Colour Management 1 – why do we need colour management in our photography?

Colour man­age­ment is one of those top­ics that can con­fuse you very quick­ly. Every pho­tog­ra­ph­er will even­tu­al­ly stum­ble across issues with mis­matched colours, and you will find that colour man­age­ment is some­thing you have to get good at. Unless you do only Black & White pho­tog­ra­phy, in this case you can skip this arti­cle. Nice meet­ing you, come back soon for the oth­er excit­ing top­ics I will cov­er on this website!

Hi fel­low colour enthu­si­asts! If you are read­ing this, you do at least some colour pho­tog­ra­phy, wel­come to a roller­coast­er ride!

What do I mean with colour management?

In ‘sim­ple’ terms, it is the art of cap­tur­ing a coloured sub­ject with a dig­i­tal cam­era and being able to repro­duce the same colour

  • on your mon­i­tor or in a pro­ject­ed imaged
  • in your favourite post-pro­cess­ing application
  • on a cho­sen paper with a spe­cif­ic ink and print­er combination
  • on your favourite com­put­er and oper­at­ing system
  • in a spe­cif­ic view­ing envi­ron­ment with a spe­cif­ic light­ing condition

TLDR; You want to reli­ably print (or dis­play on a screen) an image of a scene and the colour ren­di­tion should be con­sis­tent­ly true to the actu­al colour of the scene. That’s what I mean with colour management.

And as easy as it sounds, it is incred­i­bly hard to achieve out-of-the-box.

So many devices, so many colours are displayed incorrectly

The whole process has a lot of tran­si­tion points where the used device has a dif­fer­ent idea of how a colour should look like. Strange, isn’t it?

Camera, computer, and monitor

It starts with the cam­era. Dif­fer­ent brands repro­duce colours dif­fer­ent­ly, they have a cer­tain ‘style’. When you move the image to the com­put­er in a cer­tain file for­mat that can restrict the num­ber of colours includ­ed in the file. Your com­put­er then inter­prets the file and decides how to dis­play that on a screen or pro­jec­tor. Most screens are not capa­ble of dis­play­ing all colours that can be seen by the human eye. And the colours they can dis­play are nor­mal­ly not dis­played in the same way, they dif­fer also from brand to brand and depend­ing on how good the mon­i­tor is cal­i­brat­ed (that is a term we will use a lot lat­er on: cal­i­bra­tion!). Oth­er fac­tors might be how old the mon­i­tor is and what dis­play­ing tech­nol­o­gy it uses. The mon­i­tor also fools around with bright­ness, that mess­es things up a lot.


When it comes to print­ing, it gets even more com­pli­cat­ed and expo­nen­tial­ly increas­es the com­bi­na­tion of things that have to work togeth­er. The way you per­ceive colours from prints is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent – you see now reflect­ed light. The prints do not emit the light as a mon­i­tor does. We also have to deal again with dif­fer­ent brands, print­ing tech­nolo­gies, inks, papers, and light­ing con­di­tions when view­ing the print­ed result.

Are you still with me? Great, I see, you are ded­i­cat­ed to embark­ing on a jour­ney that will give you sat­is­fy­ing prints with less tries. Or just an image on the screen that looks the same (~ish) on all cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tors. It will not be per­fect, but a lot less frustrating. 

Why do we want a colour-managed workflow?

Do dive deep­er into that, we first need to get one thing out of the way: calibration.


And what does that even mean: calibration?

When we cal­i­brate things, we mea­sure some­thing and com­pare it to a giv­en stan­dard, and then we try to make the mea­sured thing behave as close to the stan­dard as we can.

When we cal­i­brate a mon­i­tor, we have a stan­dard, e.g. pure ‘Red’ should be emit­ted with a wave­length of 700nm. We can use devices (see below) that can mea­sure the out­put of a mon­i­tor when dis­play­ing a pure Red image. If it does­n’t dis­play it with 700nm, we can cor­rect the sys­tem so that is cor­rect­ly dis­plays Red. Or Green. You get the idea.

The ‘Sys­tem’ is the com­put­er with the oper­at­ing sys­tem (most­ly Win­dows, iOS, or Lin­ux) togeth­er with the attached screen/monitor. We can cre­ate cor­rec­tion instruc­tion for the sys­tem how it should dis­play colours on a spe­cif­ic out­put device – a spe­cif­ic mon­i­tor or pro­jec­tor. When you use a dis­play cal­i­bra­tion device (e.g. X‑Rite Colour­Mun­ki – that is now sold by Cal­ib­rite -> ‘ColourCheck­er Dis­play’) , or one of the ‘Spi­der’ prod­ucts of Dat­a­col­or ) it can cre­ate a cor­rec­tion instruc­tion file (for win­dows com­put­ers: an ICM file or ICC) for the spe­cif­ic com­bi­na­tion of com­put­er and monitor/projector. If you attach a dif­fer­ent mon­i­tor to the com­put­er, you will have to cal­i­brate that, too.

Some more expen­sive mon­i­tors have inbuilt hard­ware cal­i­bra­tion that can be exe­cut­ed from time to time as mon­i­tors age. They are gen­er­al­ly bet­ter than soft­ware cal­i­bra­tion. For the dif­fer­ences between soft­ware and hard­ware cal­i­bra­tion, you can read this good arti­cle from BenQ: Hard­ware vs. Soft­ware Cal­i­bra­tion | BenQ US

Why bother using a colour managed workflow?

Photography Competitions

In pho­to­graph­ic com­pe­ti­tions the judges nor­mal­ly have a cal­i­brat­ed screen (they should have). If you don’t use a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor, then the image on your screen will dif­fer poten­tial­ly a lot from what the judge sees when eval­u­at­ing your image. A cheap­er uncal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor in the con­sumer mar­ket dis­plays images a lot brighter and bluer than a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor. If you post-process images on a non-cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor and they look good to you, the judge will see them a lot dark­er and with more yel­low. In oth­er words: the judge eval­u­ates not the same rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the image you want­ed him/her to see. That can quick­ly lead to dis­ap­point­ing eval­u­a­tions and missed awards (if you are into that kind of thing). This is also a two-way street. If you have a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor, and the judge does not, then the same thing hap­pens – frus­tra­tion about the same image being dis­played dif­fer­ent­ly. We don’t want that.

I’m still sur­prised how many mem­bers in the pho­to club I know do not use a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor. The equip­ment to cal­i­brate your mon­i­tor is not over­ly expen­sive, and the process to do the cal­i­bra­tion is also quite easy and quick. Well, if you don’t cal­i­brate your mon­i­tor, you are just set­ting your­self up for ran­dom results. As soon as your post-processed file leaves your com­put­er for print­ing or to be dis­played on anoth­er com­put­er and screen, you are at the mer­cy of equip­ment you don’t con­trol. If you are ok with that ran­dom­ness, then I guess you can stop read­ing here as well.

Commercial Photography

In com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy it is para­mount that you work with a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor. The rea­sons are the same as above: oth­er peo­ple will only see the same image with the same colours you intend them to see if both par­ties have a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor. That can be the dif­fer­ence between a sat­is­fied cus­tomer or unpaid bills. With com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy. e.g. prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy, it is also very impor­tant that the prod­uct is ren­dered with cor­rect colours.
You also have to be very care­ful with the light colour tem­per­a­ture of the light­ing equip­ment (how warm/red or cold/blue the light is), or you need to colour cor­rect the images after­wards if you don’t have enough con­trol over the light­ing. That is anoth­er top­ic we will dive into: how to cor­rect a colour cast in the image if the light­ing was not neu­tral (day­light – about 6500Kelvin). That is dif­fer­ent from cal­i­bra­tion, but you need that also to dis­play cor­rect colours in a way. We will come to that in a lat­er article.

Show off to Friends & Family

Even when you ‘only’ put your images on your social media account or show them to your fam­i­ly and friends, as soon as your processed file leaves your com­put­er, you lose con­trol. You have the best chance that peo­ple look at the same colour ren­di­tion if you use a cal­i­brat­ed mon­i­tor. You want peo­ple to look at the same dark blue sky you expe­ri­enced in the twi­light, right?

Your audi­ence deserves to see the same colours as you see on your screen. As much as pos­si­ble. I know, it is not easy, but we will dis­cov­er togeth­er what we can do to get it as cor­rect as we can and want.


I will cov­er each sub-top­ic in a sep­a­rate arti­cle, and I will update the link list below as I com­plete the series. 

Have fun cre­at­ing colour-cor­rect­ed images that dis­play well on your cal­i­brat­ed screen and impress with true-to-live colours on your prints!

  • [place­hold­er for link to part 2 of the series]

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