Color Update for the Home User

Color calibration has been a much discussed and "cussed" topic for many years now. Sometimes when I read articles on color calibration that are meant for the "general public interested in graphics", I cringe because many writers have a tendency to make the situation more complicated than it is. Now, I am not saying that in a service bureau environment or at a graphic arts company, for example, detailed measures should not be taken to control color. These type of companies need to match and control color exactly or clients might go elsewhere even though I have seen some awful color matching materials leave some companies and the clients not complain. What I am saying is that home users can control color relatively simply without resorting to creating profiles for printing or calibrating their system with expensive software or hardware. To the uninitiated who do not understand color and how it works, using some of the aforementioned equipment can lead to more problems and poorer color coordination than they had initially. A common mistake is for people to use more than one color management software program. This only confuses the system.

When I first wrote my articles on various aspects of color and color management, color calibration was much more of a problem to the home user than it is today. See my former two articles on color - Basic Color Concepts and Color Calibration. In this article I will discuss the current (2001) state of affairs.

I use Adobe Photoshop as my basic program. While I use others, I normally print from Adobe Photoshop versions 5.5 or 6. With version 6, I didn't have to make any color modifications at all. I did not use their gamma loader for I found it unnecessary. For the work that I do, I find that I do not need to embed profiles. I turn these aspects off and use a basic generic profile.

Recently, I installed a new monitor for a friend and also installed Adobe Elements (a product I recommend highly for novices and even experienced users who do not need or want to spend the money on Photoshop). My friend has a Pentium III with a built in a video card on the motherboard and Windows ME. The monitor we purchased was a 17 inch NEC. Once I attached it, the color was very good. I did not have to adjust it at all. In addition, she purchased an Epson perfection 1640SU scanner and had an HP ink jet printer already. I am describing these peripherals because they are not expensive additions and I had no idea how a scanned image would look both on the monitor and once printed. All I can say is I was pleasantly surprised. Now, one can use most products basically "right out of the box."

In my article, Basic Color Concepts, I described complementary colors. For a fuller understanding, refer to that article. The following movie will demonstrate how these colors work. When one works using CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, BlacK), the resultant colors are different than those same colors would be if created using RGB (Red, Green, Blue). I am not going to describe why. However I will give an example that I created in Photoshop. When a program converts a file from one space to another, this fact is taken into consideration during the software conversion.

To understand a little of the differences, when one creates a color using RGB, one can say the color is fully saturated when R=255, for example. When one creates a color using CMYK, one speaks in terms of percentages. Red is created when Yellow=100% and Magenta=100%. The average person should not need to know or understand this. However, it is useful to know that when an RGB color is fully saturated, the CMYK equivalent does not show 100% of both colors that are needed to create it. Also, the reds are slightly different.

Further if one looks at the illustration on the left, one can see that if red is created using RGB, the CMYK equivalent is not what one would expect. And if the color is created using CMYK, the same is true. Thus, color calibration is complicated. But, if one is not having to match colors on a daily basis for perspective clients, one can simplify color management and not get bogged down in the process.

I will give some simple examples of how to know if your monitor is showing color in a relatively true manner. I use the term, relatively, because even if one has identical systems, a monitor's color will vary slightly. We have two monitors of the same make that we purchased within a two month period. Neither of the colors are exactly the same. But, they were similar enough not to warrant problems and to the native eye both looked to be a neutral gray. Only when compared was the difference apparent.

However, the other day, I noticed that my husband's monitor suddenly had a reddish/magenta-ish cast to it. What happened could be attributed to the monitor color guns, color management software, video card, video card software, etc. At present, all I wanted to do was fix the problem. Since I could correct it over all through either the monitor color correction menu or the video color correction menu, I tried both. On this particular monitor, the monitor correction software was not particularly easy to control. The changes were too crude and I could not adjust them finely. So I looked to the video card color correction software. Below are outlined the steps I used for my particular video card.

The first step I took was to make my Window's desktop a neutral gray. This will help show me if my colors are skewed. To do this:

  1. Right click on the desk top
  2. Select properties
  3. Choose appearances from the menu
  4. Choose desktop from the left menu
  5. Choose one of the gray swatches on the right. Note that when the RGB values appear, they are not exactly a uniform neutral gray, being R=160, G=160, and B=164. You can leave those values or make all uniform.
  6. Keep the color Scheme empty or, if appropriate, select none. See the box circled in red.

Once your monitor's desktop is set to a (supposedly) neutral gray using the steps outlined above, then it is time to color correct it if there appears to be s problem. It is not always easy to know how to judge a neutral gray particularly since ambient or room lighting will affect the screen's color. But normally, the effect will not be a lot. The best way is to have an external neutral gray. This is not too hard to get. Some graphic programs and scanners come with calibration cards. These cards show various swatches as well as grayscale steps (black to white). A middle gray swatch is the one to be used as a point of reference for neutrality only. One is not trying to match it in terms of lightness or darkness. Also, an 18% gray card can be purchased at a Camera Store. Whatever you have that you know is a neutral gray, hold it near to the monitor in the same path as the ambient light. The color cannot be exact since monitor light and the light reflected from the card are different, but one only wants to make sure the tone of the gray on the monitor is neutral. One is not trying to get a match.

Normally, with modern monitors and video cards, the gray will look satisfactory. If it does not, there are still two easy avenues to pursue. Most new monitors and video cards come with the ability to change the color balance. Below is an example from a Diamond Viper 770 card. I accessed it through right clicking on the desktop to bring up a menu. Then clicking on properties/settings/advanced/color correction.

Often using any of the color correction screens take a lot of trial and error even if one is aware of what all the labels mean. But, normally one can restore to the hardware defaults. If there is not a restore button, write down any settings beforehand so they can be used as a point of reference.