Colour by numbers


Matching on-screen and print output is tricky simply because they use different ways of creating colours. When the four individual colourants in a printer (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) are mixed, the inks darken - this is CMYK or subtractive colour. By contrast, when RGB (red, green and blue) lights are mixed on a monitor, the result is lighter - or additive colour.

Add to this the fact that PC devices support a different range of colours - or gamut - and it isn't surprising that media can look entirely different depending on the output device used.

It's amazing that, until the turn of the millennium, there was no agreed way of representing colour on our screens. That's changed thanks to the adoption of sRGB (standard RGB), developed by Microsoft and a coterie of printer manufacturers.

This standard, which approxi­mates the colour space of most computer devices, certainly has wide support. It's Windows' default colour space and most recent printers and digital cameras have adopted it. A simple way to get decent print consistency is to ensure all your peripherals are set to work in sRGB.

But sRGB isn't perfect. It doesn't support the wider colour gamut of some alternatives, for example. And if you're determined to get high-end colour reproduction, you should use software to calibrate your monitor, camera and printer and, if possible, apply profiles, such as those developed by the ICC (International Color Consortium), which contain detailed information on how a specific device reproduces colour.

These profiles can communicate so that colours appear properly, regardless of the device used to display them. They also help if you're translating between colour models - for example printing on a professional four-colour press, for which sRGB isn't suitable.

Even if your printer and monitor have ICC profiles, it's not the end of the colour match. Every individual monitor and printer has its own set of circumstances and you should perform a calibration on top of this profile to ensure optimum consistency. Photoshop users will already have Adobe's basic gamma tool (see FIGURE 1), but sometimes you need a little more.

Good mate

As far as monitor calibration tools go, I've never felt the need to use anything other than the excellent DisplayMate ( - see FIGURE 2. Less high-end, but perhaps more fun, is EasyRGB ( which can even be run directly from its Web site - although it won't save the profile to your PC, see FIGURE 3.

You can embed your own profile when you save a picture in your image editor, so that it can be understood by any other device that supports it. But no matter how much effort you put into accurate colour, real-world practicalities can sweep the theory away. When I lay out artwork for magazines, I find it impossible to exactly match colours owing to a variable outside my control: paper quality in final output.

Once I based the entire design of a magazine around a vivid green colour, which looked great on screen and on glossy proofs, but printed as a drab olive when printed on less-reflective paper.

The workaround? I've kept a note of the colours used, together with a copy of the printed results, so I can refer to them in the future. It's about as high-tech as the abacus, but it's workable.

And I've long realised that if the battle for totally predictable colour is one I'm unlikely to win, I should try to lose as gracefully as I can.

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Tom Gorham

PC Advisor (UK)
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