The cliche experience that many have had is watching a family member trying to master the color on the family TV set. The people-centric medium of TV makes us to look at images where the color being off becomes unbearable and unnatural because skin tones just look wrong. We all know what skin tones should look like so we are compelled to change the screen to make the skin tones look as we expect. It's natural to trust that the color being broadcast to your TV is correct, only changing the settings on the TV can make it right. Hopeful TV color experts twiddle the controls trying to achieve a vague balance that only they can, while everyone else sits idly looking on hoping thing would be alright soon, impatient with the technology, wondering why it can't just be right in the first place - or if adjusting it is the thing that is screwing it up.
People are more apt to assume that what they see on their computer monitor is accurate when they pull it out of the box. Monitors are not constantly replete with skin tones that remind us that something may be off, as you spend considerable time using it for other activities like checking email or word-processing, which has nothing to do with skin tones at all. When a digital photographer sees a face, it might more often be in Photoshop, where they just change the color with tools in the program offered for that type of control. Regretfully, changing the color and trusting what you see in Photoshop and on your monitor can lead to martian prints and web postings of people in your images, and a quandary: why should color that looks correct in one place be off or plain wrong in another.
The answer is Color Management.
As they say, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Knowing enough to adjust the color in Photoshop doesn't turn out to be enough to make the color right. While some will come to the conclusion that the poor results have something to do with color management, just what they need to do to work with color management is less clear. They may revert to familiar territory and seek out the computer's brightness, contrast and color controls figuring this is how they have to make adjustments fiddling like you might do with a TV. They might get close and even get lucky with this method, but generally nothing could be worse. Adjustments made with the monitor controls as a means of color management end up being a best guess at what everything should look like on screen, and a compromise much like the TV expert's attempts at balancing RGB with the primitive TV controls. Guessing is not a good approach to color.
Some may go a little further and read a few web postings that have to do with adjusting color on their monitor, and these will range from the incorrect to the absurdly simple to the horribly technical ones that you are not quite sure are written in English. Naturally, the TV-color-minded inclination that "it is just color, how complicated could it be..." pushes people more toward accepting the absurdly simple and incorrect approaches. Some may take it a step further to seek out help from an expert (who may be anyone from a well-respected authority in Photoshop or color management to a neighbor who knows "a bunch about computers"). Regretfully the better answers (like the book Real World Color Management by Fraser, Murphy and Bunting, a 500+ page book) may be long and involved and daunting from the outset. On the other hand, getting the color right doesn't require getting a college degree in the subject, and such extensive study may be unnecessary for common folk, who, after all, just want the right color.
Those who want the right color without the doctorate end up taking suggestions from friends or people on forums, or look for the 'right' way to set up their color management. Truth be told, there is not one right way: more than one method will work. In fact, any method of color management that makes sense will work...but the other side of the coin is: the same color management scheme just doesn't work for everyone, and some will work better than others. The best way to get the color right and pick an applicable color management scheme, is, in my opinion, understanding the shorthand version of what you want to achieve and applying the simplest steps possible to get there.
The basics of color management requires:
- Calibrating your monitor
- Creating an ICC profile (usually part of step 1)
- Setting up color management in Photoshop or Elements (and perhaps other programs) correctly
- Setting up previews/screen proofing that make sense (Photoshop, not Elements)
- Applying appropriate color tagging to your images
If you neglect any one of these, you are gambling with your color results, plain and simple. If you do a few and not the others, you are not necessarily any better off than doing none at all. More frustrating, if you don't do them all, things may work sometimes, and not others, and you'll never be able to tell why. But attack each of these components with the intent to know why they are important, how they apply, and how to apply them, and you'll have the skeleton of color management, which is enough to hang your color on. You get skin on your skeleton when you define the purpose of what you are trying to achieve. Do you print to the same printer all the time? Do you print to many? Do you post images to the web exclusively? Do you print and post? Do images all come from the same camera? Do you have many sources of images (multiple cameras, images from friends, clients, etc.)? All these questions filter into your color management choice.
This is not the first time I've mentioned color management in my blog, and it won't be the last. Here are some other Color Management entries:
These additional resources should give you some background on making better color management choices.
For more info on approaching color management seriously, I have a 4 week primer course at betterphoto.com called From Monitor to Print that will work you through these 5 essentials, and test your results, making you color competent in a short amount of time with the least amount of work. You'll want to look into good calibration tools like the ColorVision Spyder (by the way, I posted an article on 9.11.08 about using the ColorVision Spyder Express to calibrate a dual monitor system -- which the manufacturer says is impossible). You can also simplify your color life by finding a system and sticking to it (don't change printers, papers, profiles, inks, or services without a plan).
Competent color handling is more than just calibration, but don't get psyched out. Make the effort to know what to do, and you can put it safely behind you.