Why Colors May Not Record or Display Accurately.

Why don’t my photos on the back of my camera look like the ones I WiFi’d to my tablet, iPad, or my computer?  And why don’t the iPad pictures look like the photos I print out?  And why do photo lab photos look different from the photos I print out at home?  And why do those photos look different from the drugstore I sometimes use? And why doesn’t anything ever seem to match?

Indeed.  It can be a bit frustrating. Why does the same image look different on different devices and media and printers?

Lets start with monitors.
The back of your camera, your iPad, your laptop and your desktop computer monitors are all different.  Not just who made them, but retina display vs. OLED vs. LCD.  Each of these technologies have different color ranges they can produce, and different contrast ranges as their normal appearance.  So the iPad with the latest Retina display will far “outlook” your laptop that uses and LCD display.  The retina just shows a wider and more colorful range of colors.  Also, if your device is old the screen will fade over time.  If your device is really old your screen is really bad!  Plus, none of these different brands and devices are calibrated to look the same.  They come with a factory setting that is not like individually calibrating your monitor for your camera, printer and work space.

Work spaces.
Where you look at a monitor will effect the colors you see.  Reflected light from the walls, your shirt, and even the ceiling will all slightly change the colors on the screen.  Plus, not all light bulbs are the same.  Fluorescent bulbs do not have a standard color.  There are different Kelvin ranges and CRI’s of bulbs.  (Click here if your don’t some of these terms)  Looking at monitors under different color lights will skew your eyes to see slightly different ranges because of the light.  The overall brightness of the work space will effect your perception of the darkness, contrast and colors of what is on your monitor.  Working in a darkened room will yield completely different results than working outside in bright sun.  Try it.  Edit the same picture in both conditions.

Printers and Inks.
Different brands of printers and inks have different color & contrast ranges that they display.  Dye inks look different from pigment inks. It is all in how the ink is made, what it is made of, how it reflects the light and consequently the color ranges.  Using a lighter ink spread will look different from using more ink.  Not good or bad, but different.

Papers and Profile.
Different papers have different reflective ranges, based on the type of fibers used, the process that makes the paper, and the amount, or lack, of optical brighteners.  (Click here for definitions)  Rag paper papers will almost always look flatter and less colorful than coated RC papers.  It is the nature of the materials.  Papers for use in a color laser copier will not look the same as a coated canvas fabric or a rag paper.  The ICC profile you use, or if you don’t use one, the default ICC profile will effect the amount and levels of ink put to paper and the contrast range you get.

Your printer.
Even if you are taking you files to a drugstore or online printer, they may be using an “algorithm” to “adjust” your images to a standard that they think is good.  I’ve heard old-timers refer to”K” factor that was in film cameras to correct for the deficiencies of amateur photographers exposure errors.  The “algorithms’ often used in some labs are there to sharpen, lighten and saturate the colors to make the image “better.”  But if you’ve adjusted the image and saturated and adjusted the contrast range; then this extra will only make you work look worse, OVER saturated, lightened and sharpened.  Not every image needs improvement, adding an algorithm to fix what isn’t broken is unnecessary, and takes away from your skills as the photographer.

Your camera.
The older cameras do not have anywhere near the range of color tones and color response that we have now.  If your camera is 5 or 10 years old, you will not get what you see.  Not just because of the older technology, but because of the aged sensor, the firmware running the camera, and even the lenses you are using.

How you are shooting.
If you are setting your camera to always under expose a bit darker to saturate, or a bit over expose to soften the colors than you are skewing the range and tonality of the scene.  As you darken and lighten the image you will be changing the scene contrast range to get the colors to look more or less saturated. This will ultimately effect how it looks when printed.

What you are shooting.
There are just as many or more variables in what you shoot as there is in the camera and monitor.  If you are shooting cloths, the different fabrics and dyes will respond differently.  There are optical brighteners in clothes and washing detergents.  If you are shooting art, paints are different from chalks and pencils, and the papers and color media may have those darned optical brighteners.  It is incredible just what optical brighteners are in now, to give the clean, crisp bright colors we have gotten used to. And finally…

Your perception.
How you perceive colors is based on where you are, the color or cleanness of the light you are viewing, and even your ability to see those colors. Back in the old days, when printing was much more manual, we had a technician that always did a very good job before lunch, but after lunch his colors would be wrong.  He often came back from lunch and said he had to start over because the jelly doughnuts he ate for lunch changed how he perceived colors.  This is actually a warning sight of more serious issues with your eyes, macular retinopathy.

So, after all this, what can you do?  Making sure you use a color calibration system for profile your camera, monitor and printer will help you get as close as possible.  You may not get it right the first time either.  We often print multiple copies of color sensitive prints and adjust the color spectrum for each color as needed.  It can be a lot of work.  But if the results need to be highly accurate and more than just a pretty picture them you can do it.  But just know that no management is going to be an average of all the variables.




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