Color Management: Know What to Do and How to Do It

There's an old saying, "Knowing what to do and how to do it are two different things."

Color management runs the gamut (no pun intended) from understanding color theory and working with applications and profiles to calibrating equipment—all in the effort to get consistent results. A successful strategy is to implement good processes and streamline your workflow to automate color management settings.

Easier said than done, right?

There are three things you need to do to keep your printing profitable:

  • Know where your files come from (or convert them as needed)
  • Use proper profiles for your printing needs (or pro file as needed)
  • Calibrate your devices

These tactics ensure client satisfaction, repeat business, and a more profitable printing operation. The trick is not to get overwhelmed with information and focus on the tips that will help you in your printing environment.

Go to the Source

When you meet someone new for the first time, you usually ask "What's your name?" "Where do you come from?" or "What do you do for a living?" Knowing this information allows us gauge the person and helps build a successful relationship. On that same note, when you first open a customer file, wouldn't you want to know its background, too? Start at the source and find out "Where did the file come from?"

Ask your customer what program created the file or if there are any embedded profiles. These source profiles reference the color space of the device (graphic application, camera, scanner, etc.) that created the file. It is also called the reference or input profile.

Sometimes when you're dealing with a customer file, the color management specifications are unknown. It's easier to control these settings if you have an in-house designer creating your graphics or pre-press operator who has the time to check the file before wasting consumables. Most of the graphic applications allow you to control these color settings as your working space (see the Graphic Applications > Color Settings or Save As Settings).

Involving the customer early is the best preventative measure to help set color expectations and workflow processes. There is no "best" source profile; the best one to use is usually a regional preference or one that meets a specific proofing objective. Either way, be consistent and you'll close the gap on knowing what color management setting to use.

Print Using the Right Profile

Color management is all about controlling the variables. Regardless of the RIP you use, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the color management settings. These include setting up your input/output profiles and rendering intents. Some workflow options include using the defaults, changing the setting to meet your needs, and using embedded profiles. You can also make specific changes on a per-job basis manually or create custom Quick Sets to automatically apply the same color management settings for all incoming jobs.

Start by making sure you're using the best possible media/mode for the job. For example, if you're using ONYX software, when you select the media/mode in your Quick Set, you automatically enable the default ICC output profile for your media. The ICC created especially for this printer/ink/media/mode set-up is used every time you print with this Quick Set. You'll want to make sure you match the product names/numbers exactly for best results.

In your Quick Set you can also change the input profiles to match your graphic application. Fortunately, ONYX software version 7 uses the same North American General Purpose default profiles as the Adobe Creative Suite. You can make color management changes if your file originates from another region because color perception is different around the world. You can also enable the embedded profiles option if the files come from different devices.

Many profiles can be graded for either speed or quality based on the resolution or number of passes the printer makes, but that may not be enough information to make a good decision. You'll want to use a profile for a media you have in stock or one that is available from your local reseller. Choosing the right mode (resolution/dot pattern/number of passes) is a little more difficult and may require some test-and-check printing of typical jobs to determine your color potential.
If you're an Onyx software user, you can take advantage of the Onyx Media Manager Profile Grading Tool to see which media is best, depending on your purpose. It includes six target market categories each with specific goals that are weighted differently. The media that returns the highest score wins!

What if you don't have a profile that fits your needs? Consider creating your own custom profiles with specific printer options to meet your purpose. Onyx recently published an online Media Manager Profiling Guide that provides information to successfully create profiles using Onyx workflow products. It covers specific instructions for using Media Manager and the built-in ICC Profile Generator that comes with Onyx ProductionHouse software to get the best possible color output for your printing system.

Calibrate for Consistency

Now that you have a handle on controlling the variables in your file and in your RIP, you also need to consider the variables in your environment. The monitors and printers you use everyday are just like any other machines that can wear down over time. Keeping your monitor calibrated lets you successfully soft-proof for major color shifts. Knowing that an RGB monitor is never going to match a CMYK printed page, why calibrate? Calibrating your monitor gives you confidence that your visual baseline and the final output should be similar to the screen. The real maintenance issue is that you need to recalibrate your printer on a regular basis. What does that mean? How often do I need to recalibrate? It really comes down to expectations and current performance.

Recalibration tends to solve about 70 percent of the customer color issues and only takes five to 10 minutes. Consider recalibration depending on how much production your machine handles, which could mean on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Another variable may include variations in media coating from different lots causing prints from a high quantity print run to be off color. Regardless, if you're producing reprints or color matching a single print, this process is critical to color management success because print-to-print and job-to-job consistency are the primary goals. The great thing about calibration is that if you can measure it, you can control it.

What is a Good Color Management Process?

It's different for everyone, but the fundamentals remain the same. Study up and learn which settings affect you in your environment. Implement those which you can maintain on a regular basis, and keep customers involved to reduce frustration. The achievement you'll gain by implementing good color management processes and workflows include:

  • Providing easy communication of color with customers
  • Improving overall color consistency
  • Making proofing simple and reliable
  • Enabling different devices, ink and media to reproduce similar colors
  • Reducing print providers' spoilage of wasted consumables

Satisfying the Print Buyer's Color Demands

In the current economic climate, there are many complex issues that can affect your business. If you put the right amount of effort into your color management workflow, you'll increase profitability and retain customers.