Controlled Environment is the Key to Color Calibration
Color and Color calibrating equipment as well as the methods to handle them has been a long standing conversation, if not a debate, for a very long time. I have been working with, setting up computers, developing graphics software, and providing procedures since computers first burst onto the graphics scene back in the late 1980s. Fear and a misunderstanding of color calibrating still exists decades later. Here is valuable information derived from years of hands-on experience.
Let’s begin with “what color calibrating is and means”. It is the sharing of color information from one computer device to another (usually a monitor and software to a printer). It means you can (if you have good color vision and understanding) believe what you see on your computer screen to be what will print from your color printer. Sounds great, because it is.
Why do so many work everyday without exploring how to accomplish color calibrating? In order to control color you MUST have a controllable environment. We can control a monitor, software settings, and a color printer/copier, because they are what is known as “closed systems”. You can set them up to be “consistent”. They use the same supplies and system to reproduce everything that passes through them. Controlled environment is the key to a color calibrated environment.
This is the part that usually surprises folks - in order to color calibrate a computer monitor to a color printer, you must reduce the ability of the monitor. That’s right, reduce the ability of the monitor. A computer monitor (displays RGB) is displays this broader color spectrum, a color gamut much wider than a CMYK color printer can print. Since the CMYK color gamut is smaller than RGB, CMYK color prints “clip color” on press. Same reason why your glorious color image on screen becomes dull when you switch from RGB to CMYK mode in Photoshop, for example.
How it’s all accomplished:
Using a quality device such as the older Gretag Eye One device (now discontinued), or any quality newer product from X-Rite http://www.xrite.com/exact-family you can successfully print a calibration chart from any color printer/copier, read that color chart using the hand held device to create a color profile, then “load” that custom profile into your graphics application and monitor calibration setup. Now, when you click on or create a custom color on screen you will be accurately working with a color that your printer can reproduce. Bingo, you have a calibrated computer network. Congratulations. All your graphics applications presently default to some stock color calibrated file supplied with the app from another industry based on a color system and inks you don’t use. For example, SRGB is a color profile created jointly by Microsoft and HP to address the needs of website developers. The end game for the graphics developed using that color profile is the internet, not print!
Notice that I did not yet mentioned screen printing. Now is the time. A screen printing press in many ways can still be described as the “wild wild west”. A bit lawless at times, we setup the machine differently for each job, always tweaking. Squeegee and flood bar angles always seem to be changing not to mention the squeegee style itself. Ink colors and brands change and their viscosity is effected by environment and additives. Next the screens and they way we make them, then there are all those custom settings on your printer that allow you to do almost anything you like to get a print done. That is where things go wrong for us as an industry when discussing color calibrating. At no time did I use the word “controlled environment” when discussing a screen print press (manual or automatic). That is where the “wild wild west” reference comes in. A color copier is a closed system and we can count on the systems to be close if not similar each time we use it. Not so with a screen print press.
This information is much more useful when applied to screen printers looking to print halftones reproducing “tonal images” trying for sim process and near photographic results from software such as Spot Process, Corel PhotoPaint, or Adobe Photoshop. For those using 2D graphics apps such as Corel Draw and Adobe Illustrator, working with basic spot color fills (100% tint/opacity) and blends, they can get away with screens that are not nearly perfect, because it all comes down to the color of the ink loaded onto the screen on press. However, even they can benefit from a better adjusted monitor and apps.
Our screen print presses have always been and may always be “wide open”, therefore it is feasible that “they may never be a device that can be color calibrated” to any other system as long as the two systems use different technologies. So, what are we to do as an industry? Are we doomed to “guess work”? Hardly.
Let’s move onto discussing our computer equipment. Now here we do have hardware that can be set and reliable on a daily basis. Like anything else there are things to understand and abide by to get proper results. First, your computer monitor is probably too “bright and running way too hot”. Start by using a better quality product. Cheaper means lesser quality, that is for sure. Seek the best you can afford. Select Apple monitors or any competitive product that focuses on the graphics industry and its specific needs.
When we walk into a store to buy a computer monitor or flatscreen TV those devices are set to nearly their highest ability to show color in very challenging environments - often florescent or sodium vapor lighting surrounded by hundreds of other monitors all giving off different light competing for your attention. Your eyes are freaking out. When you bring your choice home or to work the lighting is often very different and much “darker” than in the store plus you are sitting much closer as well. You immediately start looking for the adjustment settings to make the picture look best to your liking.
When it comes to a TV you do what you like, you are the end of the line for the image. If you like what you see it’s a winner. You are not “matching” the image to anything more than your personal likes and dislikes. Ever walk into another’s home an wonder what the heck they are “seeing”? Florescent green grass and neon skies with flesh tones that look they were just in some slapping contest, but it’s their set and if they like it they are happy. They are the end of the line.
Now lets go to work, the screen print press is the end of the line, what we are trying to achieve is the ability to come as close as we can to having our computer monitor show us an image when separated and displayed that will look as close to what we get off the press. Still and always will be a challenge as there are so many factors that can effect the print on press, but there is a way to come closer - much closer.
Dull down the monitor! It never failed when I calibrated an existing network. The first time users saw the screen they stared at all day long and hated it, “everything looks so dull” they’d say. I would agree and explain why. I’d also tell them that tomorrow it will look much better as their mind moves away from remembering something old that was bad to learning what is new and better. The point is driven home the first time they see a print off a press viewed in “real light” compared to the computer monitor and think, damn that is so much better. I actually have a shot at getting things right the first time now. Welcome to actually using technology to make your life better. In order to take advantage of technology you must understand technology then apply it. There is no way around it. If you don’t then hire someone that does.
How to do it:
All monitors have custom settings. Most ship with their color temperature set high (close to 8,000 degrees kelvin). This shows website pages in great color, but it is the worst for using a monitor as a “soft proofing” system. If it doesn’t match the print you are setting up for then it’s basically useless.
Ok, so with out any special devices and add ons here’s what you can do to improve your graphics environment reducing downtime while increasing quality.
1. Place your computer into a controlled lighting environment. A bit darker, without direct sunlight reflecting off the monitor and as many neutral colors (grays) in the room as possible.
2. Reduce the temperature of your computer monitor down to or as close to 5,000 degrees kelvin as possible. This more closely simulates light in the real world, the yellowish light that is reflecting off your print as you view it. Do you know what a X-Rite Macbeth booth is and why they exist? Printing garments for a large box store? I bet they check or ask you to check your prints in one of these booths to see how they will look under the lighting in their stores. http://www.xrite.com/macbeth-lighting
3. Brightness is the next thing to be adjusted. Likely the Brightness by default is cranked up to nearly 80% or greater. Find someone with “good eyes”, no kidding some people have terrible color vision and in many cases they work in art departments because employers hardly (if never) ask or test potential artist for color vision. Doesn’t it make sense that anyone working with color should have good color vision? Employers, get yourself an “Ishihara Color test book” and ask potential artists and color mixers to pass the test. If they don’t they don’t have that skill for the job and that should be considered during hiring. Here is a link to start with http://colorvisiontesting.com/
Have that person look at a print that you consider “done well” by all pre and press procedures and set the brightness to that image to start.
4. Since there is no present and possibly not a future way to actually calibrate a screen print press, these few simple steps and the understanding of why we need and do them is enough to effect a great improvement in your graphics environment.
Hoping this shed some good light the color in your world.
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