Color Management 101

Is the color cast in your image something real, or is it an artifact produced by your monitor?
This image is neutral. If it doesn’t look that way, it means your monitor needs profiling.

Updated: Jan 2017

Color is extremely important in photography. Getting accurate color is even more important. With digital photography, you are relying on a monitor to display your images properly so that you can make any necessary corrections and adjustments to brightness, contrast, and color. The problem with computer displays is that they just aren’t accurate. When your computer communicates with your display, it sends a command to generate a particular color value in the RGB universe. The monitor responds in turn by lighting up its phosphors or LCD elements accordingly. But your computer cannot “see” that the actual color produced by your display matches the command it sent. You see, most monitors have inherent flaws that prevent their actual output from matching what the computer told it to produce. What’s more, the human eye has an uncanny ability to compensate for color casts, so if your monitor is a little off, you might not even know it.

The solution for anyone doing serious design or photographic work on a computer is to create a monitor profile. A monitor profile is a set of correction parameters that your computer can use to tell your monitor how to properly display colors. For example, let’s say your monitor is a little bluish. When you want to produce a neutral gray tone, the monitor profile tells the computer to correct the values it would normally send by an appropriate offset towards red, so that what you see on your screen is actually neutral gray. In other words, a monitor profile is a set of prescription glasses that allows your computer to deliver images that look correct. That way, you’ll know that a bluish image on your screen really is bluish, and you can properly correct the image in your editor.

Because your computer can’t see your display, the only way to really create an accurate monitor profile is by using a hardware calibration device called a colorimeter. I currently use a Spyder Calibration System, but there are several options available depending on your needs and budget. When you use a colorimeter, you place it on your screen and it reads pre-programmed color patches. In this way, your computer actually can “see” the colors on the screen and build the necessary corrections into a custom profile.

Once you’ve calibrated your monitor, it’s important not to confuse the monitor profile with your photo editor’s color space. Color spaces are virtual “containers” that hold a range of colors that you can use while editing images. sRGB, Adobe RGB (1998) and ProPhoto RGB are all examples of color spaces. These spaces differ in size. sRGB is relatively small, and ProPhoto RGB is enormous. That’s why Adobe Lightroom uses ProPhoto RGB as its default editing space.

Most computer displays are able to reproduce the colors in the sRGB space without trouble, although some high-end displays can reproduce wider spaces (my iMac has a pretty darn good color gamut). As a general rule, I edit my RAW images using a wide space (ProPhoto RGB) to deliver maximum tone and color ranges. Then, I’ll convert the images color to sRGB prior to saving for the web, as most browsers aren’t capable of using wide color profiles. In Lightroom, you can set this up automatically in the Export menu.

It’s a trap! Don’t set your editing profile or export profile to the monitor profile. The monitor profile is used internally by your editor to match colors properly.

Calibrating a monitor is actually quite simple. Here’s a short instructional video that I’ve put together to show you the basics. It’s a good idea to re-calibrate your display(s) every couple of months to make sure they’re still accurate.

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10 thoughts on “Color Management 101”

  1. I have a Mac do I have to adjust the brightness of the screen to a level before I set up for calibration?

  2. Usually, you’ll be prompted to do so *during* the calibration process, depending on the system you use. Some programs allow you to choose the brightness level first, others calibrate the brightness based on ambient light levels.

  3. How much of a factor (if any) is the color temperature and/or brightness of the ambient light in the room I’m working in?

  4. The color temperature of the room won’t affect your monitor calibration, but it can affect the way your eyes perceive colors. Room brightness can impact the appropriate monitor brightness settings, so you should try to calibrate your display with the room brightness at its typical level.

  5. My Nikon camera has a color space selection in the shooting menu. Even when shooting in RAW-only format, there is a choice between Adobe RBG and sRGB color spaces in the menu. Nikon offers this color space choice even though I may select only RAW format. Does this choice make a difference in the RAW image and if so, is one preferred over the other, if the RAW images will be subsequently edited in Lightroom (w/ ProPhotoRGB)?

  6. You say LR automatically defaults to ProPhoto RGB so you you only have to change it in PS? Also where to you check in LR to make sure it’s using ProPhoto

  7. You said LR uses ProPhoto RGB as it’s default. How do you check that to make sure it hasn’t been changed?

  8. Charlie-
    It would only affect in-camera JPEGs or NEFs converted in Capture NX. I leave mine set on sRGB because I think it gives a better preview on the camera LCD panel.

  9. Yes, but even if PS is set up to use a different space as its default, it will usually preserve color profiles of images sent to it from LR. The PS default only applies to new documents created inside PS.

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