Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Improving Digital Color Quality

Whether you illustrate using traditional media or digital media, high quality accurate or pleasing digitally output prints of the utmost importance. Output has been a challenge for illustrators from the very outset of digitally created or digitally processed imagery. The number of variables that can occur in the imaging process causes the difficulty. However, there are several methods and techniques that can be applied to digital working methods to improve digital print quality.

© 2015 Don Arday.

Multi-User Open Environments VS Single User Closed Environments

The easiest situation to deal with is that of a closed (single-user) environment. In a closed environment all variables can be systematically eliminated. When identical conditions are applied to both the creation of illustrations, and the way they are output, in other words under ideal circumstances. An example of this would be an illustrator who creates their own art and outputs prints she or he wish to sell by using the same equipment in the same environment and the same paper stock.

Unfortunately, many of us have to produce prints in an open (multi-user) environment that contains many variables. The variables not only occur at the output stage but also on the front end or input stage. This is especially true for students that use community computer lab facilities. These labs may present a variety of working conditions, as well as operator created variables. These might include someone changing the monitor’s brightness or even color preferences.

Regarding back end output, the truth is, most freelance illustrators produce work for a number of clients, and each one uses a different output system. There may even be times where an illustrator may be unaware of output preparations or even who will be printing their illustration.

Ways To Improve Image Output


Most output professionals would agree that monitor calibration is the most effective way to optimize print output. There are two categories of calibration that can be used. One involves the exclusive use of a software program while the other requires the use of a hardware device in combination with software. Although software calibration can improve the relationship of input to output color in some situations it is not as effective as a hardware colorimeter or color spectrophotometer. A colorimeter is used to calibrate a monitor’s brightness, contrast, and color temperature while a spectrophotometer is used to calibrate reflective light from prints. Using a colorimeter will greatly increase the potential for all forms of color print or display output to be accurate. There are a number of good commercially available colorimeters.

Color Management

Color management is a method of controlling the color characteristics for every device in the imaging chain. All devises rely on color management in the form of a color profile to control their color space. The color space on an input device requires a translator or converter to impart its color characteristics to an output device, which has a separate set of color characteristics. Users by default can allow the input software to manage color or alternate parameters can be chosen. Although occurring behind the scenes color management is something illustrators should be aware of. Alternative color monitor settings can be selected in Adobe software under Edit > Color Settings.

Print Profiles

A digital profile is a descriptive index that is used to define of properties and limitations of a color space. A profile registry is a set of finite values that create meaning for digital display media or physical output media. Profiles exist for hardware devices, within software programs, and for physically displayed media. The best visual results and intended color consistency is achieved by using profiles that were created for their respective destination environments. Imbedding the correct print profile in an image file can greatly improve print quality. Profiles can be selected in Adobe software under Edit > Assign Profile.

Monitor Brightness

Users, to suit their own personal preferences in a multiuser environment, frequently alter monitor brightness. Although a simple adjustment, this alteration can have a significant impact on color accuracy. An overly bright monitor will result in darker print output while a darkened monitor will result in lighter prints. It is always advisable to check the status of the monitor when working in a non-calibrated multi-user environment.

Color Sampling

When dealing with darker tones in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and other like programs it is advisable to sample the colors to see what there CMYK or RGB color percentages are, especially when painting or blending colors. Sampling dark colors can inform an artist about how much black is contained in a color, how saturated it may be, or whether it is warm or cool toned. This can indicate if there will be any gain or over saturation that will occur when printing. Even subtle warm and cool colors can be hard to judge. This may sometimes appear to cause a shift when printing, but it may actually be a misperception of a color’s content to begin with. The link below is to a perceptual color test provided by X-Rite. The online color challenge, based on the Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test.

Work Environment

It’s time to think outside of the box. All the conditions referred to above occur inside hardware devices, but there is one factor that influences color perception that does not--the users environment. The amount of light in the workstation environment, whether it varies, and the quality of the light will all influence the colors used in an illustration. Both natural and artificial light varies in amount and in color temperature. Color temperatures over 5,000 Kelvin are cooler in color--bluish white, while lower color temperatures, 2,700–3,000 Kelvin are called warm colors--yellowish white through red. Color temperature and brightness can alter an illustrator’s use of a particular color scheme. Working in an environment with a stable lighting situation can improve output results. Professional colorimeters include ambient light testing.


All or any of the above suggestions can greatly enhance color display and output quality and accuracy. Even in difficult to control multi-user open environments certain color management procedures can be applied to improve the color environment.