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Help System > Color University > The Color Managed Workflow

The Color Managed Workflow

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Are you worrying to yourself, "My goodness! How on Earth will I be able to deal with all these color spaces and ICC profiles?" Great news! You can breathe a sigh of relief, because color management will rescue you.

Color management refers to software features that convert numeric "define a color" coordinates from one color space to another, so the colors look the same on every device:

Diagram of how color management works

See how you need to specify different coordinates in each of the above four color spaces in order to get the same blue? Color management software takes care of all that converting and translating for you, young color warrior! All you have to do is pick a particular color, and all of the color management magic inside of your printer, photo editing software, and camera magically converts all those pesky coordinate numbers throughout the whole process, so that the blue you want is the blue you get.

Color management is a bunch of software written by some very smart people. Color management software:

  • Knows what colors your eyes can see
  • Knows what combination of inks and monitor colors will result in your seeing any color, and
  • Knows how to convert a particular color from one color space (or color profile) to another so you see the same color

How to ensure a color managed workflow

A "color managed workflow" means a process where you use color management correctly every step of the way, from taking the picture to printing it:

Diagram of the steps of a color managed workflow

If you follow the below steps, you'll probably be very satisfied with how your prints come out.

Step 1: Pick the best color space in your camera

If your camera has the option of using the Adobe RGB color space, AND it's likely that you'll be printing the images you take, then select it. If your camera doesn't give you the option of picking a color space, don't fret over it. Your images will look great and print just fine.

Step 2: Use a good monitor

If you're going to use your monitor to check the color of prints, you must have a high-quality monitor that probably will cost you at least $500. Don't use a cheap, discount-store $89 monitor.

Here's a test for monitor quality (description below):

Diagram showing how to detect a cheap monitor by looking at it at an angle
  1. Look at the monitor straight on, with the whole screen filled with 50% gray.
  2. Slide your head way left and way right, so you're looking at the monitor at an angle left and right. The gray color should not vary much. If it changes color or brightness, you have a cheap monitor and you must not use it to check the quality of your pictures.
  3. Now, the test that every cheap monitor will fail. Move your head back to the middle so you're looking straight at the monitor in the middle of the screen, so your eyes are about level, or a little below, the top border of the screen. Now move your head up and down a little, as if to straighten up to look over the top of the monitor, and slouch down to get your eyes a little closer to the bottom of the monitor. The gray color should not vary much. If it changes a lot in brightness and takes on faint colors, you have a cheap monitor and you must not use it to work with images and prints.
  4. Look at the whole screen. The whole screen should look like the same color gray. If it gets much brighter or darker at the edges, or changes color at the edges, you have a cheap monitor. Don't use it for color work.
  5. Now fill your screen with red and do the same check, then with green, then with blue. Those three colors, when filling the screen, should look the same from edge to edge and edge to center. If different parts of the screen show different colors, you have a cheap monitor; don't use it for color work.

Step 3: Calibrate your monitor

If you're going to use your monitor to check the color of prints, you have to calibrate it with a piece of hardware called a monitor calibrator. There's no way around it.

Nearly every monitor leaves the factory with its colors totally off. A monitor calibrator fixes the settings so it shows you accurate colors.

A hardware monitor is a piece of equipment you plug into your computer that leans up against your screen and actually reads the colors it produces, adjusting them here and there so the colors it displays are accurate.

It creates a customized ICC profile that automatically loads when your computer turns on, so your monitor displays colors the way it should.

There is no replacement for a hardware calibrator. It's the only way to get accurate color. You can do a quick check of your monitor, though, with the below monitor calibration image.

There are five sets of squares. For each row (white, black, red, green, blue), there are 16 squares. You should see clear divisions between each square. Also, you should see all 16 squares on each row. If you're missing more than one square on each row, your monitor is badly off calibration, or of a poor quality. (No offense.)

Monitor Calibration Test Image:
Image of squares of varying colors and brightnesses

Here's an example of what the above image looks like on a cheap, badly-adjusted monitor. You can't see any white squares, the dark gray squares have a blue tint, and you can't see the individual squares on either side of the red, green, and blue rows:

Illustration of appearance of above image on a poorly-adjusted monitor:
Image of squares of varying colors and brightnesses on a badly out of adjustment monitor

If the two images above look almost the same on your screen now, run, color warrior! Run to the store, or run to get your wallet, and buy a good monitor!

Step 4: Use the right color space when editing

The color space you used to take the picture must match the color space you're using to edit the image.

When you load the image you took with your camera into your editing software, be sure that you're working in the same working space that the camera was set to when the picture was taken.

For example, if you took a photo with a cell phone, be sure you're working in the sRGB space in your editing software.

If you set your pro-level camera to use the Adobe RGB color space, be sure that's what your editing software is set to.

Until you become an expert at color, be sure that neither ProPhoto RGB nor any CMYK color space is active. Be sure you're in RGB color mode.

Step 5: Select the correct profile for your paper & printer

Be sure that you select the correct printer and the correct paper profile for the paper you're printing on:

Screenshot of Adobe Illustrator's printer settings dialog box

The above screenshot shows the correct settings for using a Canon PRO-4000 printer to print on Canon Glossy Photo Paper 240gsm. If the printer profile doesn't match the printer and the paper, the colors will probably not print right.


Here's a fact: It's impossible for any color management software to exactly match every color in your print to every color on your screen, as we've seen. There are colors that one device (like a monitor) can produce that another device (like a printer) simply cannot.

But, if you work in the same color space as your photo was in when it was taken, have a good-quality, calibrated monitor, and use the correct ICM/ICC profiles when printing, you should find that your prints come close to matching what's on your monitor.


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