How to get consistent colour from screen to print

Getting your colours right can make all the difference between a washed-out mess (above towards the left) and an eye-grabbing vibrant photo (towards the right)

Want to ensure your designs, photos and artworks look just as amazing in print as on-screen? Learn how here.

If you’re engaged in any sort of professional creative work, the importance of colour management cannot be underestimated. Designers working towards print-based deliverables have always had to know about Gamut and Trapping, and the difference between Choke and Spread, but for most other creatives, managing colour is a bit of an arcane concept. That’s a pity, because without proper colour calibration of your devices, much of your hard-earned work with images isn’t being used to its full potential.

To be safe, a professional using any combination of digital cameras and scanners, monitors and inkjet printers to produce work on a computer needs to ensure that colour is standardised between the various devices in the workflow.

No single device in the modern digital workflow can reproduce the full range of colours visible to the human eye. Instead, each device operates within a specific colour space that can produce a range, or gamut, of colours, a subset of the whole spectrum. For example, monitors will operate within an RGB – red, green and blue – colour space, while most printers adhere to a CMYK – cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) – colour space. 

Not all device colour spaces cover the same gamut, though, and therein lies a problem. Devices such as scanners or digital cameras will operate in different RGB colour spaces to printers, while not all monitors produce colours matching an identical colour space.

This means that the same, unaltered, image being viewed on several monitors may be seen to have a different tone or colour cast, depending on the device on which it’s being viewed. For this reason, software developers created ‘working colour spaces’ for image editing, such as AdobeRGB or sRGB, which support standardised colour values, independent of the device they are viewed upon.

However, the problems don’t end there. Thanks to device dependent colour spaces, the preview and output images of a single design process may be markedly different. What could be a portrait shot under a lovely bright blue sky in real life and on your camera could end up being a washed out and flat blue background when printed.  Worse, if you adjust the image to suit your monitor, your carefully lit portraits may turn out to have the wrong skin tones when output, leading to wasted materials, as well as a possible loss of face and earnings.

This is why device calibration for colour management has been developed. This process, using tools such as those from companies like Datacolor, measures the colour values supported by the device and creates a custom profile from the result. Profiles, standardised by the ICC (International Color Consortium), contain look-up tables that the colour management systems in image editing software use to perform a translation from the device to the working colour space.

Based on such profiles, the relative colour values for a camera, monitor and printer (including the combination of inks and paper) can be calibrated together to ensure that the same colours correspond throughout the design workflow.

Colour care workflow

Getting it right from the outset always saves a massive amount of time further down the line, and so camera calibration is a good place to start thinking in terms of colour management. Most digital SLRs offer advanced menu settings for white balance and colour balance, but you need to shoot a reference card to get the correct results.

A more precise version of this process is offered by SpyderCHECKR Pro from Datacolor, which combines a sophisticated array of reference colour patches, including skin tones, with software that builds calibration presets for popular image editors from the captured data. The solution also features a pocket-sized Raw calibration tool, the SpyderCUBE, which is able to capture colour temperature and light source data on-site for accurate Raw adjustments and more consistent colour.

The focus of the design process is the monitor, but this is also one of the most essential areas to ensure colour consistency. One way of doing this is by using a hardware-based calibrator, such as the Datacolor Spyder4ELITE system (below), which can automate and simplify display calibration. Once its software is installed, you attach the supplied seven-colour sensor and let a wizard measure a series of colours on your monitor. The Spyder4ELITE process creates a custom ICC compatible profile that sets your display to a reference state.

Using a hardware calibrator means that your display will subsequently show true-to-life colours, and you can also be confident that the luminance values are adjusted for precise shadow/highlight detail. You should calibrate your monitor at least once or twice a month, and more frequently with an older monitor, but the ReCAL feature in Spyder4ELITE makes this quick and easy.

Many creatives don’t just work with desktop or laptop monitors these days; colour management tools are available for mobile devices, too. Spyder4ELITE users are able to take advantage of a free tool for this purpose in the shape of Datacolor’s free SpyderGALLERY iOS app, which offers custom calibrated viewing of image portfolios and galleries on iPad, iPhone and Android devices – as well as integration with Facebook and Flickr services.

With the input and preview parts of the process covered, output calibration needs to follow and this is where a spectrophotometer comes in handy. This is a device that can read wavelengths of light from coloured ink patches on printed material, and return information to create custom ICC profiles for the printer and media.

More exacting still is a spectrocolorimeter, such as the one contained within Datacolor’s SpyderPRINT toolset. Working with your printer, Datacolor’s solution can output a selection of targets, which can be read by the SpyderGuide device in order to calibrate and build an RGB ICC printer profile.

You can use such tools in isolation, buying dedicated calibration hardware for one part of the workflow and using manufacturer or third-party ICC profiles for the rest. However, a more comprehensive solution might be that offered by Datacolor SpyderCAPTURE PRO, which enables full colour control and profile creation for cameras and monitors. Or SpyderSTUDIO, which incorporates the Datacolor print calibration tools to provide a full end-to-end colour management solution.

No matter how professional the product line, you’ll never get all your devices working in colour harmony without a bit of tweaking. However, if you take advantage of such readily available tools and technology as we’ve described, mismatched colour workflows and disappointing output may soon be a thing of the past.

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