Welcome to Lesson 3 — Color Management Basics

Fine art digital printing can be a complex and technical subject, and it makes both communicating and retaining the information difficult, to say the least. In my many years of teaching printing workshops, I have often found one of the main reasons photographers struggle with printing is that they lack a solid understanding of color management.

Understanding the basic concepts of color management will serve you well as you embark on this journey, and will also help you identify and solve problematic issues.

Color management is simply the process of making sure that the colors in your images remain accurate and consistent from capture all the way to print. There are several devices along this path—camera, monitor, printer, paper—and having a color-managed workflow means that these devices will communicate with each other in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the colors that are contained in an image.

Color management takes place on your computer and in the applications that you use for your photo editing and printing. When you practice proper color management, you will ensure a greater degree of consistency when making prints, which saves time and money, especially with regards to ink and paper. Consistency is the KEY that leads to predictable results.

We can divide color management into three basic areas:

  • Monitor Calibration
  • Color Spaces
  • ICC Profiles

Monitor Calibration

Regardless of which monitor you use, it must be calibrated properly.

Calibration accomplishes the following:

  • Removes any existing color cast which makes your images look too warm or cool. You want your whites and greys to be neutral.
  • Enables optimal dynamic range (blacks are deep but not muddy, contrast is optimal but neutral.)
  • Ensures optimal color accuracy so that what you see on screen is what is actually sent to the printer, creating confidence in your editing decisions.
  • If you're using two monitors or computers, calibration ensures that they will match up more precisely in terms of color, contrast, and luminosity.

Monitor calibration should be done every few months minimum because monitors deviate over time and will “lose” their calibration.

I use and recommend the Datacolor SpyderX, which will calibrate both standard and wide-gamut monitors. The software is excellent and guides you through the whole process.

Display Brightness and Dark Prints

Something to note is that modern LCDs are capable of brightness levels that are too bright for image-editing and print evaluation. I believe this is the reason why many complain of prints that are too dark and never match the brightness of their monitors.

Glossy-screen LCDs or LEDs also compound the issue since they are tailored for the optimal viewing of movies and computer games, not prints. For photo-editing and print evaluation, your monitor should be capable of operating within the 110 to 120 cd/m2 luminance range. You can get in this range using a calibration device like the Spyder5, which leads you through the process.


One final tip is that while you should calibrate your laptop, I would not use a laptop to make final edits on your work for printing. The color gamut and contrast range are limited compared to a standard monitor, and so you will have inconsistent results. If you want to use your laptop, or only have a laptop, you can always connect a standard or wide-gamut monitor to your laptop and have the best of both worlds.

Color Spaces

A color space defines how many colors are available to visually display your image on-screen or in print. I like to use the crayon box analogy since it's something we can all understand.

There are 3 primary color spaces in use today, and each can be equated to a different size crayon box that holds a set number of actual crayons (hence unique colors). This is what is known as a color gamut.

None of the current color spaces can represent all of the colors captured by current digital sensors, and different devices use different color spaces. Knowing when and how to convert colors is key to making sure your images always look their best.

  • ProPhoto RGB — the largest color space available and capable of representing most colors captured by your camera’s sensor. This should be your default color space in Photoshop, and is used in Lightroom by default.
  • Abobe98 — a smaller color space, but still quite large and used mostly for commercial printing and wide-gamut monitors.
  • sRGB — the smallest color space and used by most desktop monitors. This is also the default color space for web browsers.

If you’re using Lightroom. it uses the largest color space by default, and you only need to worry about converting to a smaller space when exporting for the internet. Otherwise. it’s handled under the hood for you.

Color Spaces in Practice

So how does this work in practice? First, make sure you are shooting in RAW—that's the only format that will capture all available colors faithfully. (NOTE: The color space setting in your camera is ONLY used when shooting jpeg mages, otherwise it does not affect RAW files.)

In Lightroom there is nothing to configure since all colors are preserved when images are imported in the RAW format. If you’re using another application, make sure its color settings are set to use ProPhotoRGB as a color space.

When exporting images for the web, make sure to choose sRGB as the destination color space. This will ensure the colors are compressed correctly, otherwise, you may get some unexpected results when you upload them to your favorite sharing sites.

ICC Profiles

An ICC profile, which is a special file that is used by your computer or application, interprets between the different devices so that they can understand each other.

An analogy I like to use is that every device speaks a different language, and the ICC profile interprets between the devices so that they can work together without any errors occurring. An error shows up as a print that doesn’t look as expected!

ICC Profiles in Practice

  • Lightroom comes pre-packaged with proper profiles for most if not all of the digital cameras on the market, so there’s not much at all to worry about here.
  • When you calibrate your monitor, the calibration software creates a custom profile for your monitor which is then used by the computer, ensuring accurate color on-screen.
  • When printing, you need a unique ICC profile for each paper type that you use. These are provided free of charge by reputable paper manufacturers, and once downloaded and installed, can be used in the Lightroom Print module. (I'll cover the Print Module in detail in a subsequent lesson.)


I know this was a rather long lesson, so I encourage you to read it again and make notes where applicable. I hope this makes color management simpler and easier to understand, and keeps your workflow free from potential problems.

Up next…fine art papers!