colour management for beginners

Colour displays are now affordable and enjoyed by consumers at work, at home, on mobile displays and in cinemas. Consumers often take it for granted that there is good colour fidelity as images are transferred between different devices. So, for example, a red object in an image appears to be approximately the same red when the image is displayed on different computer displays, when it is printed, and when it is viewed on a mobile phone.

This colour fidelity is not easy to achieve. Different devices use very different technology to display colour images. For example, a computer display will mix together light from three primaries (red, green and blue) to generate a range (gamut) of colours. On the other hand, a printer uses completely different technology and typically uses mixtures of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create the gamut of colours. Even computer monitors use a variety of different technologies (from CRT displays, which are becoming obsolete, to LCD, LED, and plasma technologies) each of which may use quite different red, green and blue primaries. Colour management is required to compensate for differences between the technologies (colour primaries, colour mixing, colour gamuts) between different image-display devices. This necessitates that the companies that produce image-display devices must cooperate so that the devices are able to talk to each other; this is achieved through the International Color Consortium (ICC) . The ICC is an industry consortium that was established in 1993 by eight industry vendors (including Microsoft and Apple). Today approximately 70 companies are members of the ICC whose goals are to “create, promote and encourage evolution of an open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform colour management system architecture and components”. The ICC system is implemented in terms of device profiles and colour management system. The device profile is a computer file that is associated with each device (printer, camera, monitor, etc.) that essentially contains information to allow colour to be managed. In the case of a computer monitor, for example, the device profile would include information about the monitor’s primaries that would allow the colour image to be adjusted to compensate for the properties of the monitor so that the colours are displayed correctly. The colour management system is software that manages how these device profiles interact with each other and is normally part of the operating system of the computer.

Thus, when users capture, view, or print images they are using colour management all the time even though they may be unaware of it. Though this level of colour management is built into software and device drivers and is broadly invisible to the user it does enable colour consistency for images when they are captured, viewed and printed throughout the world. However, this level of default colour management is far from perfect. It does not, for example, generally account for changes in settings for a device (for example, a user may change the contrast, brightness, or colour temperature of a display) so that colour fidelity is, in practice, only approximate. This level of colour fidelity is probably sufficient to satisfy about 90% or more of consumers for whom colour is not a critical issue. However, for professionals working in industries where colour is a major concern (e.g. design, retailing) a higher level of colour management is often required. For these users, it is possible to obtain systems (typically low-cost colour-measurement devices and associated software) that allow a user-defined profile to be generated for a particular device with particular settings. This user-defined profile then over-rides the default profile and should enable a better level of colour fidelity to be achieved. Nevertheless, colour fidelity is always likely to be an imperfect issue. It is difficult for colour-management systems to perfectly compensate for the fact that, for example, different devices may generate quite different colour gamuts (typically, the bright red on a computer screen cannot be achieved by a CMYK consumer-level printer).

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2 thoughts on “colour management for beginners

  1. Interesting post. It might also be pertinent to mention that, in practice and at present, ICC profiles are only really useful in very controlled environments. Firefox is the only browser which actually supports ICC profiles and, at the OS level, most apps have no support whatsoever (although ICC profiles have been included since windows Vista), although there are notable mentions in Adobe and Quarks product line-up.

    Still, if one considers colour spaces are far from standard across different models of TFT panels and that monitors are usually have very poor factory calibration settings (again, with some notable exceptions), how much of a real difference make ICC profiles, really?

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