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Color Management Basics

Recently we had a few business cards made with a simple logo on them. There were only two colors and it seemed pretty straight forward to get what we wanted. We soon got a lesson in the difficulties in color management with just this basic request. What we learned was that matching colors across multiple devices is really difficult. Taking a digital image either from an image editing program or a camera and then moving it from computer to computer or printing it can have a significant impact on how the colors on an image are going to end up. This gets even more difficult when working with multiple people and their computers. Even a simple digital image, like the logo on our business card, can be very difficult to match perfectly. Luckily there are a few tools and solutions for getting the colors you want across multiple devices.
color management business card image
Here is the logo across a few devices. The original version created on the computer is markedly different when compared to the printed and scanned version without any color management.

You Can't Trust Your Eye

The challenges of color management come from both how the devices function and how the human eye perceives color. When we see a color we are not getting an isolated image, instead what we see is effected by the context of the image. Our perception of what a color is can be very subjective which is why mechanical color matching is so important.
some text
The two squares with orange dots are exactly the same color but the one in the "shadow" appears darker.

Mechanical devices use numerical algorithms to create colors. CMYK, RGB, Pantone and various other systems all use reproducible combinations of primary colors to consistently make a wide spectrum of colors. However, the algorithms may run on completely different systems (CMYK vs. RGB for example) and thus they will have trouble creating identical images between the two of them. Even devices that use the same system, like two monitors for example, may have different individual settings such as brightness or contrast and may look very different from one another.

To control for all of these variables there are a number of color management tools that can help give you consistency in all the devices you are working with. In this article we are going to first look at the different types of color systems and then how to bridge the gap between them. Color management can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be and this article is here to give you the basics about how you can gain some control over your final product.

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  1 Comment

Roger M. Zander    11.20.11

To prove the point of color algorithms and perceptions, I am viewing page 1 of "Color Management Basics" on my MacBook OS 10.5.8 and I see just the opposite of the diagram caption:

"The two squares with orange dots are exactly the same color but the one in the "shadow" appears darker."

But now that I reexamine it, the caption isn't clear about what is the same. Is it the two orange dots are the same color, the gray squares are the same shade of gray, or both are the same.

My eyes and Mac say the orange dot in shadow is brighter and the square in shadow is a lighter shade compared to the square with the dot in the lighted area.

picky picky pixels

Tylerg     11.22.11

Both aspect of the square are the same. The orange and the gray are both identical. It seems a bit crazy, but it is true. To test, open up Photoshop or another editing program and use the "Color Picker Tool" to the color of both. You will find that the squares are identical although they appear very different. Thus the importance of color management.

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