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RGB – just wants to have a name tag

An intro to Color Management

Ever wonder why your digital photos seem somehow “less than” when printed than they did when you previewed them on your camera’s LCD screen or when you looked at them on your computer’s display? The hard truth is, most printing doesn’t come close in terms of color volume to what our eyes and camera can actually capture.

Expectations

Our expectation is that the color will somehow be exactly the same from screen to paper. The other reason color sometimes falls short is how it gets transferred from the digital camera or scanner to the final printing. A little background about color. Our eyes, as well as scanners and digital cameras, both work in the RGB color space when they capture images. RGB means that light is gathered in red, green, and blue wavelengths. Most common printing devices use the inks; cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to reproduce color images on paper.

From capture to print

So, how do computers and printing systems handle taking a digital image from the RGB space to the CMYK space needed for printing and somehow keep the color appearance similar? The answer is Color Management—software built into operating systems and imaging systems. This software utilizes color profiles to exchange the information about digital content, from its creation device to the final output device. This software converts the color data using a little bit of extra information saved in the image when it was created. This information is the tag I’m referring to. Its information, which tells other electronic devices such as digital presses and displays how the color was derived, ultimately allows other devices in conjunction with their own device profiles to render the color accurately.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because, just like you and me, we see color not always exactly the same way. Plus, color is a subjective and interpretive concept, a concept that relies on the viewer’s eyes, brain, the lighting illuminating the color of subject, and the subject itself. So, color can be a challenge, to put it mildly, and add our own attitudes or opinions and we can really have a mess on our hands.

Luckily, there is color management and it does work quite well. What it does for us, or how it works is this: first, a profile is created for a device like a scanner or digital camera. This is usually done by the devices’ manufacturer, but can also be done with systems available to everyone. To create a profile, the device being profiled is used to capture a series of standard colors from a printed chart. Next, software compares the individual colors it captured and quantifies them based on a standard scheme. The software saves the information and creates a device profile. Now, each time that device captures an image, the ICC profile can be embedded into the image information, or “tagging the image.” Now, when this image travels to a printer or to be shown on a tablet or wherever it goes, the image has a name tag and the electronic systems that encounter the image know what it’s all about, at least in color terms, that is, and know how to display or print it as it was originally intended.

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