Why Color Management Fails To Satisfy

This post isn’t that technical, don’t let the charts, or it’s length scare you away! I’ve noticed reading reviews of color management solutions that they often fail to satisfy photographers, even the very high end ones (systems not photographers). I’ve tracked this down to a couple of things, seldom is it really the fault of the products involved. Although very cheap color solutions do tend to bite people more often.

The real world isn’t very colorful. The proof of this is outside your door, go look. You want colorful images but they never look right. The real world isn’t nearly as colorful as we might pretend it is. We spend a lot of time at computer displays, looking at artificial images, and although reality has great overall contrast, the saturation is usually unimpressive. Oh it CAN be colorful indeed, you get colors your camera can’t capture and your monitor can’t display (they’re “out of gamut”.)

Most of the time though, the result is just not really the way you wish it were when you photograph it. It might seem it was more colorful, especially after the fact, but most of the time, most of life is rather muddy (e-mail me if you want to know why.)

The following two stock photos illustrate this point. The first is a machine tool, how it looks in reality. The second is a machine tool with dramatic blue lighting, colored wires, brass fittings, and orange sparks. Although it really was similar when photographed, they don’t normally look quite like that, and I suspect this is even post processed.Screen shot 2010-03-16 at 10.07.16 PM.png

Classic 90’s stock photography!Screen shot 2010-03-16 at 10.07.48 PM.png

The people who make color profilers and the people who use them have different perspectives. Devices for building color profiles and otherwise measuring color are generally conceived of by “color scientists” (who are a cross between physicists and mathematicians.) They’re designed by engineers and then sold to creative people, or technicians.

The people who planned and made that little puck were interested in measuring the actual output of your display so as to adjust other known inputs to produce specific colors on the output. They’re after the most accurate measurement and translation of color possible. Not the most pleasing prints.

The creative is interested in making things that look good, or at-least look accurate as far as they are concerned. The scientist wants to reproduce things correctly, the artist wants to produce things how they want them to be, then have everyone else see them that way. It’s a good thing the scientists really know what they’re doing. It means the artists can work in a predictable world most of the time. However the scientist isn’t conerned with making your monitor display a sunset beyond it’s design limits.

Device mismatch is where the real agony begins. We can increasing the saturation of our images digitally or altering the setup of our photographs, and we can thus move around the reality the scientists worked to record and reproduce. The other thing those smart people came up with was a way to describe colors produced in one way (with glowing lights, RGB) to another way (reflected from a page CMYK). The problem is one of ability.

The real world contains every color we can see, it actually would contain a lot more than we can see but who cares, we can’t see them. The following image looks very complex but I’m going to explain it.Screen shot 2010-03-16 at 9.53.30 PM.png

The big sweeping art represents what we can see, you don’t really have to know how to read it just know any color that falls outside that arc will not be visible. Inside the arc we have a white lattice. That wire frame shows the range of absolute colors which the Adobe RGB color space allows us to represent.

Inside that one is a color block showing what the sRGB color space allows us to represent. sRGB roughly defines the colors most monitors can display. The current Apple iMac’s display almost perfectly matches the sRGB color space (though not quite).

Your camera may be able to record colors outside the sRGB range, if it does this setting it to use Adobe RGB (when in jpeg mode) would allow you to record more accurate colors, however tough luck displaying them.

An Adobe RGB monitor will run you up around $3,000, and none of your friends will be able to see it like you anyways, unless you buy them special screen too.

Regardless of your fancy display, your prints won’t always be able to display those colors anyways. Here in lies the big issue of gamut.

You see, the file you’ve recorded with your camera may not be capable of recording the colors of reality (reality is out of the camera’s gamut). Then the camera records colors outside the monitor’s gamut. When you go to print you’ll have colors outside the printer’s gamut.

This here shows what a very good 6 color inkjet photo printer can do vs a typical sRGB monitor. The white wire frame is the range of the screen, the color blob is the range of the printer. Although the static image doesn’t show it well the color blob is almost entierly inside the wire frame, some of it is WAY inside.Screen shot 2010-03-17 at 1.20.31 AM.png

That means that your prints will seldom be able to reproduce the range of colors you’re seeing on screen, and what you saw on screen was likely not what was there in reality, and what was there in reality probably wasn’t what you wish it was.

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