The Challenges of Color Accuracy

So one thing that a lot of photographers know about but I feel a lot of people outside photography don’t is color accuracy.  I don’t know how many people have really sat down and worked on a photo, get the white balance right, get the saturation looking great, oh bump up those yellows a little, ah, finally it looks good.  Then you print it or put it online somewhere.

Oh man, those prints can look absolutely awful, way over saturated, bright fake looking reds, but how, it looked so great on your monitor, you can even hold them side by side.  This is not the photo you edited.

Well, I’ve seen this from time to time, more on the online side, since a lot of the work I do is online (websites, uploads to clients, emails) I’ve found that this problem extends well beyond printing.  Monitor calibration can play a huge role in what the client and prospective clients see.  Just this week I uploaded some photos from a Ron Zacapa event, I spent lots of time editing them, getting the colors just right, they look great on my computer but you know what happened when I looked at them at work, they looked awful!  Turns out my monitor at work is not very well calibrated at all.  I’ve spent so much time calibrating it but usually for text that colors just don’t render correctly.

What is one to do, well first things first, I needed to calibrate my work monitors.  Well, in order to really calibrate a monitor you need a piece of hardware, you need something like the Spyder but I mean really, who is going to spend anywhere from $70-500 on a calibration device unless you are doing it professionally and color accuracy is of the greatest of importance.  I know I still haven’t bought one but I really should have a few times over.  Thankfully you do have some options that are a lot cheaper, like free.  QuickGamma or the Monitor Calibration Wizard will allowa you to look at your monitor and make some executive decisions about how it displays things.

What you’re going to run into though, is the monitor will only be as good as your eye is and you have to know exactly what color they monitor is trying to make, your perfect grey or red may look totally different than my red or grey.  On Mac computers there is also a built in color calibration tool.  It is under the System Preferences -> Displays -> Color -> Calibrate…   This is quite the tool and it has allowed me to really calibrate my laptop exactly how I want it.  I calibrated just the way I thought it would look, then I adjusted a photo, a colorful photo and got it printed professionally at my favorite print shop.  Held them side by side, darn, what I was seeing still wasn’t what the print shop was seeing.  Well, I tried again, and then again, and then one more time.  Finally!  There are resources on the net where people have professionally or at least carefully calibrated their monitor and uploaded the calibration file for the world to use but it is monitor build specific, more on that later.

So now I have a MacBook screen that is totally aligned with my printshop, the problem is now different printer profiles, papers, etc stuff that is pretty much over my head.  My real goal with my simplistic approach was to have prints match my monitor which they now do.  Sadly, I don’t know how your monitor out there in the Internet world is calibrated.  For all I know all my photos are too dark, too saturated, too blown out on your monitor.  I witnessed it myself this week!  It is frustrating knowing that all the time I’ve spent making the images look amazing by me might not translate over to you but sadly this is a problem that won’t be solved anytime soon.  Every manufacturer has a different “white” and “red” and every other color under the sun.  And even manufacturers that hold their products close, like Apple, have monitors for their MacBooks that don’t match up.  A MacBook Pro manufactured in June will have a different monitor than one in July just because of the manufacturing process that it underwent.

Color accuracy is amazingly complex and really I don’t know how to beat it.  Until every monitor comes equipped with a calibrater built in or everyone goes out to buy one themselves, I don’t know how to fix it.  I guess what I’m saying is, if you hire a photographer and you aren’t exactly pleased with the results, get some prints you can hold in your hand, look at the colors in that world, maybe it is time for you to look at your monitor calibration.

Heck even me looking at this website, it appears that my whites are too high, I can’t see the difference between 251->254.   Another resource here and another here.

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