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Guide to the Perfect Color Workflow – Part 1: Dial in Your Display

AskBC Podcast, Color Management, Printmaking

This three part step-by-step series shows you how to set up your color workflow to get the best results quickly.

Good color management is simple to implement, with a little attention to detail.

This three part step-by-step series shows you how to set up your color workflow to get the best results quickly.

After each fundamental step, extra tips will show you how to refine your color workflow even further.

Part 1—Build the best color foundation

Great color prints are built on all the good work done long before we hit the print button, so we’ll jump in at the beginning to lay a great foundation.

These 3 articles are incredibly thorough. We have been getting many requests to put together the 3 parts of the series into an e-book that folks can print.

1. Start with a good display

Displays vary by size and quality. We need to find the best match of quality, size and price that the budget allows.

While it’s tempting to purchase a display on a weekend special at the local stationery or big box store, it’s fair to say those displays lead with their prices first, and quality is an unknown.

A general rule of thumb is that a good display should cost at least as much as one of the good lenses on our cameras—after all, we’ll be looking at the display much longer each time we use it than we’ll look through any lens.

Don’t our eyes deserve a good display?

The primary consideration for a good display is that it displays enough range of color (called its color gamut) that we can successfully edit our work for print and web, and it must display this color gamut evenly and consistently, from top to bottom and side to side of the display.

The larger the display, the more difficult it is to achieve this quality across the whole display; thus larger displays cost more for the same quality. Buy for quality first, and the budget allows a 30 inch display, great! If not, a 27 or 24 inch display with great color meets most needs better than a bigger display of lesser quality.

Glossy displays show large amounts of reflections, and make colors look more saturated than they truly are. I always choose a display with a matte finish, and recommend you do the same.

If I didn’t use a non-glossy display, I’d always have to work in a very dark room, because my bald head is a great reflector of light into the screen!

At a minimum, the display should show all the colors in the sRGB color gamut, which is the default standard for both Mac and Windows. The sRGB gamut clips out some colors that can be captured by modern cameras, as well as printed, as shown in the overlay graphic here.

An even better choice for a display is one that offers as close to 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut as possible. It’s always desirable to be able to preview on screen every color that can be printed; choosing a high quality display is the first step to previewing final color.

Over time, many people find they save more than the the cost of the display in the time and money saved by not having to make multiple test prints to get a final image.

Display manufacturers offer their products at different price points and color quality, and usually specify color gamuts only for their higher end models. If a particular model doesn’t list any specifications about its color gamut, it’s best to find another choice which does.

Pro Tip:Ignore the brightness specifications and competing claims that one display is brighter than another. These displays should never be used at full brightness in a properly managed color workflow, so it’s a meaningless number. Using the display at a too-high brightness setting distorts the color and promises detail in the shadows of images that will not be realized in print, and is to be energetically avoided!

I’ve personally tested and am happy to recommend: the Cintiq 23HD Touch from Wacom, the MultiSync PA Series displays from NEC, and the CG and CX series Eizo displays. Each offers serious color management options, including options for customized software to manage the display’s color. Some models can be purchased with a display calibration device and software.

The Eizo and NEC models rotate to allow fullscreen vertical previews.

The Wacom Cintiq lets you retouch directly on the screen with its stylus.

Both features add further efficiency to your work on displays with great color. Each of these displays offers a color gamut very close to or equaling Adobe RGB, and can show a faithful preview of almost every color that can be printed on most standard printers, when your color is set up correctly to view, edit, and print.

Pro Tip:Plan to test the display visually and with an instrument when you buy it, so you can return an under-performing display right away. I start with a neutral gray PDF, which fills the whole screen.

I take it to the store on a thumb drive and test it in the store when I can. To do this, it helps to buy from someone you know, such as your local independent Apple retailer or other high end dealer. If you can’t test before you buy, be sure you can return it if your tests show it’s uneven.

2. Place your display in an area that doesn’t make color worse.

The best display in the worst location equals a bad display. Changing light, too much light, the wrong color of light, each of these can distort our color perception so that we can’t trust the display. Let’s be fair to the display, though, we can’t blame the display if we set it up in the wrong light.

How can the wrong light make color worse?

2a. Changing light
Putting a display by a window means that as the color of light changes all day long, we’ll see color differently. Early morning light is more blue, mid day sunshine is neutral, gray or cloudy days are blue, light around sunset is much warmer—all these affect how our eyes see color.

The eye retains color information from what it sees for a period after seeing it, so as we look at our displays after looking out the window, whatever color the light was that we saw outside, it’s now affecting our current viewing.

2b. Too much light
It’s no accident that professional prepress and editing shops have only as much light in their editing areas as is necessary to keep from breaking a leg while moving around a room. They can’t afford the mistakes that too much light causes.

In addition to causing false color reading, too much light in the room requires constant squinting (causing eyestrain). Too much light can cause glare on the screen, or, worst of all, require the screen’s brightness to be pushed up to avoid being washed out, thus distorting color and shadow values.

2c. Wrong artificial light
Light bouncing around the room has a color as it’s emitted from the light fixtures, and it changes color as it bounces of off colored objects and onto our displays. So, the best light in a room is as little as possible. However, if you must have light on while editing, it should be generated by bulbs matching daylight, not the standard fluorescent or tungsten bulbs most common in our homes and offices.

The best work area for color is one that doesn’t have windows, or at least, has a drape or blackout blind which can be pulled over the windows to block the light. When light is needed, this room has light fixtures with neutral bulbs in them. These neutral bulbs are available at a variety of price points and quality, from hardware stores up to color management companies.

For the best bulbs, go for professional quality products:

If your budget doesn’t allow for this level of quality, consider going to your hardware store and asking for daylight bulbs. These come in both tube and standard table lamp models, and I’ve used several of them successfully in work areas where lighting was only done with table lamps, not overhead fluorescent bulbs. An inexpensive draftsman-style lamp with a daylight bulb in it makes a positive difference in evaluating print color and minimizing color distortion in the work area.

3. Protect your display from stray light

Light striking the display distorts the color we see. Serious editing requires that this light distortion be brought under control. Start with a hood for your display, if one is available. Sometimes displays come with hoods, sometimes they are an extra–cost option.

Pro Tip:Make your own Color Control Box (Cube) to protect your display’s color. Many modest display hoods are so wimpy they provide little value. The box is the best answer.The box will be a cube, with 2 sides missing (the bottom and the one in front of the display).

4. Clear all color distractions from your field of view.

Because our eyes retain color after we see it, as noted previously, brightly-colored items in our work area field of view can skew our color perception as much or more than daylight coming through windows.

So, be sure that brightly colored Post-It Notes, photographs, and any other colored objects are moved out of view when working at the display. Also, set the computer desktop to neutral gray (see below), and change the color of the walls behind the display to neutral gray if they’re not.

Change Desktop Color on a Mac

  1. Go to System Preferences
  2. Select Desktop and Screensaver
  3. Select Desktop if not already selected.
  4. In the left column, select Apple, and find the solid color desktop named “Solid Gray Medium”.

Changing your desktop on Windows 8

  1. Right-click on the desktop and choose Personalize.
  2. Select Desktop Background from the windows at bottom left.
  3. Browse through the drop-down list to find the neutral gray choice.
  4. Select it, and Windows will immediately switch your desktop to neutral gray.
  5. Click Save!

Pro Tip:Changing your desktop photo from your spouse/family/dog/cat to neutral gray doesn’t mean you love them less, it just means you want to be more efficient at work so you can spend more time with them!

Once your desktop color is no longer a distraction, it’s time to look at the area around the display and get its color under control. If you can, paint it black, or a neutral gray. If you can’t paint, use black matte boards to darken counters. Use more matte boards to hide padded cubicle fabrics.

Pro Tip: Paint your walls a neutral gray. Munsell Gray 8 is a paint made for precisely this purpose; to paint the walls as neutral a color as possible. You can find ithere(and other places)

If you’d rather buy locally, most good paint counters at hardware stores can formulate a neutral gray paint. Tell them what you’re doing, and you need to match as close to Munsell Gray 8 as possible, and they should be able to come very close.

Summing Up

Don’t put the display by a window
Turn off as much light as possible
Change any remaining light bulbs to be as near daylight as possible
Put a cube around your display to shelter it from uncontrolled light

5. Calibrate and profile each display

Color management lives or dies by consistency. We want to ensure that the display delivers the same color this week as it did last week, and will deliver next week. Getting the work area ready for great color removes the external inconsistencies which could affect the display’s color. Next, it’s time to make the display’s internal behavior as consistent as the light and color around the display.

A display’s color behavior changes over time, so we use tools to establish a baseline, and then make sure the displays are always returned to that baseline for consistent behavior. These tools consist of a hardware measuring device and software to run the device.

They’re incredibly affordable; it used to cost thousands of dollars to achieve the same results we now achieve (and better!) with a device costing as little as $79.

Follow three easy steps with these devices to ensure great display color:

a. Warm up the display for at least 15 minutes to be sure it’s stable (30 is better).

b. Launch the calibration & profiling software, and set display color preferences. Try the defaults first, unless you know you have special requirements. If you’re going to calibrate and profile more than one display, be sure to write down the settings you use so you can set the same on each display.

c. Put the device on the display when prompted by the software, and tell it to measure; this takes a couple minutes, but you’re free to do something else while it’s measuring.

What did we just do?

It was a two-part process.

Calibration is the part of the process where we return the behavior of the display to a known consistent state. We want it to be the same brightness each time, for example, because we know that changing the brightness changes the perceived color. So, we measure the brightness and adjust as necessary.

Once calibrated, the color of the display is measured to create a color profile, which is a snapshot of a device’s color behavior at that moment. If any condition or behavior changes, the snapshot is no longer valid (there’s that consistency thing again). The profile is built on the foundation of the calibration, so as long as we keep recalibrating, the profile will continue be valid. Photoshop, Lightroom and other applications assume we’ve already done this, and work accordingly, whether or not we’ve actually done so, so it’s important to calibrate and profile regularly.

Some higher–end displays have software and hardware so well integrated with the measuring device that when the display is calibrated and profiled, brightness and other settings are adjusted automatically in the hardware. Otherwise, it takes a couple of manual adjustments to get exactly the right brightness dialed in.

Pro Tip: When working in different media, such as preparing images for print, then editing video, displays need different settings. When shopping for a professional caliber display, look for a display that offers presets for different kinds of work. This way, you can change from one preset to another on the fly, without having to recalibrate each time you switch from one editing environment to another.

6. Set your applications correctly for best color.

Change Photoshop defaults.

When first installed, Photoshop defaults to color settings which can limit the color in some images, limiting good printing. To change this, do the following steps:

  1. Open Photoshop.
  2. Under the Edit Menu, scroll to Color Settings.
  3. Click on the Settings pull-down menu, and scroll to “North American Prepress 2.”
  4. Close the window.
  5. If you’re using multiple applications from the Adobe Creative Suite, find Adobe Bridge in your applications, and launch it. Under the Edit Menu, scroll to Color Settings. Find the same setting there, and select it. Now, all the Adobe apps will handle color the same way.

Once Photoshop’s color settings are changed to North American Prepress 2, you’ll notice some changes in how Photoshop behaves as images are opened. As an image is opened, any image that’s tagged with a color space other than Adobe RGB will cause Photoshop to show a dialog, like this:

Photoshop will show you the profile mismatch dialog box. ALWAYS USE THE EMBEDDED PROFILE.

Always use the embedded profile; you can change it later, but you don’t want to effect a change in this dialog, where you can’t see before and after appearances of the changed image.

If your image has no color profile at all, a different dialog will appear:

This is an important part of color management as Photoshop uses assigned profiles to know how to handle color in the image.

Photoshop uses assigned profiles to know how to handle color in each image, so these two dialogs, though sometimes annoying, are very important. Next, click on the small flyout window at the bottom left of the Photoshop window, as shown below, and set it to Document Profile.

Now, every image will display its color profile in this tiny area at the bottom of your Photoshop screen, so you can always be sure of the color space in which you’re working.

Pro Tip:Adobe Photoshop Lightroom does not work the same way with color; when working with RAW files, it strongly recommends that you work in ProPhoto color space, which is as big as Texas. You can export to specific color destinations to match your specific workflow needs. When working with other formats, such as JPEG, Lightroom honors the profile embedded in each image, and asks you for direction in the absence of an embedded profile.

Adobe Lightroom manages color a bit differently than Photoshop.


This concludes part 1 of Breathing Color’s guide to the perfect color workflow. Part 2 will show how to set up the perfect print workflow, and print great color. Part 3 will show how to capture the best and most color with your digital camera or scanner, so you have as much color as you can possible get to print.

Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.

 Have a Printmaking Question For Kevin?

We are going to feature Kevin on an upcoming episode of the podcast and would love to have him answer your color profiling questions.

If you have a question for Kevin just click the button below and leave a question.


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