What is Color Management? - Tools & Systems

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Green trees against a bright blue sky. When you take a photograph, you want it to look the same on your computer and in print, right? But how does this happen? In this lesson, we'll explore tools and systems used in color management.

What is Color Management?

Say you've taken a photo of a bright yellow and red sunset. After you download it, you open it on your computer screen and then open the same photo on your smart phone. Finally you print a copy with your inkjet printer. Now say you line up the three sunset images side by side. Are the colors exactly the same? Do they vary? Ideally, the photo should look the same regardless of where and how you see it. That's where color management comes into play.

Color management is a way of ensuring the consistent color of images or graphics across different media and devices like books and magazines, laptop computers, and smart phones. Ensuring color consistency and accuracy in these formats is hard because computer screens and glossy magazines get color through very different methods and technologies.

Let's review a few basics. Color management helps translate images for devices that use different color models. A color model is a method of using three primary colors to produce a larger range of colors. That range is a called a color space. There are two basic color models, additive and subtractive. The most common additive color model is RGB, or Red/Green/Blue. It is for digital devices and uses three colors of lights to produce a range of colors. All the lights together make white. The most common subtractive color model is CMYK, or Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black. It is used to create color in the printing process, which requires using ink or dye and is subtractive because layers of ink cause an absence of the white of the paper.

RGB and CMYK Color Models
color models

So, the different models use either colored light or colored inks. RGB can produce more colors than CMYK. So how does a designer create a graphic on a computer and make it look the same when it's printed? Through color management systems.

Color Management Tools and Systems

Color management systems (CMS) use color profiles or tables that define the most saturated colors in a color space available on a device. These profiles usually define color related to a standard set of reference colors like those of the International Color Consortium (ICC), a group founded in 1993 with a goal of establishing standards to ensure consistent color. ICC profiles are a cross-platform standard, meaning they are the same regardless of device.

Now, for the device: There are three broad categories of color devices. These are input devices (like a digital camera), display devices (like a computer monitor) and output devices (like a printing press). They all have different color spaces. When you create a document or print a photograph, you usually use at least two of them. All devices have a profile and you can even define a color profile for individual documents.

Here's where color profiles and color standards like those of the ICC come into play. When, for example, you want to print a digital photograph, it involves a computer and a printer. A CMS, usually in the form of software, communicates between these devices and translates the colors found in the color space of one into appropriate colors (as close as possible to the original) found in the color space of the other. The specifics of what CMS does involves algorithms and math, so we won't discuss them in detail. But the end result is that the image on your computer screen and the image produced by your printer look almost alike with consistent color.

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