A Tale of Color Management

I just got myself signed up with SOPHA, which is an amazing full service studio for photographers in Manchester, NH. This has put my whole home studio into a reduced mode as it makes anything at home for convenience only. The cost benefit proposition of SOPHA is very hard to beat.

Ester Eva - Nikon D7000 - Sigma 70-200 1/125th f5 iso800 105mm
Ester Eva – Nikon D7000 – Sigma 70-200 1/125th f5 iso800 105mm

I’ve also been working with color management quite a bit lately as it’s been rearing its ugly head. I really think a most photographers are blissfully unaware  without knowing anything about color management and without it causing problems. But eventually you end up on the wrong side of the curve and you have to address it.

I’ve been a longtime user of a Spyder 3 Pro monitor calibrator and with that simple addition life was good. It was easy and I was still on the easy side of the color management curve – living in bliss. Then a few years back I bought a Dell 2209 Ultrasharp monitor. I calibrated the monitor and I was still living in bliss. What I didn’t know was that it was a wide gamut monitor, was ultra white and utrabrightbright. Everything looked good, even when it didn’t look good in reality, it had a way of making it still look good. I kid you not, it was too good.

Having a monitor like that is nice when you are an end user, but harder when you are content producer. Since I already had a Dell 2208 (previous generation) in the house I swapped them around. At least on the 2208 not as much stuff looked as good all the time. This allowed me to live in bliss again. What I produced was looking good on other peoples monitors – at least I thought so and from what I could tell I was mostly on target.

Of course its not that easy. At that point in time I was still using Capture NX2 and Firefox. So I again I was living in unknowing bliss. Both of those apps are color managed so what I produced looked the same for both applications. It looked good on my screen and good on other peoples screens (I think). Then I made another switch. I moved to Adobe Lightroom and I started using Google Chrome. At that point I started to really notice that what I was producing on Lightroom was coming out overly color saturated in Chrome, but the same in Firefox. So I started to compensate and split it down the middle trying to make it look good in both browsers.

The question quickly became, was what I producing in Lightroom wrong, or was it exporting to jpg that was wrong? Who or what could I trust? How could I work in the minutia of color, contrast and photos and have two completely “different” identical images. I wanted to become Ester Eva (above) and pull my hair out. After all wasn’t that what color calibration was all about? Making sure what I produced was the “standard” and everyone else though not standard would be either to the left or right of it.

Then I did a portrait shoot for some friends. I printed the photos at Wal-Mart 1 hour photo (yes cheap, but we know we all use them from time to time), but luck was with me, they looked great on their Fujicolor print machines. I was on target. Then my friends made Christmas cards presumably online Wal-Mart and they looked dull. So here I was, on the wrong side of the color management curve again.

So what to do? Research and test test test. I really wanted to go back to Capture NX2 as it really produces better colors than Lightroom IMHO, but Lightroom is widely adopted and used by many many other pros and for several good reasons.

Fast forward a bit, and I’m now much more color profile aware. It didn’t kill me, and I’m much stronger for it, but what a pain in the ass. I think I’m on the right side of the color management curve again, but its entirely possible that I’m flirting with the wrong side. And when you are on the wrong side you sometimes know it and you sometimes don’t. What did I learn?

  1. Trust your instruments like you do when you fly an airplane through the fog. I proof using Color Management aware apps only. I have a wide gamut display and non-color managed applications will lie to me more so than on a regular display. So I don’t look at non-managed apps.
  2. LightRooms working color space is Adobe proPhoto. You can’t change it, so just live with it. They don’t have a good internal proofing tool for sRGB. Live with that too.
  3. I leave my camera color space sRGB (I might change that in the future).
  4. Export from LightRoom as sRGB for web viewing
  5. Export from LightRoom as sRGB for printing to anywhere you know they “might” not  honor your color profiles (ie Wal-Mart or anyone else who isn’t a pro lab).
  6. Calibrate you display and pay attention to ambient light settings.
  7. Google Chrome is not color profile aware. Neither is FastStone image viewer. But IE9 and Windows 7 default picture viewers are (XP and IE 8 are not).
  8. Finally look at you work on other displays and computers. I have an old 17″ 1703 Dell monitor (calibrated) as my second display.


And finally good luck! If you haven’t seen this problem yet you will, but it won’t kill you. You’ll be stronger for it.


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