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Color management

Jan 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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After years of nay-saying and procrastination, printers are realizing that color management is here and the time to implement it was yesterday. The newest inkjet RIPs have all but eliminated classic output curves in favor of ICC profiles, every Photoshop image demands a color space and the proliferation of on-demand output options in traditional litho shops means that building your own color-management profiles is unavoidable.

While this sounds great in theory, reality is a bit more complicated. For the past five years, most printers implementing an ICC workflow had to hire a color-management guru — but as color management gains ground, will there be enough gurus to go around? Will the manufacturers of profiling software and measurement devices make their manuals understandable and their devices affordable? Will the average print shop ColorSync or swim?

WHY SO DIFFICULT?

I must admit it: I've got an axe to grind. My recent experiences with color management have left me feeling dumber than the west end of an east-facing horse — and I don't think it's entirely my fault.

Here's what happened. A Los Angeles printer in the process of installing a CTP device realized it would need to fine-tune its inkjet proofing system. The printer's top-of-the-line setup featured everything from a high-resolution, wide-format printer to a well-known color-management RIP, sophisticated XY spectrophotometer and profile-building software. These guys had all the necessary toys to create and implement a customized ICC-compliant workflow.

Everything was up and running when I arrived. A certified consultant recommended by the RIP manufacturer had already installed all the software and used a spectrophotometer to create a customized proofing profile — or so he told us. We discovered, however, that the printer was not calibrated, there was no press reference profile and the proof profile was a generic inkjet profile obtained from the RIP's installation CD.

Nonetheless, the task did not seem too difficult at first. The printer just wanted to implement three different output queues based on the GATF (Sewickley, PA) press-test forms that had recently been run on its presses.

No problem, I thought to myself. I've been in this business since the days of wipe-on plates; I've learned and installed hundreds of desktop-publishing programs. All the hardware and software is new, and all the manuals are right in front of me. How hard can this be?

Roadblocks soon materialized. I couldn't get the RIP to complete the printer linearization process, and trying to reach overseas tech support via the Internet was frustrating. Nor would the profile-editing software alter the paper white simulation. Every piece of hardware and software seemed to provide dozens of options at every decision point, with no clues about typical or preferred choices. Soon, my head was pounding and my stomach was churning.

A few days later, after dozens of calls and e-mails, I thought I had resolved all of these problems — only to find that a certain shade of pale blue was turning to teal on the proofs. Clutching my useless proofs, I looked heavenward and wailed, “Why does it have to be this hard?”

IS IT REALLY GETTING EASIER?

After shelling out tons of money for color-management tools, must users earn their doctorates in color theory too? That's the question I posed to several leading consultants and vendors. I'm both surprised and encouraged by their responses.

Don Hutcheson, principal of Hutcheson Consulting (Washington), assured me that there has been progress. “Since ColorSync 2 came out in January 1995, there's no question that color management has gotten easier,” says the color guru. “The cost of entry is still high, however. And it's still not as easy as people would like.”

The consulant specifically singles out Monaco Systems' (Andover, MA) MonacoPROFILER 4.5 for its ease of use. “It sets the standard for intuitive functionality, making it easy for people to build a profile from scratch or edit them,” reports Hutcheson.

PROFILER is Monaco's most advanced multiple-application offering. It is available directly from the company or through the X-RiteColor Ensemble spectrophotometer bundle. The latter combines MonacoPROFILE wizard-like interface software with X-Rite's (Grandville, MI) color-measurement instruments.

Bill Owens, X-Rite's worldwide product marketing manager for digital, photo and medical imaging, notes that some X-RiteColor Ensemble customers have been pleasantly surprised: “One user recently commented that Monaco's software was almost too easy to use for the quality he was receiving. He anticipated that creating ICC profiles was going to be a more complicated process, requiring many more steps.”

Hutcheson didn't sympathize when I complained how difficult it was to implement all the hardware and software that makes up a color-managed workflow.

“When you look at what we're trying to do with color management, it's not an easy task to begin with,” the consultant explains. “People tend to underestimate the ambitiousness of color management. We're asking these software programs to do the impossible — and when you ask for the impossible, no formula or result is going to please everybody.”

HIGH-END VS. PLUG-AND-PLAY

Chromaticity (Grand Rapids, MI) vice president Mike DiCosola says the consultancy's Web-based Chroma-Tech help desk for color-management issues is filling an information void. “Our consultants are in the trenches every day doing color management — we run into the same problems that everyone else does,” says the exec. “If I run into a roadblock, I send a broadcast e-mail to all the Chromaticity consultants. We've come to realize we should make this internal service available to the general public.”

DiCosola sees a division developing in the marketplace between high-end users who are willing to invest whatever it takes to succeed and smaller companies who are looking for a more plug-and-play approach. “The nature of our industry has always supported different levels, including people who are willing to spend more so they can belong to that higher echelon of quality,” he observes. “But I do see a trend toward the use of certified profiles, where people can purchase an existing profile and expect a predictable result.”

Eric Louis Neumann, assistant product manager, color input, Fujifilm Graphic Systems (Hanover Park, IL), agrees with DiCosola's assessment. “We see both types of users,” says Neumann. “We have the tools and resources for those who want to take the do-it-yourself approach as well as providing the services and support for the users who are less concerned with having total control than getting a good color match that the manufacturer will stand behind.”

Deborah Hutcheson, Agfa (Wilmington, MA) senior marketing manager, workflow and proofing, notes that color management can only do the difficult, rather than the impossible. “While color management is getting easier, some users will always be unhappy because they expect it to solve problems outside its scope, such as gamut and quality control.”

Agfa's efforts to address this issue include Quality Management System (QMS). “It's included in the package with each contract-proof Sherpa system to guarantee proof-to-proof and engine-to-engine consistency,” says Hutcheson.

Do-it-yourselfers will appreciate brucelindbloom.com, a treasure trove of useful knowledge and free software. Webmaster Bruce J. Lindbloom says the noncommercial site is a hobby. “I'm not a consultant,” he says. “I started my site in October 2001 to provide free useful and educational information about color science and digital imaging.” Lindbloom observes that, given that each component in the workflow is constantly changing, it is amazing that color-management workflows function at all, or for any length of time. “But anyone who has been involved in this business for more than a few years can see that great strides have been made toward making things simpler and more robust,” he notes. “It's not push-button yet, but the overall trend is certainly in that direction.”

FEARLESS PROFILE SHARING

Chromix's (Seattle) ColorSmarts page at chromix.com is another useful site. Both a consultancy and a reseller of color-management-related tools, Chromix recently updated its inexpensive ColorThink application. Version 2.0 depicts how the pixels of an image will fit within a chosen color space, the movement of color values when images are mapped into new color spaces and verifies the integrity of color-management profiles.

President Steve Upton says Chromix is concentrating on helping customers manage their profile useage. “Printers have very legitimate concerns about sharing their color-management profiles with their customers: Can they update the profile once it's outside their organization? Can they guarantee that customers won't make unauthorized changes, leading to incorrect results?”

Chromix's ProfileCentral service addresses these issues through the use of authentication and encryption tags. “When a company registers and uploads a profile into ProfileCentral, the server embeds these tags into the profile as well as version information that is readable with a free utility,” explains Upton.

AFFORDABLE COLOR MANAGEMENT

DuPont Imaging Technologies (Wilmington, DE) is targeting customers looking for a cost-effective solution for transitioning to digital proofing with its CromaNet product.

“CromaNet was developed from the software for our high-end Digital Waterproof device, but works with the more affordable Cromalin Desktop inkjet printer,” reports Bob Sherman, product marketing manager. “With this software, we can build a profile in about 35 minutes. Our software integrates the RIP and the profiling software, so the total package price is less than most competing products'.”

Even at this price point, Sherman says that ease-of-use isn't sacrificed: “There are no operator judgement calls — all the math is done by the software.”

Bringing the benefits of ICC workflows to the masses is also a priority for GretagMacBeth (New Windsor, NY). “Our goal is to simplify color management and make it a one-button technology,” says Liz Quinlisk, director of marketing for digital imaging. “Our Eye-One technology, for example, evolved from the SpectroScan products for high-end environments, but it uses the Eye-One match software to create profiles for monitors, scanners and printing devices through a wizard-like interface. The Eye-One is USB-supported so it's plug-and-play, and there's online help as well. It's geared toward ad agencies, but it's also been a great success in prepress houses.”

Quinlisk concedes, however, that user-friendly interfaces don't necessarily provide all the answers. The company encourages those who need more training to enroll in classes taught by some well-known industry consultants.

X-Rite's Owens says the company's instruments and Monaco's software are intuitive enough to largely eliminate the need for training. X-Rite does provide onsite training for those customers that require individual instruction.

Onsite training has contributed to the success of Heidelberg's (Kennesaw, GA) color-management and digital-proofing efforts, according to Dennis Ryan, prepress product manager. Since January 2001, Heidelberg has sold more than 400 proofing solutions based on the large-format Hewlett-Packard 5000/5500. About 80 percent of these buyers also purchased one or more days of training.

“Not everyone realizes that Heidelberg is a major player in providing proofing solutions to the graphic-arts industry,” notes Ryan. “Our software formed the basis for Apple's ColorSync technology. Heidelberg is continuing to promote digital proofing as part of a turnkey system: We combine a DesignJet engine with our PrintOpen/ViewOpen profiling software and Heidelberg's own inkjet proofing paper, then interface it all with our high-end RIPs or a standalone RIP station.”

In 2002, Kodak Polychrome Graphics' (KPG) (Norwalk, CT) unveiled the Champions Program, a series of customer service innovations that includes Press Aim Analysis for identifying and analyzing the source of color-quality issues. A specially designed target is processed through the imagesetter, platesetter or proofing system to shop standards. The target is then measured using a spectrophotometer and the data processed to generate a series of reports that characterize the system.

EASY IMPLEMENTATION

According to Neumann, Fujifilm color-management solutions are now offered under a common heading: ColorPath. “ColorPath is a family of products, services and support that helps measure, monitor and manage color quality,” explains the exec. “Also, through ColorPath, we are working to develop additional color-management training for our dealers and end users, as well as partnering with outside color-management consultants to provide a complete color-management solution.”

ColourKit 3.0 was recently released in native Mac OS X. It is reportedly the first color-management application to support the ICC 4 specification for profiles. ColourKit continues to directly drive Fujifilm flatbed scanners as well as running as a standalone application for automated batch processing. Future developments for ColourKit this year will include a WinXP version, a more modular approach, as well as the addition of a profiling option for digital cameras, according to Neumann.

In addition to these color-management software tools, the company recently introduced Match Certified, a service which combines Fuji's color expertise with proprietary software, specialized targets and spectrophotometry. This information is used to generate customized look-up tables (device link profiles) that will visually and colorimetrically match the user's unique printing conditions to the Fujifilm FinalProof or PictroProof digital proofing systems.

“Match Certified allows our customers to color manage their digital proofing systems without needing to understand or implement an entire ICC workflow,” says Neumann.

Agfa's latest proofing products also emphasize user-friendly color-management. “Our Sherpa proofer package has everything the user needs to make color-managed contract proofs,” says Hutcheson. “This includes custom-color profiles, training and support plus a comprehensive professional color-management software, ColorTune 4.0. The software has an intuitive and simple user interface with easy-to-use menus and step-by-step wizards to help guide the user through the characterization process to make custom profiles for any device. We also offer a full suite of training options, ranging from learning how to apply color management throughout an entire workflow or how just how to produce/edit output profiles, to us making custom profiles for them.”

REMEMBER THE RIP

Making great profiles is only part of the equation for printers implementing ICC workflows; having a great RIP to transform color into accurate proofs is also essential (look for more details on this next month).

Mark Geeves, CEO, Bestcolor USA (West Chester, OH), notes that both the company's ColorProof RIP, as well as inkjet proofing in general, have gained tremendous market acceptance. “Two years ago, we had to explain what ICC stood for and what a profile does, but today people know that if they use profiles correctly, the results are very nice,” says Geeves. “We've benefited from the major graphic-arts manufacturers using ICC profiles when they set up their systems; they're helping us get the message across that success comes from both profiling and process control. As process control is implemented in the pressroom, inkjet proofing has excellent potential for helping users increase production [efficiency].”

RIP vendor CGS Publishing Technologies (Minneapolis) maintains that a successful proofing system requires more than just making profiles. “ICC profiling is a good start, but given the inherent inaccuracies of the transformation process, we also give users the controls necessary to correct those errors via our Color Tuner product,” says CEO Trevor Haworth.

CGS' newest ORIS RIP package automates this fine-tuning process. “Our Automatic Color Calibration is an iterative process that takes two or three passes to narrow the delta-E discrepancies between proof and target. Within three iterations, the system has automatically reduced the differences to a delta-E of 1.0,” says Haworth. “Automatic calibration is even more crucial as we get into remote proofing at the agency or customer site, where they may not have [any] color expertise.”

DON'T GIVE UP

Although poor documentation and technical support issues made my foray into color management akin to dancing a polka across a minefield, I'm not giving up — and neither should you. Color management isn't at the plug-and-play stage yet, but the process is getting more user-friendly.

“Implementing an entire ICC workflow can be both difficult and expensive, but the benefits have been proven,” adds Fuji's Neumann. “Every user should consider some level of color management, whether it's an entire workflow or simply color managing the proofing or scanning process, or just the monitors. After taking the first step, you will see the benefits and want to color manage more of the process.”

Sidebar: COLOR-MANAGEMENT RESOURCES

  • Color-management workshops

    The 2002 GATF Color Management conference was held last December in Scottsdale, AZ. In addition to a variety of seminars for both novice and experienced users, attendees were able to meet with representatives from nearly every color-management vendor and consultancy.

    David Hunter, founder of Pilot Marketing Group (Minneapolis), moderated the conference — he also conducts ongoing color-management workshops at GATF's Sewickley, PA, facility. See gain.org for details.

  • Start with the press and work backwards

    Kodak Polychrome Graphics' (KPG) (Norwalk, CT) color-management white paper reviews color-management variables and decision points, ICC profiling, the black channel, reference printing conditions, plant-to-plant consistency and the true benefits of color management. See the “Digital Library” at kpgraphics.com.

  • Color compliance program

    The BRIDG's Committee (Wheaton, IL) recently announced its Quality Color Compliance program. The voluntary program provides step-by-step assistance and tips on the best methods for controlling the color-reproduction process. To learn more, visit bridgs.org.

  • Real-world color management

    In this book, co-authors Bruce Fraser, Fred Bunting and Chris Murphy take the mystery out of color management. Readers will find expert advice for building and fine-tuning color profiles for input and output devices (digital cameras and scanners, displays, printers and more), selecting the right color-management workflow, and managing color within and across major design applications. Cost is $49.99; to order, see peachpit.com.