Color Management in a Nutshell

Let’s start on Color Management (wiki) with having a look a the general principles. We’ll see how to put them in practice (on Linux) in other posts. While Color Management principles are not that hard to understand, the technicalities of implementation certainly are! And we won’t get there since I don’t know too much about it.

Did you ever saw a nice picture on your screen and found a green-yellowish output from your printer? Then carry on reading 🙂

The idea behind Color Management (CM) is to define colors in a device-independent way, that is: what you have on your screen would look (as much as possible) the same on someone else’s screen or printed on your printer. Think about the problem this way: the “most green” color on your screen can be quite different from the “most green” color on your printer, so how do we cope?

Well, in order to cope, CM uses “ICC profiles” – for International Color Consortium who defined the standard. This word really covers 2 different things:

  1. a reference (or editing) profile – an “objective” way to describe color.
  2. a device profile – a description of how one device (camera, screen, printer) sees color.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a little drawing of a typical amateur photographer’s CM flow:


I hope all of this starts so make some sense…

First, when you take a picture, your camera sensor sees colors in its own way – so the color output of the sensor is being converted to a reference profile (all this is done in camera) which can be either AdobeRGB or sRGB (you should find the switch somewhere in the menus).

sRGB is a relatively small reference profile in the sense that it doesn’t define a wide choice of colors – the “most green” is not “very green”, if you see what I mean. By the way, this “area of color defined” is called “gamut”. So sRGB has a relatively small gamut which corresponds to the color nuances that the average computer screen can show. You want to use sRGB for things like web-publishing.

For more serious photography, however, the best choice is AdobeRGB which has a wider gamut, especially in the green. AdobeRGB’s “most green” is a lot “more green” than sRGB’s “most green” – still see what I mean?

From there, you have your image in a reference profile, an “objective way to describe color”. When you get back home and show your image on your computer screen, the Color Management System (CMS) translates on the fly the image’s colors to show them as close as possible to their AdobeRGB values on your monitor. Now remember that AdobeRGB has a wider gamut than what your monitor can show, so there are some compromises there. And these compromises are defined in the screen’s icc device profile.

Well, not quite. Just to make matters a little bit more complicated, the screen’s ICC device profile only describes the screen’s gamut. The CMS has then “policies” which describe how the conversion is done – and you have two main policies to cope with translating the wider AdobeRGB gamut to your screen’s gamut:

  1. perceptual – where basically you shrink every color of your image to make them fit into the smaller gamut. The advantage is that the color nuances are respected and the overall look of the image is as close as possible. The disadvantage is that you loose saturation – your image looks a bit flat because of the averaging.
  2. relative – where you bring back all the colors that are outside the gamut to the nearest color inside the gamut. The advantage is that you keep the saturation. The disadvantage is that you can start seeing unaesthetic flat zones (without detail) in the most saturated areas.

Compromise means just that: you have to loose somewhere.

However and that’s the beauty of CM, when you make (color) changes to your image, you make theses changes in the “objective” AdobeRGB profile that is rendered as closely as possible on your monitor. If you change your monitor (or graphic card), your image is still in AdobeRGB, so all you have to do is change the rendition on the monitor – get a new monitor ICC profile (we’ll see how to do that in another post). And if you see your image on another computer, it won’t be b0rked either. How nice is that?

And where all of this brings tears in my eyes (almost) is when it comes to printing: just like the monitor, the printer has an ICC profile that describes its gamut. So when you print your image, the AdobeRGB defined image is being translated into your printer’s gamut (as defined by its ICC profile and the policy – just a test to see if you are still following) for the printing. You have an image that is as close as possible to your AdobeRGB original whether on your monitor or when printed. Yes, it matches, no more yellowish-greenish output 😀

Obviously, we do this conversion on a copy of the image (or on the fly in the printer driver). Our real image (the one we archive) is the AdobeRGB one. One last word about printing: a printer’s gamut is very small compared to AdobeRGB. So compromises here will hurt a lot more than on the screen 😦 We will see details about monitor and printer calibration (the art of producing valid ICC profile) on Linux in other posts, but be warned.

Hey, just before closing and because today was all about colors, here is a beautiful parrot from the Parc des oiseaux in France. Enjoy.



16 Responses to Color Management in a Nutshell

  1. […] we already did the post-processing on the file and we used for that a color managed system, there isn’t a lot left to be done on the file itself. Basically two steps: sharpening and […]

  2. […] The next thing you can do is point gfx.color_management.display_profile to your monitor ICC profile (if you have one available). This way, Firefox will optimize its color rendition for your monitor. […]

  3. […] Color Management is about ensuring color consistency throughout all your work (graphic chain). What you see on your screen has to match what will come out of your printer and viewing your image on another monitor should not alter its colors. Obviously, Color Management is a crucial part of an OS that is used for photography. […]

  4. […] Color Management is about ensuring color consistency throughout all your work (graphic chain). What you see on your screen has to match what will come out of your printer and viewing your image on another monitor should not alter its colors. Obviously, Color Management is a crucial part of an OS that is used for photography. […]

  5. Georg Adams says:

    Hi Joel,

    when looking how to calibrate the monitor with the spyder, using Linux, where I am a novice in, I found your blog. It is really interesting and helpful, thank you! Now I will have to read, what I printed out. Analogue photography, which I still stick to merely, is much easier than digital! Your pictures are well composed!


  6. […] as well as your graphic application (for profiling – if the application supports it). Check this entry if you need to know more about color […]

  7. Endy Ardhie says:

    Great post, Thanks for share.. 😀

    Please visit my blog,

  8. I’m pretty new to BlogEngine and noticed that a number of your other readers have different avatars. Any idea as …

  9. dgreatblog says:

    thanks for being such a valuable resource
    avid – mesothelioma resource

  10. But wanna input that you have a very decent site, I enjoy the style it actually stands out.

  11. My partner and I stumbled over here different web page and thought
    I should check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to going over your web page repeatedly.

  12. This piece of writing will assist the internet viewers for
    building up new weblog or even a weblog from start to end.

  13. Great blog here! Also your site quite a bit up very fast!
    What web host are you using? Can I get your associate link
    on your host? I desire my web site loaded up as fast as yours lol

  14. Marvelous, what a weblog it is! This blog gives helpful information to us, keep it up.

  15. pokemon says:

    Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic however ,
    I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog post
    or vice-versa? My site goes over a lot of the same subjects
    as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other.

    If you are interested feel free to shoot me an email.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the

  16. Hi there, this weekend is pleasant in favor of me, for
    the reason that this time i am reading this fantastic informative paragraph
    here at my residence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: