Okay so you just shot and processed the most amazing HDR ever and you decided to get that 40” x 60” print for your wall which set you back a few hundred bucks. But even though you sent to the lab a shot of the Taj Mahal, you get back something that looks like a turd on a crap pile. Or that same image you post on Google+ and you think is all wonderful. People are wondering why you even posted such an underexposed shot.
What’s at work here? Poor color management and no monitor calibration. One of the most important and perhaps confusing parts of a photographer’s workflow, yet one of the most overlooked.
So today let’s examine this and make some sense of it so that you can get the ultimate results out of all your HDRs and even your regular photographs.
Color management is what assures that the color we see is the same that others will see and also other devices. So that what appears red to us, looks red to others or prints/ displays red on other devices. If it looks red to us and ends up looking orange to everyone else would be a problem.
Color Spaces and Profiles
Image © Image created by Jeff Schewe CC
A color space or gamut is the range of colors visible and the number and variations of hues within that. There are 3 main color spaces used in photography: ProPhoto RGB, Adobe RGB and sRGB. Representing color gamuts from the widest to narrower, in order succession. There is also CMYK which is used by photographer’s that send their images in for print on a Printing press. But that would be a whole separate article in itself and most people don’t run into this
While it may seem that we want to use the widest Gamut possible, it’s not always the most desirable and in the end may not even be visible on either your monitor or the final print. Only some of the highest end monitors are able to even display the full Adobe RGB color space but as monitor increase in quality we may want to have the widest gamut possible.
There are occasions where using too wide a gamut can lead to problems later on down the line when we have to convert that gamut to a lesser one and that lesser one can’t contain all that the wide gamut produced, which can lead to posterization (banding) in our images.
Color Management in Photoshop
We choose a Color Space for our Working profile or space in our editing program. In Photoshop this would be under Edit> Color Settings
Working our way down this screen, we would want to set our settings to custom so we can make the choices we want.
Working space is the space we choose to work under in our editing program (in this case Photoshop) under working spaces the one we are concerned with is RGB and this is where you will make a personal choice. I use Adobe RGB. I think it is the Momma Bear choice of just right. Others may choose to work in ProPhoto. Others sRGB. Truth of the matter is if you really don’t know, choose sRGB. It will get you in the least trouble along the way. And really is just fine for most situations.
Does it really matter what I use?
Well It can. What you decide to use as your working space doesn’t really matter that much. BUT what you use as the Color Space that is embedded into the image that you send to someone else can make a difference depending on the use of the final image.
If you are going to use the image on a website, you should have that file in sRGB. SRGB is the standard for the internet. Although some web browsers are capable of reading color profiles. Most people don’t know how or where to even set them so if your image is in sRGB you will have the largest compatibility.
If you have your images printed by a Commercial Lab, see what profile they use or if not, if they read embedded profiles. If you send an Adobe RGB file to a Lab that requires the image in sRGB you will get some color shifts leading to a loss of quality of the print
But what if I want to work in a different space than the internet or a lab?
You absolutely can. In Photoshop there is a feature called “Convert to Profile” under the edit menu. Using this feature will successfully translate one color space to another. You may loose some color, but it will translate in in a way that things don’t go all wonky.
Lightroom will automatically do this for you, just make sure when you export the final image that you set the color space correctly for its use.
Color Management Options
Once that choice is made we move down to the color management area which is REALLY important. Correct settings here will assure that if you bring an image in that you didn’t shoot or edit that image, it will adjust itself for what space you are working in. So the first thing I do is make sure that the three boxes for: Profile Mismatches, Missing Profiles and Pasting profiles are all checked. This will ensure that a warning dialog will pop up if you try to open an image with a different profile other than what your working space is and allows you to make a choice of what you to do if a mismatch occurs.
Under policies, the dropdown for RGB, you will see three choices; Off, Preserve Embedded profile, Convert to working space. I have mine set to preserve embedded profiles because I work on a lot of other people’s photos. You may want to have your set to convert to working space for simplicity. Just know that since you have the warning check boxes checked you will still have a choice upon opening an image if you decide to do something other than the default action.
If you don’t want to be bothered at all with this, Leave the default action as Convert to working space and turn off all the warning check boxes. Then Photoshop will just automatically convert a different profile than what is your working space. I just like the options.
So what do I say if I get a Pop-up telling me of a Mismatch or Missing profile?
If you get the warning box for a Profile Mismatch:
You can make a choice that best suits you. I usually honor the embedded profile because most likely someone has sent me an image to work on and I want to work on it and send it back the same way.
If the Profile is missing:
If you can’t contact the person to ask what was used the best bet is to just play it safe and assign a space of sRGB.
Under Conversion options: Engine, Leave as Adobe Ace anything else is really for advance users
Under Intent (Rendering Intent) I use Relative Colorimetric to keep the relationships betweens colors on conversion. You could also choose Perceptual if you are going from a very wide gamut to a narrow one. But for the most part Relative Colorimetric works just fine.
Check the box for black point compensation checked and I also check the box for dither. Dither can reduce the banding I talked about earlier in our images.
Once you are done, click OK and your settings for your color management in Photoshop are set.
Color management in Lightroom
For some odd reason, Adobe wants to keep the color management within Lightroom a secret; In fact they don’t even want you to be able to mess with it so you can’t. But, through a little investigation, I will at least tell you how it works.
When you are viewing files in the Library module, they are displayed in Adobe RGB. When you are in the develop module and working on a RAW file, the working space is ProPhoto RGB. When you open a Tiff, Jpeg or a PSD file, Lightroom will honor the embedded profile for that image. (We’ll talk about embedding and saving profiles in a bit)
That’s the way it is, you can’t change it. But it really is fine.
For those of you that use Photoshop Elements, your choices are a little more limited and quite honestly the reason it is not a professional editing program, even though it works really well for editing. In the settings of Elements, you basically have two choices; Optimized for print (Adobe RGB) or Optimized for display (sRGB)
Okay, so now that we have all our setting correct in Photoshop or Lightroom how do we assure that what you see on your monitor is what I see on mine. We do this by calibrating our monitors.
Monitor Calibration is calibrating our monitor, through the use of a Hardware & Software device, to a certain standard. When two monitors are calibrated to the same standard they will look relatively the same. I say relatively because in the real world there still may be some slight differences.
Right out of the box LCD monitors are almost always too bright and the color temperature is way too cool, approx 9300°k. Manufacturers do this for two reasons; to make the monitor pop on the showroom shelf (brighter appears better) and also at these settings it make it easier to read text especially in a brightly lit room. So if you do a lot of text editing. Well this may be great. But we are photographers and it’s not.
We could try to calibrate our monitors by eye, but our eyes are very bad at doing this. Everyone’s eyes see color and brightness a little differently in fact my left eye sees color a little warmer than my right. So instead of using our eyes it’s best to use a Hardware Calibration device that uses either a colorimeter or s spectrophotometer.
The two most popular brands are i1 Display Pro by X-rite and The Spyder 3 Pro by Datacolor. It’s kinda a Nikon/Canon thing, everyone having their favorite. I’ve used a Spyder for years now. But I don’t think I would have a problem using X-rite’s either.
Choose a Standard
Just like we needed to determine a “standard” with our editing program’s working space, so too do we need to determine a standard for our calibration. There are two common standards used most often. The first calls for a White Temperature of 6500°k and a Gamma of 2.2. The Second calls for a standard of 5000°k White and 2.2 Gamma… Choosing one depends on the use of your image and also the need to match someone else’s standard such as a Photo Print Lab.
If you normally edit in an average lit room and your images are destined only for the web, the 6500°k. Gamma 2.2 would probably be your best choice. If however such as in my case, I am trying to match the standard used by the labs that do my prints. I also edit in an almost dark condition as far as room light is concerned. So the best choice for what I am doing is 5000°k, Gamma 2.2. You may also see a Luminance standard specified which can range from 80 to 140 cd/m2. 100 is usually called for by most labs.
Once you determine the standard you want as a target, you follow the directions for your particular device. It will display some standard colors and then match and adjust what it knows the color to be with what it is reading. You may need to make some adjustments to the monitor’s setting itself. For color temp, gamma, brightness and contrast. The profile the calibration generates can make adjustments to the color and brightness but it has its limits so if you make the initial adjustments necessary the calibrator may not need to work as hard. Make sure you calibrate the monitor under the conditions you will be editing under.
Once the calibration process is done. The calibration software will generate an ICM profile which will load when your computer starts up. Make sure it loads on start up and you usually can tell because at a certain point at startup you can see the monitor’s color and brightness change. Because of a change in the Windows operating system with Vista and Windows 7, there have been occurrences of the monitor loosing its profile when the monitor goes to sleep or even if a warning window pops up. For the most part this has been cleared up in updates to calibration software but it still may occur.
Putting it all together
So now we have our settings set and our monitor calibrated. We can feel better that what we see is what other people – that have calibrated their monitors and set their setting – will see. But in order to enable others to know what standard you are actually talking about, when we save an image we need to embed the Color profile, that we worked on or converted to, into the image data itself. We do that in the Save As command and dialog box by checking the box for Color and the Profile used.
In Lightroom, we would do this on Export and choose the color space that we want the image exported with.
Now with the profile embedded in your image not only will this make your workflow, color and constancy better. Anyone else that opens your file will know how it should look too.
Okay, I’m sorry but this is just way too confusing and complicated for me.
You’re right, Color management and calibrating is one of the most confusing parts for all photographers
So let me just break it down into a couple points and just try to follow them and you still will be way ahead of everyone
* Calibrate your monitor. I know even this part is hard but try your best. It really is just that important. Some of the calibrators have a basic and advanced mode. Use the basic mode to just get you up and running quickly. There are some lower priced calibrators out there too
* Use sRGB as your working space and embed or export with that.
* Turn off the warning check boxes and just have Photoshop convert to the working space. You won’t have to worry about this in Lightroom
And just leave it at that. That is the best default, least worrisome of all options. Then go out and take some great photos and sleep at night.
Hope that helps,