Colour management and getting the most out of your prints

We all refer to things by their colour, all the time.  You have, quite likely, already done so today; “it’s so cloudy and grey”, or “these lights are taking forever to turn green”.  Exactly what tone of grey?  What sort of green?  In daily life, there’s no need to be any more specific than that.  But with photographs, rough approximations of colours simply aren’t good enough; there are thousands of greys and thousands of greens, and if they don’t match real life – or our memories of real life – we notice.

A photograph has a long journey to make.  First, light waves of certain frequencies within an infinite range are detected by a sensor in the camera, which converts these colours to a series of 1s and 0s.  Even by this early stage, that range of colours has been made finite, limited to the ones that particular camera ‘knows’.  The screen used during image processing also has a limited spectrum of colours it can display, and the appearance of these vary from monitor to monitor, and depend on a screen’s brightness and ambient light levels, among other things.  It doesn’t end there, though.  The software used for processing the image also has an inherently restricted range of colours to work with and, when a photograph is eventually printed, the combination of printer, ink and paper places yet another limitation on the colours which end up back in front of our eyes.

Despite all these obstacles and limitations, there’s an awful lot we can do to make sure our prints meet our expectations.  For starters, we can ensure that the various different pieces of kit are ‘singing in the same key’.  This musical metaphor is actually quite appropriate, since sounds are also made up from an infinite range of frequencies which musicians must agree to limit by tuning their instruments to a standard pitch and by playing the same piece in the same key.  We can standardise the colour ‘key’ between all the devices from the camera to the printer and we can tune, or calibrate, our screens so that the colours look accurate to our eyes during the production process.

Does this mean that an uncalibrated screen is unlikely to show colours correctly?  I’m afraid so.  On top of that, screens these days are much brighter than they used to be, and their factory brightness settings are artificially high so that they catch your attention in shop windows.  This makes a photo appear a lot lighter than it really is, so that when your prints come back they look too dark.  In fact, this is one of the most common complaints printers get.

Part of the answer, as I said, is to calibrate your screen, and there are various devices (called colourimeters and spectrophotometers) which are designed to do just that.  They tend not to be cheap, though, and unless you’re working with digital imaging or graphic design the investment might well not be worth it.  Besides, that’s one of the things your photographer is there for!  I keep my screen calibrated, testing it regularly and sending off for prints to evaluate its accuracy so that my clients can rely on the results.  So if photos look a bit too bright on your screen, don’t panic – it’s not unusual for an uncalibrated monitor at ‘factory setting’ brightness.  Try turning your brightness down by half, and in terms of getting a more realistic idea of how your photographs will look in print, you’ll be somewhere in the right ball park.


Civil partnership and wedding photographer covering Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

Posted: May, 22, 2011