Jun 26 2006
07:15 pm

Ever taken a picture and wonder why what you see on the screen doesn't match (a) what your eye saw, or (b) what comes out on the printer, or doesn't match (c) from monitor to monitor?

Answer: Different devices represent color differently. Different monitor manufacturers are either warmer or cooler from model to model... LCDs will look different from CRTs... color saturation will differ, as will the palette from which colors are chosen.

To complicate matters, when you take a picture from the monitor to a print-out, an entirely different system of mixing colors is in use. To wit: printed media use a method for mixing colors called CMYK, meaning "cyan/magenta/yellow/black." What you see on the screen (or on the back of your digital camera) is represented by mixing RGB (red/green/blue) in differing shades, tones, and pixels.

So what's the answer? (read more if you care to)

Well, in short, you need to manage your color output from device to device. It starts with color-calibrating your monitor regularly, and by using software which adheres to ICC (International Color Consortium) standards. Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop both do this.

Unfortunately, the price of "free" seldom allows much in the way of features like that. (Sorry, Picasa.)

But as part of a longer answer, just remember a few things as well... and this is where I get off in the weeds of creative process vis-a-vis photography. Fletch, F-Stop, R. -- feel free to add or correct me here...

(a) A picture is only as good as what got onto the "film" at the moment of capture. If you have big, washed out spots or you have foreign objects in the frame, it's a lot of heavy lifting required to correct for that -- and every correction will leave some level of artifact. Get it right at the moment of capture.

(And don't expect a JPG to be as detailed as a TIFF, for that matter. JPG is a pretty good way to represent a picture, but it's lossy. It might be good for trading pictures on the internets but it's not so good for blowing up pictures to poster sizes.)

(b) Your camera will never be as good as your eye. Thinking in terms of exposure, your eye can see a continuous range of about 22 distinct gradations - or f-stops - of light. An exposure in a camera can only see about 3, tops (roughly equivalent to highlight, midtone, and shadow). So you might lower your expectations or start thinking in terms of what a camera "sees."

(c) Tangentially related, but important: Eliminate "I suck" from your photographic vocabulary. This is a bit of wisdom imparted by the legendary Vincent Versace at last year's Digital Landscapes Workshop Series when they set up for a Great Smoky Mountains workshop in Townsend. There will be a lot of people out there who'll denigrate the work that you do, so you should be the last person to join them in the criticism. Vincent also doesn't believe that "practice makes perfect." Rather, "perfect practice makes perfect." Do the right things and do them consistently, and it will show up in your images.

R. Neal's picture

Great comments on the

Great comments on the technical and creative aspects. On (a), there are times when there is just no way to capture the full dynamic range of the scene, i.e. if it is a person, moving object, quickly changing light, etc. that doesn't allow multiple exposures or other "tricks". I am learning that it's OK to have some dreaded "blown highlights" if you capture the subject and the overall scene and feeling you wanted. Relative to (c), sometimes a technically imperfect photo is better than no photo at all. I have found, though, it is better to slightly underexpose, because it seems easier to recover shadow detail than highlights, but once either is blown there's no recovering any detail.

Regarding color management, I posted this overview in comments over at Les' blog...

If you use Picasa or some other non-color managed software, and if it uses the sRGB color space by default (most likely), you need to make sure your camera is recording images in sRGB. Some have options for sRGB, Adobe RGB, or proprietary color spaces that use manufacturer provided profiles. Check the menus and make sure you are recording images in sRGB. Turn off any automatic display "enhancements" in your software, i.e. Picasa so you can better see what the image will look like when it is rendered in other applications or in print.

Most printers have a driver setting to use the sRGB color space, or will use it by default, but they also tend to have options to further "enhance" your photos. See if you can turn off all those settings and tell it to just use the "sRGB" image as is. This is what happens when you upload images to most online digital photo labs for processing. This lets you get close to what you want the printed output to look like on your screen.

Finally, you will need to get your monitor at least somewhat calibrated so grey is grey and white is white. There are some freebie profilers that show you a series of images that let you eyball it, or you can get a fully automated system with a colorometer such as the Gretagmacbeth Eye One.

Even then it is difficult to match print output because of the complicated conversions most consumer printers use to make things "easier", and the fact that ink on paper is "reflective" as compared to images on a monitor which are "emissive", and because there are so many variations in inks and papers.

Better printers will provide profiles for each type of paper supported and driver settings to allow the printer to color manage (i.e. convert the image to the printer's color space) or to turn it off and allow the software to do it.

Pros color manage the entire workflow, using camera profles, even profiles for different lenses, calibrated monitors and custom printer profiles for each type of paper and ink. This is a complicated and expensive proposition, and all the software and gear can be upwards of $3000.

You can get very close to this with something like an Eye One (or even just an eyeball solution), color managed software such as Photoshop, and printer manufacturer's paper profiles.

The most common problem (other than different software and printer drivers "enhancing" your photos in different ways) is to record an image in one color space, then display or print it in another color space without converting it.

Untagged images are assumed by web browsers and OS display utilities and digitial print labs to be sRGB. If they were taken or edited in some other space, such as Adobe RGB, and saved as JPGs without the color space tag and without converting to sRGB, they will look "washed out". Even if tagged, you should always convert and save them as sRGB for web/monitor display, because browsers do not have any way to do the conversion - in general they can only display sRGB.

For prints, you can work in Adobe RGB (with color managed software such as Photoshop that can simulate what the final output will look like using "soft proofing") and achieve slightly better output owing to the Adobe RGB color space's (and the printer's) wider color gamut. For most applications such as vacation and family photos, though, very few people will be able to tell the difference from sRGB as long as you maintain the proper color managed workflow.

Picasa and other "free" software may be OK for organizing, but consider using color managed software such as Photoshop for processing and printing. Even the Photoshop Elements version has basic color management to let you accomplish everything mentioned above (and it has a very nice organizer).

Andy Axel's picture

Monitor calibration

Thanks for the expanded answer, Randy.

Couple of comments:

I am learning that it's OK to have some dreaded "blown highlights" if you capture the subject and the overall scene and feeling you wanted.

Oh, hell, sure. And blur and soft focus and selective focus and underexposure can all play in that trick bag, too. It's all about presentation and developing a personal style of visual communication. You don't want to get hung up on silly stuff like workflow (it's unnecessarily complicated, which is to Les' point) but it matters...

Relative to (c), sometimes a technically imperfect photo is better than no photo at all.

Exactly. Why look at an awesome picture and nitpick the fact that there's debris on the lens?

With one "but," here. Your time is really valuable, and sometimes, you may just want to pass on taking a picture and just enjoy the moment. (If you're trying to shoot into the sun on a lake, e.g. The glare which will result makes taking the shot not worth it.)

One more add: The Pantone Huey is getting some good reviews, and it's relatively inexpensive (esp. compared to the Gretag-Macbeth and higher end Pantone colorimetric devices)...



"The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco." -- G.K.

Andy Axel's picture

This is the sort of thing...

This is the sort of thing which is kinda hard to find in the literature, by the way. (You do a pretty good job of boiling it down, and I say this as someone trying to be as objective as possible.)

An unfortunate thing about the craft of digital photography is that too often, you have to pay someone for their professional opinion about something, even if it's just to share explanations like "why doesn't my printed picture look like it did on the screen."

I guess it's that way in conventional photography, too.

In fairness, the field is really competitive -- especially when you're talking about getting paid for your work -- and many photographers turn to training as a sideline business. So they become hoarders of knowledge; sharing isn't a practice high on a lot of lists among many photogs that I've come to know -- well, unless you pay for it. It's amazing how much more communicative that photographers get when they're getting paid. That's one reason that I occasionally pay the absurd near-retail prices at the local pro shop... you really have to hang out there AND BUY SOME STUFF before they will recognize you and help you out. It sucks, kinda, but it's still the way this works out.

I actually got a lot of good advice asking really stupid questions of a guy in Nashville who I hired to repair my Minolta X700 SLR and to recondition my Mamiya M645. "Now, why do they say 'that is a good portrait lens' when they talk about the 70-150mm Mamiya zoom, sir?" "What exactly is 'barrel distortion'?" He was a little surprised by the rudimentary nature of my questions, but he related the info. Better than simply explaining to me, he showed me.


I get asked a lot about how I get certain looks out of my pictures, and ultimately, when you get into the nuances of white balance and color spaces and digital artifacting, people that are content with "point & shoot" kinda tune out.

Still, it's useful info, and I don't mind sharing this info with others.


"The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco." -- G.K.

Les Jones's picture

Why, Andy Axel

You read my blog. You old sweetheart.

I appreciate all the advice. I'm trying to be more than a hack picture snapper, so I appreciate the help. And Vince's advice is pretty awesome.

Hey, Les, why don't we just call each other assholes and get it over with. - Somebody on the old (if that was you, claim your quote and win net.fame!)

Andy Axel's picture

Anything to help a photographer

Y'know, I was directed there by a link from Nashvilleistalking...

I will resist coming onto your turf and talking politics, but I'm all about skill sharing.

If I learned nothing else from Versace, it was that you lose nothing by exchanging information about the craft of photography.

Check out his website sometime -- (link...)

And if you ever get serious about taking a class, I highly recommend Digital Landscapes. ((link...)) Versace teaches digital darkroom and shooting technique.


"The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco." -- G.K.

Les Jones's picture


I've actually thought about blegging for advice on a local photography class once the new bambino situation settles down lately. I've got two kids under two years old right now, so I'm elbow deep in diapers and Playtex plastics at the moment. :-)

Hey, Les, why don't we just call each other assholes and get it over with. - Somebody on the old (if that was you, claim your quote and win net.fame!)

Andy Axel's picture

Don't know the situation on

Don't know the situation on the ground in Knoxville as far as that goes, but I do know that Adobe gives workshops in Nashville and Atlanta. (Nashville, you might have better luck with attendance, I'm thinkin'.) Buddy of mine went to the last one they had here on digital workflow and said it was pretty good. And a mere $99 ($79 if you belong to NAPP).

And, honestly, the Classroom in a Book series on Photoshop is pretty good as far as teaching PS basics.

Although that won't help you out with shooting.


"The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco." -- G.K.

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