color space. The color space defines exactly how many colors the device can reproduce (gamut).

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

Color management and my camera.

Personally I would like to have the best final image quality for printing which is why Adobe RGB is my choice. However, if you shoot RAW, you do not need to worry about the color space in camera as it can be set in the post production (use your camera manual to set the color space).

The only sure way to correct for this type of error is careful setting of the white balance for each scene.

Color management and my monitor.

The next link in the chain is the computer and its software.

If you want to be certain of what you’ve actually captured on your camera you need to view it on a well-calibrated and properly profiled monitor. Unfortunately, most monitors do not come calibrated and require regular monthly calibration.

This is performed with the use of colorimeter or spectrophotometer, these devices sit over the screen of your monitor and measure the value of certain colors when they are displayed. By the end of the calibration process, a custom color profile is created for your particular monitor and ambient lighting situation, as a result your colors are displayed accurately.

My monitor is calibrated with a hardware calibration system Spyder 5 Pro, but there are numerous options available.

Learn how to calibrate your monitor here.

Setting up color management in your software can be tiresome but it’s important for the color management process. I personally work in ProPhoto RGB, as it’s created specifically to be larger than a color gamut. Which means that if I convert a raw file into ProPhoto RGB there would be no loss of color.

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.
Lightroom
The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.
Photoshop

Choosing the right paper for images.

Printing is as much a part of the creative process as deciding when to click the shutter on your camera. With a huge selection of manufacturer-branded and third-party inkjet papers, it’s easy to get lost when trying to decide what paper to choose.

Choosing the right paper is a personal preference and you need to experiment to see what look and feel is right for you and your vision as an artist. Mostly it depends on the mood you are trying to convey and emotional content of each particular image.

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.
The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

Various paper textures can either complement or get in the way of your image.

In general, semi glossy and glossy surfaces enhance images that rely upon rich contrast and color saturation. Matte surfaces enhance pastels.

But don’t limit your choice to one or two papers. It’s a good idea to have several options on hand so you can select the perfect output for each image you create. Purchasing sample packs from various manufacturers is good for that.

Color management and printer-paper color profiles (soft proofing).

“In color management, an ICC profile is a set of data that characterizes a color input or output device, or color space, according to standards promulgated by the International Color Consortium.”

— from Wikipedia.

This is an essential part of the overall color management process.

During the soft proofing process Photoshop will try to simulate the application of a particular ICC profile on your image, using your monitor to judge the results. The idea is to avoid wasting paper and ink by applying corrections to the image prior to output. An ICC profile helps accomplish just that.

Most of the photo labs have a range of ICC profiles to download on their websites for different types of paper. Follow your lab’s instructions to install and use the soft proof profiles.

For best results, submit a test print order containing a range of images which cover a wide spectrum of colors, a so-called printer evaluation chart. You can find those available for download on internet.

These test images can help with any density adjustments you may need to make and detect problems ahead of time by including highly saturated, hard to render colors, various skin tones, gray ramps to test for banding or color casts, smooth color gradations and tonal transitions, and deep shadow details.

photo 10 on soft proofing

The workflow described below will help you to print your first photograph through a printing lab, if you've never printed before, and can guarantee you will be pleased with the results.

In my Breakout “Bringing your vision to life: Emotive portraits from shoot to print” I walk you through the process of how I choose the paper for my photographs and handle the whole process of printing through a custom printer or an online printing services.

There’s something so powerful about holding your memories in your hand, being able to touch a part of your history, and knowing these are the stories you’ll pass down for generations.

A print provides a home for your photo where it can be loved and have its story told. And if you don’t record the memory behind the photo, that photo loses half its value.

About the Author:

Anita Perminova is a portrait photographer, filmmaker, and a contributing artist at Offset living in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She's passionate about turning real life into fine art. She loves to create simple, yet classic, emotive portraits of her children and capture details that define the present stage of their childhood in just one frame.

2 Comments

  1. Christopher Hall Apr 10 2018 at 2:09 am - Reply

    Very detailed information on colour. If however you say your view is more to digital files than printed would an sRGB colour space be considered?

    • Anita Apr 10 2018 at 4:30 am - Reply

      Hi Christopher, this is a great question thank you. To respond this question, I’d say our cameras are not that smart as we are and not that powerful as the programs we use to post process our images, thus when I shoot in RAW format, I’m able to make decisions on how the image should look and produce way better results. I am a portrait photographer, this is why having a full control over the final look of my image. Even if I don’t plan to print my images, simply developing for the print will result in a higher quality on processing. Getting it right in-camera is an initial stepping stone that sets you up for success to create a beautiful final image. The difference when you shoot in JPEG format is that the camera does its own processing to convert the RAW information into a JPEG. While good results can be achieved capturing JPEG format images, maximum editing and print preparation quality is best achieved capturing in RAW, editing in 16 bit mode in ProPhotoRGB. Hope this helps!

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