Output Options; ColorPlus: Affordable And Easy Color Management

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Hello, and welcome to Output Options. In this column, I'll be covering issues and topics related to how you can get the most from your images after you've made the pictures and have downloaded them into your computer. Whether you need information on printing, preparing for the web, or creating digital slide shows, you'll find it in upcoming columns. My goal is to help you get the results you want and explain the how and why in a non-technical fashion.

To kick things off, we'll talk about the importance of color management, and review a new product that promises to make color management hassle free and affordable for everyone.

Why You Need Color Management
Imagine trying to edit your digital photos with your eyes closed. The results will probably be interesting, but almost certainly not what you were expecting and definitely not repeatable. If you print your digital images without making sure that your monitor is set up to give you a good "look" at your images then you are essentially working in the dark.

1.

Much of what makes for good printing comes under the title of "color management." This has been looked at as one of those mystical areas that mere mortals aren't supposed to be privy to. Although it can be as technical as you want to make it, an advanced degree in engineering isn't a prerequisite for successful results. In reality, it's nothing more than a way for different devices, such as monitors, printers, and scanners to translate color from one device to the next. By using a profiled system, the printer knows how to reproduce a particular red on screen matched to a shade of red ink on paper. In effect, profiles act like a foreign language translation manual.

Adobe has long included their Adobe Gamma application with Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, which lets you optimize your display by adjusting brightness and contrast settings for Red, Green, and Blue. While better than no color management at all, the biggest weakness to the software-only approach is that it's subjective. You're relying on your eyes to tell you what's accurate. The solution? A hardware device that attaches to your monitor and reads the color values directly.

2.

By using a hardware device to read both color values and temperatures directly, you remove the human variable, and end up with consistent results.

ColorPlus From ColorVision
Hardware based color management has always been important but until recently most options were beyond the price of the average user. The last two or three years have seen significant advances, with hardware prices dropping down to near $200. ColorVision has recently slashed the cost of entry to this market with their $119 (retail. $99 estimated street price) ColorPlus package.

3.

ColorPlus takes the hardware colorimeter, or Spyder, included in their more expensive products and bundles it with a new software package that streamlines the steps needed to get your monitor profiled (a.k.a. color managed). The software requires and assumes no knowledge of things like gamma, color temperature, brightness or contrast.

Features
On the hardware side, the USB interface sensor comes with an adapter that allows you to calibrate flat panel and notebook displays as well as traditional CRTs. Along with the sensor, the ColorPlus calibration software leads you through a few simple steps, adjusting the brightness, contrast and color temperature of your display as you go along.

4.

The software component (the Plus in ColorPlus) is a simple dialog driven application that guides you through the process. Your only task is to set your monitor to its default settings. The primary difference between ColorPlus and ColorVision's high-end software--OptiCAL--is the lack of user control over settings. OptiCAL allows a great deal of control over gamma, temperature, and individual color channels. For the majority of users, OptiCAL is overkill and ColorPlus will more closely match your needs.

Should you decide in the future that you need the features included with OptiCAL, ColorVision has an upgrade policy that will let you move to the full featured SpyderPro with OptiCAL package.

5.

Getting Managed
To get started, you first install the software--this also installs the drivers that ColorPlus needs in order to talk to the Spyder. After installing ColorPlus the Spyder is plugged into your USB port. After a welcome dialog that explains what ColorPlus will be doing (#1), the application asks you to select between CRT and LCD displays (#2) and then shows you how to attach the Spyder to your screen (#3).

ColorPlus will next spend about 15 minutes reading color values for Red, Green, and Blue, along with Black, White, and Gray (#4). Once completed, a Confirmation dialog will let you know what has been done (#5).
A Before and After dialog allows you to quickly see what has changed (#6) by clicking the Switch button, and automatically saves the new profile and sets it as the default.

It's important to keep the Spyder flat against the monitor during the measuring phase. The first time I ran the program I hadn't noticed that the lower corner of the Spyder had moved. The resulting calibration was interesting, to say the least. My nice neutral grays were a lovely shade of cyan! If this happens to you, it's a simple matter to click the Back button in ColorPlus and re-measure your display.

6.

Conclusion
I've been a long time user of hardware color management devices. The time, frustration and expense saved have paid the cost of the hardware over and over again. With the introduction of ColorPlus, it's now affordable and easy enough for the casual digital photographer to use. Once you've become accustomed to consistent results, you'll never look back.

I'd love to hear from you! If you have questions on digital output, comments on something you've read, or suggestions for future topics, please let me know. Contact me at editorial@edigitalphoto.com and put Output Options into the subject line. I'll try to include one or two questions and answers in each column. In the next column, we'll be covering how to optimize your digital images for use on the web.

Jon Canfield is the co-author of "Photo Finish: The Digital Photographer's Guide To Printing, Showing, and Selling Images," published by Sybex. You can see Jon's work on his website, www.joncanfield.com.

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