Color Management: The Conception, Misconception, Birth and Afterbirth. I Remember it All Too Well.


I had spent the prior 20 years laboring inside the color separation/printing industry when all the digital feces hit the photo-lithographic fan back in the mid eighties. Shortly thereafter I found myself consulting with an upstart Silicon Valley company called Adobe Systems; the result of a poster I designed and produced in 1986 called TypeStyles. That was back when Adobe was a startup company that had just published the Postscript printer language. Turns out this was the very first printed 4-color Postscript project ever- a poster that hung on CEO John Warnock’s office wall for 10 years.

TypeStyles PosterSmlSomehow I found myself at the ground floor of the electronic publishing mania while this digital seed was germinating. I sparred for years with pundit (and friend) Bruce Fraser (credited as the father of color management) over this uniquely-digital CM issue. I was true-blue traditional litho and he was a San Francisco publishing revolutionary. I could write a book about it, but it’s but ancient history! It was an exhilarating experience to be at ground zero when the digital publishing bombs began exploding.

The whole color management thing was an unwelcome byproduct of digital photography that became a major problem when digital images collided head-on with the traditional printing industry. Until that ugly encounter, color was not quantified as color pixel values. We (litho and photo folks alike) dealt with color photo reproduction with light-sensitive film emulsions and specific (25, 58, and 47B) Wratten filters. We measured color with our eyes, printing dot percentages with transmissive and reflective densitometers.

Every color house had QC departments that oversaw the process and approved color on press. Press densitometers were instruments used to measure dot gain and the density of ink being laid down on a printing sheet. Known densities of each process color were assigned a specific “thickness” or density to be printed on each paper stock to ensure accurate color reproduction. This was early color management. There were no spectrophotometers to deal with because they simply didn’t exist. Very few trade craftsmen (and no photographers) even knew what the word “spectral” meant. Spectral was a strange “cosmic” word that few understood.

The litmus test for color accuracy back then was based on 6500K viewing booths, Pantone Matching System swatch books, ANSI-defined film emulsions, contract proofs, clean (uncontaminated) presses, translucent process ink colors, and a good set of eyes. Color matching was not an instrument issue, it was a educated human judgment issue.

drum-scannerColor Management issues actually surfaced several years before, when litho drum scanners became digitizing devices in the color separation houses instead of analog film scanners. When color became a measurable, quantifiable entity, the entire color reproduction process was thrown into a chaotic state. This new technology was a tough pill to swallow for the trade. Different manufacturers were vying to have their standards of measurement become the industry standard. I was working for Goldcoast Engraving in Miami in the pre-press department when the first scanners and digital workstations came online. Those of us who had learned the photoengraving trade had to completely revamp our understanding about color capture/separation/reproduction. Like all revolutions, it was a VERY messy, difficult, and divisive struggle.

process cameraMammoth litho process cameras (film sheets up to 60″) became relics overnight, replaced by huge drum scanners, and cavernous darkrooms were replaced by washing machine-size film processors. Film assembly (strippers) and dot etchers lost their jobs to (Hell Chromacom, Crossfield Composition, and Scitex Response) minicomputer workstations. These editing and assembly workstations were the behemoth ancestors of your current Photoshop equipped personal workstation. I remember literally taking a coffee break while our Scitex machine rotated an image- and we thought that was an amazing feat!

A couple of years after this new litho process pushed its way into the printing industry, the Apple Macintosh computer made its debut during the Super Bowl in 1984. I bought the first Mac available in Nashville TN while working at a National Geographic’s contract photoengraving company named NEC (Nashville Electrographics). I could see the future role of this digital infant. Several years later, Adobe Photoshop and desktop scanners exploded onto the scene.

MacUser AwardSml

In 1989 I started a software development company (ImageXpress) and produced a Photoshop plug-in product that totally automated all scanner and Photoshop image preparation for that generation’s wannabe publishers.

The product was called ScanPrep Pro. ScanPrep produced trade quality separations, halftones, and line art for the desktop publishers. The product caused quite a stir, won all the production awards, and sold quite well all over the globe). This was the first digital imaging product to support color management in an automated production environment.


Today color management is the proven method of defining and cataloging the color capture, display, and output of colors in a total digital environment. Since all digital color devices speak the language of color, but each speaks this language with a slightly different accent or dialect, one central system of accurate translation must act as an interpreter. One overarching system based on all the colors that the human eye can perceive has been developed against which each individual colorant used by each individual device when printing on a particular substrate must be judged. This color authority has been defined and recognized as the CIE L*a*b* color space and is deemed as the Holy Grail of color reproduction standards.

The capabilities of each combination of device/colorant/substrate is discovered by generating a large variety of specific color patches through that device and quantifying the resulting patch values with a device known as a spectrophotometer. SpectrolinoThis device measures the spectral values of colors and delivers those results as a file known as a device profile. This indexed table of differential values is then identified and referenced by the color file en route to that device, using those colorants (inks), and that substrate (paper) specified in the profile. Each color in the original image that exceeds the scope of that device profile is then carefully remapped (using defined “intent” specifications) so as to reproduce each of the colors in that file as faithfully as physically possible.

There is no perfect match of colors from one device to another since each capture, display and print technologies are fundamentally unique, but the Color Management system (when strictly administered) produces the closest match of color possible today.

When color management processes are not adhered to and devices are not “well behaved,” the system breaks down. Well behaved devices depend on the faithful administration and tedious monotony of checks and measures. With every paper stock and ink cartridge change, another profile must be generated to ensure that the most consistent, repeatable results are achieved. It is a time consuming chore. But so is the pre-flight check of an airplane, and you hope your pilot continues the chore faithfully.

Color Management remains an enigma for many printing folk while remaining a healthy dependable insurance policy for others. It is a technology quietly but steadily maturing and transforming the publishing industry. All aboard!

There is much more to be said but frankly I’m as tired of writing as you are tired of reading. Enuf.


That’s the way eye sees it.

Thanks for joining me. If you enjoyed this, let me know and tell your friends.

See you next time, Herb

Click the Follow button at the top of the page so you don’t miss any future posts.

PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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