The Science of Colour Accuracy | Print Mastery

Mastering the Transition of Colour from Digital Brilliance to Printed Excellence

Embarking on the journey from digital screen to tangible print reveals a realm where colour isn't merely visual, but a narrative medium. In industries like photography, design, and printing, maintaining colour accuracy and consistency across diverse mediums is paramount.

This guide delves into the nuanced processes of profiling and calibration, the critical role of high-fidelity monitors, the choice of colour spaces, and the technology behind printing, all aimed at preserving the vibrancy and authenticity of the original artwork. From the technical rigour of rendering intents to the artistry of black and white printing, discover the meticulous endeavour of colour management that ensures a harmonious colour transition, rendering each print a faithful echo of its digital progenitor.

Words Jake Hopking
25 Sep 2023
A detailed close-up image of the ornate patterns and paintwork on the Gojunoto, Five Storied Pagoda — Kyoto, Japan

Introduction to Colour and Colour Management

Colour, embodying hues, saturation, and brightness, transcends being a mere visual stimulus; it's an instrumental conduit in the realm of visual communication and expression. Its influence pervades moods, responses, and interpretations, making the accuracy and consistency of colour across diverse mediums paramount. This significance is especially pronounced in industries like photography, design, and printing, where colour serves not just as a medium but as a narrative, conveying emotions, details, and branding. The voyage from a digital screen to a tangible print represents a meticulous endeavour to preserve the integrity and vibrancy encapsulated in the original digital artwork.

an inherent caveat looms; the screen and print exhibit an intrinsic discord due to their differing nature

Embarking on this voyage, the processes of profiling and calibration emerge as the foundations of colour management. Though differentiated by the device in focus—profiling for printers and calibration for screens, both processes converge on a shared objective: to harmonise the colour experience from screen viewing to print output. Profiling ensures printers' colour outputs resonate with the established standards, while calibration fine-tunes screen displays to reflect colours with authenticity. The essence of colour management is encapsulated in its quest to ensure that the transition from digital realm to physical print retains the original's colour fidelity, akin to a musician ensuring the notes on a score translate accurately in a live performance.

However, an inherent caveat looms; the screen and print exhibit an intrinsic discord due to their differing nature—screens project light, while prints reflect it. This subtle yet significant discrepancy accentuates the indispensability of calibration and profiling in bridging the perceptual gap between digital and printed colours.

Perception of Colour

The perception of colour begins with the sensory receptors in the eye called cones, which respond to different wavelengths of light, sending signals to the brain that are interpreted as colour. However, colour perception can vary from person to person and can be influenced by various factors such as lighting conditions, surrounding colours, and individual differences in eye physiology. Understanding these variations and the science of colour perception is the foundation of colour management, which aims to achieve a consistent colour experience across digital and printed mediums.

Did you know? The black/blue dress phenomenon is a remarkable instance of colour perception variances among individuals. In 2015, a picture of a dress went viral as viewers disagreed on whether it was black and blue or white and gold. This captivating event accentuated the notion that perception of colour can be subjective and may vary widely among individuals, underlining the importance of accurate colour management in digital and print realms. The actual colour of the dress is black/blue (as can be seen below, with the modal wearing the dress in question).

The dress was a 2015 online viral phenomenon centred on a photograph of a dress. Viewers disagreed on whether the dress was blue and black, or white and gold. The phenomenon revealed differences in human colour perception and became the subject of scientific investigations into neuroscience and vision science.

Colour in Digital Media

Digital Colour Representation

In digital media, colours are represented using a combination of primary colours — red, green, and blue (RGB). Each colour is defined by a set of numerical values, typically ranging from 0 to 255, which indicate the intensity of each primary colour. This RGB model allows for the representation of a wide array of colours through the combination of these primary intensities.

Colour Spaces

Colour spaces define a specific range of colours that can be represented. Common colour spaces include sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB.

  • sRGB: This is the most commonly used colour space, especially for web and consumer-level cameras and printers. It's considered a standard for displaying images and videos on digital devices.

  • Adobe RGB: A broader colour space compared to sRGB, allowing for the representation of more saturated colours. It's often used in professional photography and printing.

  • ProPhoto RGB: This colour space has the largest gamut, encompassing a range of colours that exceeds what current display and printing technologies can reproduce. It's used in high-end photography and printing workflows for preserving as much colour information as possible.

Each of these colour spaces has its own set of advantages and is chosen based on the requirements of the project and the capabilities of the hardware being used.

Colour Models in Printing

CMYK Colour Model

The CMYK colour model, an acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black), is a linchpin in the printing industry, representing colour through a combination of these four inks. Unlike digital screens, which create colour by emitting light (RGB model), printers generate colour by subtracting light from white paper using these inks. Each ink absorbs certain wavelengths of light, with the remaining light reflecting back to our eyes as the perceived colour. The interplay among these primary colours can yield a vast array of hues, with the addition of black ink enhancing the depth and contrast, necessary for achieving true blacks and a finer gradation of tones.

Giclée Printing: A Leap Beyond CMYK 

Transitioning from this conventional model, Giclée printing stands out as a more advanced alternative, particularly appealing to artists and photographers aiming for superior colour accuracy and detail in their prints. Giclée printing goes beyond the basic four-colour palette of CMYK, employing a broader spectrum of colours. This expanded palette facilitates a more precise colour reproduction, capturing the nuances and subtleties inherent in the original artwork. Moreover, the high-resolution printing capability of Giclée technology, coupled with its ability to render fine-art quality prints, has made it a highly regarded choice for art reproductions. The precision and quality of Giclée prints not only honour the original artwork but also extend the possibilities of what can be achieved in the printed form, thus becoming a coveted choice for those seeking to transcend the conventional boundaries of colour reproduction in print.

Black and White: The Art of Tonal Precision

While colour management might seem a realm solely for the colourful, black and white photography steps in to challenge that notion with a demanding precision of its own. Stripped of colour, black and white imagery delves into a play of highlight, shadow, and tone, often carving out evocative narratives that resonate on a different frequency. But this lack of colour doesn't negate the necessity for colour management; rather, it refines it to a focus on the greyscale.

Jake Hopking asserts, “Colour management morphs into a nuanced play of tones in black and white work. Every colour translates into a specific tone in greyscale, and understanding this translation is pivotal to the black and white printing process.” The calibration of your monitor becomes a critical step in this journey, ensuring what you see on screen accurately represents the tonal range you aim to capture in print. A monitor set with high brightness, for instance, could conjure nonexistent shadows, a scenario more pronounced and disruptive in black and white photography due to its reliance on shadows for depth and dimension.

Calibration for black and white printing isn’t just a digital affair; it extends into the physical realm where ambient light plays a significant role. The light surrounding you as you work can alter your perception of the greyscale on your monitor, thus affecting the final print. A dimly lit room will necessitate a different calibration compared to a brightly lit one. Consistent lighting in your workspace or a recalibration to adjust to new lighting conditions is advisable to maintain tonal accuracy. When it's about bringing out the natural gradation and neutral tones in black and white prints, investing in an inkjet printer with multiple grey inks becomes a worthy consideration. Such a printer enhances the fluidity of tonal transitions, rendering a more authentic and engaging black and white print.

Canon PRO-4100: A Tool for Accurate Colour Reproduction

The Canon PRO-4100 printer, utilised in our printing process alongside LUCIA PRO pigment-based inks, is a practical choice for addressing common colour reproduction challenges. This combination extends the colour gamut and enhances detail in darker areas of prints, aiding in a more accurate representation of the original digital artwork. The PRO-4100 is known for its precise printing capabilities, and when paired with the wide colour range of LUCIA PRO inks, the result is a print that closely mirrors the original digital image in colour and detail. This selection of printer and ink reflects a methodical approach to maintain colour consistency, quality, and longevity from digital display to printed output. 

For those looking to delve deeper into the rationale behind this printer recommendation, exploring our guides on Dye vs. Pigment inks and The Art of Giclée Printing is advisable (you’ll find the links at the end of this article). These guides illuminate some of the technological benefits of employing Canon's professional range of inkjet printers, particularly when aiming for superior colour accuracy and print longevity.

Colour Management

Colour management is indispensable in bridging the gap between digital and printed media. Its primary goal is to provide consistent colour representation across various devices, ensuring that the final print accurately reflects the colours on the digital screen.

Calibration and Profiling 

Calibration and profiling are the two pillars of colour management. Calibration fine-tunes devices to a known state, while profiling characterises how a device reproduces colours. Together, they help in maintaining colour consistency from the screen to the print, making the colour reproduction process predictable and controlled.

ICC Profiles 

A pivotal development in the realm of colour management came with the advent of ICC Profiles. In 1993, eight major companies, including industry stalwarts like Epson and Adobe, convened to foster a more unified and predictable colour management system. This collaboration birthed the International Colour Consortium (ICC), which subsequently established a set of colours with predetermined colour values. In the RGB model, each colour is manifested through a specific amalgam of red, green, and blue values, courtesy of these predetermined standards. This innovation was seminal in transitioning colour management from being device-dependent to a more reliable device-independent paradigm, using these established values. ICC Profiles are the linchpins that ensure the colours witnessed on the monitor are a closer approximation to the hues that materialise in the print. The key objectives of colour management, facilitated by ICC Profiles, encapsulate maintaining consistent colours across diverse devices, averting colour cast—a tint of a particular colour, usually unintended, that uniformly affects a photographic image.

Colour Accuracy and Consistency 

In the realm of photography and prints, colour isn't just a visual element; it's the soul of the image.

Translating that vibrancy from a digital display to a physical print can be a tricky business. However, with expertise and dedication, embracing standards like the D50 5000K 100 cd/m2 processing workflow based on ISO 3664:2000 ensures colours in prints come alive with authenticity and clarity. This meticulous process involves both soft proofing (digital simulations) and hard proofing (actual print tests) within this designated colour space, aiming for a faithful reflection of the digital artwork in our prints.

Tools and Techniques 

Diligent calibration of monitors, printers, and creating a controlled ambient light environment orchestrates a harmonious translation of colours and tones, ensuring a seamless transition from digital brilliance to printed excellence.

Recommended Calibrators

In the pursuit of precision and consistency in colour representation, employing reputable calibration devices is imperative. These instruments are designed to meticulously calibrate monitors and printers, ensuring that the colours displayed on-screen are accurately reproduced in print. Here are some industry-standard calibration devices renowned for their precision, reliability, and ease of use:

  1. X-Rite i1Display Pro: The X-Rite i1Display Pro is a distinguished calibrator known for its comprehensive colour accuracy and customizability. Tailored for discerning photographers and designers, it facilitates advanced profiling and supports all modern display technologies, making it a versatile choice.

  2. Datacolor SpyderX Pro: Datacolor’s SpyderX Pro is revered for its speed and precision in colour calibration. With an intuitive interface and a robust suite of features, it's apt for both professionals and serious hobbyists looking to ensure colour accuracy across their devices.

  3. X-Rite ColorMunki Display: For those seeking a balance between performance and affordability, the X-Rite ColorMunki Display stands out. It offers straightforward calibration for displays and projectors, making it a suitable choice for photographers and designers with varied needs. Note: It's a discontinued product, but can still be found on eBay for a fair price.

  4. Datacolor SpyderX Elite: The SpyderX Elite is a step up within Datacolor’s SpyderX series, catering to professional photographers and videographers. It boasts advanced calibration features and supports multiple monitor setups, ensuring consistent colour representation across all displays.

  5. X-Rite i1Studio: The X-Rite i1Studio is a comprehensive calibration solution for those involved in both photography and printing. It provides precise calibration not just for monitors, but also for printers and projectors, making it a holistic colour management tool.

Each of these calibrators comes with its unique set of features and capabilities. Selecting the right calibrator would essentially boil down to individual needs, the devices to be calibrated, and the level of precision desired in colour representation.

A detailed close-up image of the ornate patterns and paintwork on the Gojunoto, Five Storied Pagoda — Kyoto, Japan

Translating the deep rich oranges of this pagoda in Kyoto into print is complex, yet deeply rewarding when displayed on your wall.

The Vitality of High-Fidelity Monitors

In the world of image editing, the transition from a digital canvas to a printed masterpiece hinges significantly on the monitor you employ. Before the first stroke of editing grace touches your images, a critical decision beckons: the choice of the screen or monitor. The ideal monitor isn't merely a window to your digital domain, but a mirror reflecting the hues and shades with a fidelity that resonates with reality. Regular calibration of your monitor is akin to tuning a musical instrument, a chore that orchestrates the colours on screen to sing in harmony with the colours that eventually grace the print, thereby averting the loop of endless edits and reprints.

The monitor you choose is more than just a tool; it's a companion in your creative odyssey. Its ability to faithfully reproduce colours, shadows, and tones is a cornerstone in bridging the digital and physical realms of your artwork. Among the desired attributes in a monitor are Colour Accuracy, a metric that measures how well a monitor can reproduce colours, shadows, and tones. Panel Technology, with a notable bias towards IPS (In-Plane Switching Panels) monitors for their proven accuracy in colour reproduction and impressive depth and contrast without distorting the image. A mention must be made here about the insufficiency of sRGB colour space for the nuanced needs of professional image editing and printing. Hence, a monitor covering industry-standard colour spectrums – both sRGB and Adobe RGB, with at least 100% and 95% coverage respectively, is advocated. This breadth in colour space ensures your images revel in the full spectrum of colours your printer is endowed to reproduce.

Delving a layer deeper, the realm of colour depth awaits exploration. A 10-bit monitor, capable of displaying over a billion colours, significantly outshines the 8-bit+2 FRC (Frame Rate Control) monitors, which simulate the colour depth but fall short in actual colour reproduction. The 10-bit monitors provide a granular control over colour adjustments, a feature indispensable for attaining a meticulous colour match from screen to print.

In the quest for monitors encapsulating these features, it's crucial to consider a range that meets the demands of precise colour accuracy, a broad colour spectrum coverage, and a high colour bit depth. For the discerning visual artist or photographer, the investment in a high-fidelity monitor is an investment in the authenticity and quality of the final printed artwork. The transition from the digital realm to the tangible print realm is nuanced, with every shade and hue playing a critical role in the narrative the artwork tells. Thus, a monitor that can faithfully traverse this transition, mirroring the digital vibrancy in the printed reality, is not just a tool, but a vital companion in the creative journey.

Recommended Displays
  • EIZO ColorEdge CG279X: A high-end display designed for professionals who require precise colour accuracy and high resolution for their work. With a wide colour gamut covering 99% of Adobe RGB, this monitor is suitable for photography, design, and printing tasks. It comes with built-in calibration sensors to maintain colour accuracy over time.

  • EIZO ColorEdge CG319X: This model steps it up a notch with a 4K resolution and a wide colour gamut, covering 99% of Adobe RGB, making it an excellent choice for high-end photography, videography, and printing tasks. Like its sibling, it features a built-in calibration sensor ensuring the display remains colour accurate.

  • ViewSonic VP2786-4K: A solid mid-range choice with a 4K resolution and integrated colour calibration by X-Rite. It offers a 10-bit colour depth, providing a wide colour gamut and precise colour accuracy. This model is a suitable option for those who require a balance between cost, performance, and reliable colour reproduction for photography and printing.

The Limitation of Budget Panels: 8-bit + FRC

When on the hunt for a monitor suitable for precise colour management, especially in professional realms like photography and graphic design, the bit depth of the panel is a critical factor to consider. Bit depth refers to the number of bits used to indicate the colour of a single pixel on the screen, which in turn affects the total number of colours that the monitor can display. A higher bit depth translates to a broader colour spectrum, rendering a more accurate and nuanced colour reproduction.

Budget monitors often come with an 8-bit panel which can display 16.7 million colours (2^8 for each of the RGB channels). However, to mimic the performance of a 10-bit panel, which can display 1.07 billion colours (2^10 for each RGB channel), some 8-bit panels employ a technology called Frame Rate Control (FRC). FRC works by rapidly cycling between colours, attempting to create an intermediate colour that isn't inherently supported by the panel. Thus, an 8-bit + FRC panel is essentially an 8-bit panel trying to emulate the colour range of a 10-bit panel, which is advertised as 10-bit in some cases.

While 8-bit + FRC can bring about better colour reproduction than a standard 8-bit panel, it falls short of delivering the precise colour accuracy and depth that a true 10-bit panel can offer. This is why we can't recommend budget panels for tasks where colour accuracy is paramount. The slight inaccuracies and lesser colour depth of 8-bit + FRC panels may result in less accurate colour reproduction, which can be a significant drawback for professionals aiming for a high level of colour fidelity in their work.

Concluding Reflections on Colour Management

Colour management is a critical process that bridges the digital and physical realms of visual representation. It begins with the accurate portrayal of colours on digital screens, navigated through profiling and calibration, ensuring what's displayed on screen is true to the original design. This process is crucial in fields like photography, design, and printing, where colour serves as a narrative medium. The technical foundation of colour management, including the use of rendering intents and colour models like RGB and CMYK, facilitates a controlled transition of colours from screen to print. The choice of colour spaces like sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB further defines how colours are represented and transitioned across devices.

The transition from digital to print is laden with challenges, one of which is the inherent discord between screen and print—screens emit light while prints reflect it. High-fidelity monitors and precision calibrators are indispensable tools in this transition, helping to maintain colour accuracy and consistency. For instance, a 10-bit monitor, capable of displaying over a billion colours, offers a granular control over colour adjustments which is critical for professionals. Moreover, the type of printing technology employed also plays a significant role. Giclée printing, for example, provides a broader spectrum of colour reproduction and fine-detail rendering compared to traditional CMYK printing, making it a preferred choice for high-end art reproductions.

Lastly, black and white printing, although devoid of colours, requires a similar level of precision and understanding of tonal transitions. The calibration for black and white printing extends into understanding how different shades translate into greyscale and how ambient light affects the perception of these tones. Budget panels, which often employ 8-bit + FRC technology, fall short in delivering the precise colour accuracy and depth that a true 10-bit panel can offer, and thus aren't recommended for tasks where colour accuracy is paramount. The realm of colour management is nuanced, requiring a blend of technological acumen, understanding of human colour perception, and the right tools to ensure the final print resonates with the original digital intent.

Print Mastery Series

Continue your education with more guides on the print process.

  1. Optical Brightening Agents
  2. The Art of Giclée Printing
  3. Dye vs. Pigment Inks
  4. The Art of Sharpening
  5. The Science of Colour Accuracy
  6. About — Our Materials and Process