Let's get back to basics: a "one-oh-one" on Colour Management

You don’t have to be an artist to understand the stress of printing out an image only to find that somewhere in the process the printer has misinterpreted the colours and suddenly you’re looking at a completely different image. Simply picking the image you want to print, the size you want to print it at, and choosing the right paper type is often not enough.

Colour matters. So here are some tips to ensure that the colours you see on screen are the closest representation possible to the colours you will get on paper.

There are a variety of ways to ensure near perfect translation from screen to paper. These include:

  • Having a little bit of knowledge about colour spaces and colour profiles.

  • Knowing how the printer mixes ink.

  • Adjusting the default brightness of your computer or laptop screen (typically down from full brightness!).

  • Knowledge of paper types and the effect that paper can have on an image.

But firstly, what do we even mean by “Colour Management” ?

Good question. In a nutshell, colour management is the process that ensures the correct colour is used throughout transferring the image to multiple devices, so that while the image may look different on each device, the colour written into the metadata of the file is the same.

For more information check out this informative article.

Here at The Print Room we recommend your image use the Adobe RGB colour space as it is the only colour space that currently shows the most variant in the visible colour spectrum without including colours that don’t exist in our field of vision such as the ProPhoto RGB. (sRGB is okay too but not quite as great - see the image below)

We print your images using an Epson 9900 printer that contains 11 different inks that all come from the CMYK colour space. We use this expanded CMYK ink range as our printing colour space as it is a subtractive colour space that produces a primary colour when mixed as opposed to RGB ink which produces a darker colour when mixed with ink. When RGB is mixed with light it becomes additive, meaning that the colours get light. It’s the same as turning on more lights in a dark room, the more light you add the less dark the room is. However if the light was ink or paint the more you add the darker it the colour becomes.

Making sure the colour space you are using across your devices is set up properly is a critical part of the colour management process. Most cameras will shoot images in Adobe RGB by default, and you can’t control the way you see the image on the back of the camera. So the first step of intervention you have to make in the colour management process is on your own personal computer. Most Mac computers and laptops will use the default Colour LCD colour profile setting, and for Windows or Linux it will vary depending upon the brand of laptop you own. Key things to be aware of are brightness and contrast, often set way too high out of the box - great for movies and internet browsing, not so great for correctly viewing the colour metadata contained in the imagery you’re intending to print.

The quickest and easiest way to make sure that your computer’s colour profile is set-up right for printing is to use external software such as the Spyder calibration or X-Rite software. These programs will run a short application on your screen while creating a colour profile for you. This colour profile will create the most accuracy between the image on the screen and the one you print out.

Adjusting the brightness of your laptop or computer screen will not only take the colour closer to the printed version, but also reduce the strain on your eyes.  A dimmer screen can also make the colours more realistic. Think of a piece of paper. The paper you print on is not backlit like an electronic computer screen on full brightness - dimming the screen will bring the colours back down to that level.  Computer screens are backlit with a blue light instead of a white light, and while calibrating and dimming the screen slightly corrects this,  it will never be a 100% accurate representation, so always bear this in mind when comparing images on screen to paper.

Another thing you can do on screen is to look at the colour numbers under the info palette in Adobe Photoshop as they will always be more accurate than looking at the image itself. No matter how well calibrated your screen is, never trust only your eyes - check the numbers! RGB numbers range from 0 (black) to 255 (white). When it comes to greys, the given RGB numbers must all be equal. For example, to get a mid grey the RGB numbers will all read 128. Using this method is a sure way to know that regardless of how dark or light the grey may appear on your screen, it will always print out as a mid grey tone. Similarly, if your RGB numbers don’t align exactly, you may end up with a warm slightly purple-grey versus a pure grey.

Understanding how the info palette works and how to use it for colour correction is key to getting the image looking as close as it can to the printed final. For a brief introduction to the info palette click here.

Last tip - understand that certain papers will change the appearance of the printed image. Glossy prints are great for making the colour of your image really pop out and look amazing naturally as the colour is reflected back at you due to the gloss finish. The downside of glossy papers is that they tend to be quite reflective and as such they don’t work very well when a light is shining straight onto the paper, such as certain exhibition spaces for example. Matte paper types are what you are more likely used to seeing, but they can make certain images feel a bit flat. This is because matte paper absorbs light where glossy paper reflects the light so to the naked human eye the colours can feel like they are receding into the paper versus popping out (always a matter of personal preference as to what will suit your image best). Texture of the paper is important too, and each in turn will change the reading of the image depending on the feel you’re after for your work.

Sadly, Colour Management is not always a simple thing. I think we would all like to just print out an image and have it look just as amazing as we saw it on screen. If you’re worried about how the image might look when we print it out we welcome you to book an appointment and we can show you how it looks on our professionally colour calibrated screen and give you advice on what paper will work best for the desired result. We are here to help you get the image printed the way that you want.

SL