Six Tips for Improving Color Management – Part 1

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Color management is a complicated beast which can create numerous problems with your processed images. If what you see on your monitor doesn’t match what is printed or if your images look different on different screens, you may need to fine-tune your color management workflow. Here are some tips on how to do this.

Calibrate Your Monitor for Web or Print

For best results, calibrate your monitor for web or print separately. Also, calibrate for specific output using some general industry standards. If you are serious about image quality and monitor accuracy, I suggest getting a quality calibration device for your monitor. For me, this means a X-Rite Product (I currently use and strongly advocate for the X-Rite i1Display Pro) or a new Spyder product.

In my intensive research over the years, I have asked countless photo enthusiasts (semi-pros as well as known professionals) about their calibration practices. To this day, it often surprises me how many photographers are not taking careful control of their color management practices.

When monitors have the ability for a range of over 300+cd (from nuclear bright to unviewable dark), what might be the best, average, “middle target” for web calibration? What might be a target that works well for the general masses who may be viewing our images (on their monitor, iPads, or phones)?

Target Luminance for Web Display

Although it is generally accepted that no official industry standards exist, between 120-130cd (cd is technically candelas; also known as luminance or brightness) in a diffused, lighted room (not really dark, not really bright, and no direct light reflecting off of your screen) seems to the accepted middle-of-the-road. It’s seems to be what the late, great, color guru and book writer, Bruce Fraser used to talk about when he said “we need to shoot for the middle of a very wide barn door opening.”

I reached this conclusion of the 120-130 cd target by talking with the techies of several top calibration companies, asking many top professional photographers (nearly all my favorite nature photographers), and my own 14 years of personal experience. Of course room brightness has a profound effect on this target but, for now, we’ll keep it simple and recommend 120-130 cd for web output, in a mellow, diffused lighted room.

Calibration for Printing versus Calibration for Social Media Sharing

Target Luminance for Prints

If you are serious about your print accuracy and quality, there’s no way around the importance of calibrating your monitor separately for a fine art print. This means a substantially darkened monitor (compared to web calibration); 60-70 cd is the target (lately I have been using 65) that has worked best for me over the years for fine art gallery prints I do for photographers. As part of my service, I work with their master TIFF or PSD files to match (look right) for print; or I completely rework the image from scratch (RAW) for the client. I have used this target with success for all my limited edition gallery prints as well.

This darker target is extremely critical to avoid the very common dark print problem. This method basically helps the print retain the same punch, luminance, or liveliness that we see on our monitors. By having a darker monitor, you naturally process brighter and, because prints turn out much darker than monitors, this is a great way to compensate.

Control Your Ambient Light During Processing

It’s important to control your processing room brightness. A slightly darker, diffusely lit room (but not really dark) room generally works best for critical processing. Room brightness can affect luminance targets significantly.

We’ll keep things very simple here. We need to control luminosity in the room in which we choose to do critical editing. We do not want any reflective light (light reflecting off your monitor from behind you). One of my favorite and highly acclaimed nature photographers told me that he never processes his images in the middle of the day. He waits until soft light begins or it’s dark. Then his room lighting of choice comes mostly from behind his monitor, not behind him. I cannot argue with the quality of his work, so there is something to be learned by this tip, in my opinion.

To be continued – Six Tips for Improving Color Management – Part 2


About Author Mark Metternich

Mark Metternich is a native Oregonian now living in Jacksonville, Florida. He has been a full-time professional landscape photographer and avid photography educator for over 14 years and is considered by many to be an expert in this field. Throughout the year, Mark leads many adventurous photography workshops in the US and abroad, creates educational materials (such as as his many highly acclaimed video tutorials in post processing), teaches post processing privately via Skype screen sharing, offers post processing services for photographers including critical gallery photographers, is a freelance writer for a some select photography publications, public speaker to camera clubs and professional groups, as well as produces limited edition fine art landscape prints from his photography.