Top 6 Tools for Color Accuracy

In the photography industry, a properly color-managed system is a must-have. A retoucher needs the ability to place the physical product next to the digital image on the monitor or the hard-copy printed image and have matching colors. If they determine the colors aren’t quite right, they need the ability to confidently make edits on their computer without any second-guessing that it won’t turn out right.  

Matching colors is a tricky process. There are a host of factors that can affect whether the proof matches the product, like imaging, metamerism mismatching and lighting. It’s incredibly important to have an assortment of tools at a retoucher’s disposal that helps ensure color accuracy across all devices. Let’s take a look at some of these tools and how they can work together effectively.

1. The viewing booth. The viewing booth acts as the retoucher’s map. It creates an ISO standard-compliant environment to view proofs and products. Its gray walls, color quality, light intensity, evenness and geometry ensure stability so the retoucher can make sound judgements on color.

2. The monitor. A decent, properly calibrated and profiled monitor is essential to color management. Our NEC MultiSync PA-series screens do a fantastic job displaying gradients smoothly, displaying a wide color gamut, and displaying colors consistently across the screen. Make sure to profile your screens periodically to counter any float in color or brightness over time, although these NEC screens have been very low-maintenance. 

For monitor profiling and calibration, check out the X-Rite i1Pro 2. It’s the newest spectrophotometer from X-Rite, and this awesome device “deliver(s) the most comprehensive, versatile and accurate color measurement, calibration and profiling solutions available.” Spectrophotometers are instruments that measure the wavelengths of light, both emitted from a monitor or reflected off an object like a proof or a product.

There are other fantastic and more affordable monitor profiling solutions out there. One of my favorites is the Monaco Optix XR, a colorimeter (sometimes referred to by its model name, DTP-94). No longer being manufactured in its original form, it’s well known for its accuracy and repeatability, though it was never meant to be used for today’s high gamut displays. It has been reborn, however, and is being repackaged and tweaked for specific vendors, so it is possible to get one for your NEC, Eizo, LaCie and others.

3. The printer. Here at TRG Reality, we use an Epson 7800 with eight inks for our proofs. We pair our Epson 7800 with sophisticated printing software (called a raster image processor, or RIP,) for the utmost color accuracy. We often recalibrate our printing system to help minimize color changes caused by different ink or paper batches. Though the gamut has a larger color rendering ability than an actual SWOP press, we limit the color output to standards to ensure a good match between our proofs and what’s possible on the average press.

4. Pantone matching. So far I’ve discussed a number of tools and techniques to maintain color accuracy, but haven’t talked about actually getting the colors into your system. One reliable way is with Pantone color swatches. You can match a Pantone swatch to anything you’re trying to match and then import the specific color right into Photoshop. It’s important to pay attention to the process (or CMYK) version of whichever color you choose, because not all solid Pantone colors can be reproduced in CMYK. 

5. Spectrophotometer color readings. I already mentioned the spectrophotometer we use for monitor/printer profiling. We often use this same device to determine an object’s color directly. This is a great tool that takes the guesswork out of trying to eyeball a product’s color and match it to a Pantone swatch. It’s also faster and more efficient. Be careful, though - the spectrophotometer works beautifully on flat objects, but sometimes requires several readings for objects with uneven textures.  

6. Print simulation. Once you have a consistent color-managed environment, you can simulate printing processes like GRACoL, SWOP, newsprint, or specific environments if a printer has its own custom profile. You can figure out the brightness and white point of different paper stocks, see exactly how the ink will appear on a specific type of paper and have a really accurate idea of how your image will look once it hits the presses. 

Despite all of the fancy equipment and technology out there, color accuracy ultimately boils down to human perception. Keep this in mind when getting your color management system together. Color relationships, emotion, lighting and other intangibles are an important part of the equation, so have several human viewers around to help you evaluate color accuracy.  

What are some of your favorite color management tools? Do you prefer Pantone swatches or using a spectrophotometer? Let us know below! We’d love to hear your thoughts.