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Color Management

Maintaining consistency of color and luminosity throughout the digital workflow

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Color management is for all photographers.  It is just as important to black and white photographers as color photographers.

What is Color Management

Color Management is a set of techniques and associated hardware, software and computer files used to ensure consist colors and luminosity (brightness) throughout your entire workflow, from capture to final output, be it print or electronic file.  Because it also manages luminosity, color management is used by black and white photographers as well as color photographers.

What Color Management is Not

It is not just a 'spider'.  A 'spider' is an unofficial term for just one of the pieces of hardware and software we use to apply color management to our workflow.  Specifically, a monitor colorimeter.

It is not calibrating your monitor to your printer.  Color management calibrates individual pieces of equipment (e.g. monitor, printer, etc) to a known standard; not to each other.  Since each piece of equipment is calibrated to the same standard, you will get consistent results across your equipment.  Why is this distinction important?  If you calibrate your monitor and your prints still do not match your monitor, then you may not be properly color managing your printer.

Color management is not about color accuracy or color correction.  It is about color consistency.  Color management ensures that the colors in your image are the colors you see on a monitor and in a print.  Color accuracy and color correction are used to ensure the colors in your image are the ones you want.  You need both color management and color accuracy.  Why is this distinction important?  If you implement a color managed workflow and you are still not satisfied with the results, it may be an issue of accuracy and not consistency.


To properly understand color management, you will first want to be sure you understand the following concepts.

  1. You can read about hue, saturation and lightness (also known as brightness or luminosity) on the Light page.
  2. You can read about color profiles and color spaces on the Profiles and Color Spaces page.
  3. You can read about file formats on the File Format page.

Color Management Steps

Listed below are the high level components of a color managed workflow.

  1. Film and digital camera.  Calibrate your camera's exposure meter.  This is true for both film and digital cameras.  Why?  Because exposure is what determines tone, or luminance, in your image.
  2. Digital camera settings.  Show the details
    1. File Format (may also be called image quality and/or image size):  Set to Raw or Raw + JPEG.  This includes black and white photographers.
    2. Color space (may also be called color mode):  If you shoot both Raw + JPEG, select the color space you most commonly use.  Generally, there are least two choices: Adobe RGB (1998) and sRGB.  If you use ProPhoto RGB in the computer, set your digital camera to Adobe RGB.  This setting only affects JPEG images as Raw files do not have a color space.  You can learn the pros and cons of these two color spaces on the Profile page.
    3. White Balance:  (Unlike file format and color space, white balance may have to be set for each photographic session.)  There are five common ways to set white balance.  Show them to me
      1. Auto - The camera automatically tries to determine the proper white balance.  Auto is best to use under rapidly changing lighting conditions.
      2. Preset - Select a predefined setting, such as cloudy day.  Presets are easy and, usually, intuitive to use.
      3. Specific - Dial in a specific color temperature, such as 5500 K.  This should only be used if you know the actual color temperature of the light source, such as studio lighting.
      4. Custom - Use your camera to directly measure the color temperature from a white or gray card.  While more time consuming, the custom method can be the most accurate when the color temperature of the light source is not known.  Reference your camera's owners manual to determine if your camera has the custom feature and how to use it.
      5. Semi-Custom - Take a gray card to your photographic sessions and take at least one photograph of the gray card in the same light as the subject.  Once the photograph of the gray card is open in Camera Raw, click the gray card with the white balance tool White Balance eyedropper and use the Temperature and Tint settings for the other photographs.
    4. Sharpening:  Turn off.  Sharpening does not affect Raw capture.  For JPEG images, sharpening should be applied to the image in Photoshop.
    5. Contrast (may also be called tone):  Set to normal or auto.  Contrast can be easily increased or decreased in Photoshop.
    6. Saturation (may also be called vivid):  Set to normal or auto.  You can use the information on the Hue/Saturation page to increase an image's saturation in Photoshop.
    7. Noise reduction:  Do not turn off.
    8. Black and White:  Turn off.  Even if you are a black and white photographer, you will want to convert your images to black and white in Photoshop, not Camera Raw, using any number of Photoshop techniques.  Several of these techniques can be found on the Color to Black and White page.
    9. Histogram:  Learn how to display the image's histogram in the LCD monitor.  Being able to read a histogram will help you create an appropriately exposed photograph.  Overexposure can cause loss of detail in highlight areas.  Underexposure can cause loss of detail in shadow areas and increase noise.  How to read a histogram is explained on the Histogram page.
  1. Scanner.  Scan using the Adobe RGB 1998 (preferred) or sRGB color space.  Do not save your scanned images in the scanner software's raw format.  Save them in a lossless format, such as TIFF, with the color space embedded.
  2. Monitor.  Use a colorimeter to calibrate your display.  The end result is a color profile on your computer that your video card uses to adjust the signals it sends to the monitor.  If you use an old version of Photoshop, make sure Adobe Gamma is not running on your computer.  If you have more than one monitor and your operating system and video card supports separate color profiles for each monitor, calibrate all monitors to the same luminance value (cd/m2 or candela per square meter.)
  3. Raw Converter.  Make the following settings.
    1. White Balance: Set to As Shot; but you will adjust it as needed.
    2. Color Space: Adobe RGB (1998) or ProPhoto RGB for print workflows.  Adobe RGB (1998) or sRGB for pure web workflows.
    3. Bit depth: Use 16 bits per channel if you can.  If you use ProPhoto RGB, you really need to use 16 bpc.  B&W photographers also should use 16 bpc.  8 bit can capture 256 luminance values per channel.  True 16 bit can capture 65,536 luminance values
  4. Photoshop.  In the Edit > Color Settings dialog box, the following should be set.
    1. Working Spaces: RGB should be Adobe RGB (1998) or ProPhoto RGB for print workflows.  Adobe RGB (1998) or sRGB for pure web workflows.  If you use ProPhoto RGB, you need to use a 16 bit per channel workflow.
    2. Color Management Policies
      1. Set them all to Preserve Embedded Profiles
      2. Profile Mismatches: both checked
      3. Missing Profiles: checked
    3. Conversion Options
      1. Engine: Adobe (ACE)
      2. Intent: Relative Colorimetric
      3. Use Black Point Compensation: checked
      4. User Dither: checked
    4. Advanced Controls
      1. Desaturate Monitor Colors: unchecked
      2. Blend RGB Colors Using Gamma: unchecked
  5. Printer.  Determine printing environment's black point.
    1. Tell me why
      1. Photoshop can distinguish all 256 digital tones.  However, your inkjet printer may not be able to reproduce all 256 tones.  Knowing your printing environment's black point will help you manage your printing environment so you can print detail where you want to.  Do not get confused between calibrating a monitor to set its black point and determining a printing environment's black point.  Doing one does not do the other.
    2. Tell me how
      1. Read the Printer Black Point page.  The Downloads page has the black point and white point targets discussed in this section.
      2. You can record your printing environment's black and white points on the Black and White Points chart page.
  6. Printing.  See the Photoshop Printing page for details.  But the highlights are as follows.
    1. Color Handling: Let Photoshop manage colors
    2. Printer Profile: Use the appropriate color profile for the printer, paper and ink being used.  If a profile is not available, consider purchasing custom profiles.
    3. Rendering Intent: Relative Colorimetric
    4. Black Point Compensation: Checked
    5. If you do not use your printer on a regular basis, print a nozzle check pattern once a week to keep the nozzles from clogging.
  7. Internet.  The Internet is the least supported environment for managing colors.  Monitors and some browser's do support the sRGB color space.  But only a very small minority of web users calibrate their monitor.  Therefore, the best you can do is convert and embed the sRGB color space into your JPEG images that are to be used on a web site.