Colour management system

A colour management system is a set of techniques and technologies used to ensure that colours are represented and reproduced consistently across different devices (like cameras, monitors, and printers) and in various media.

Colour management systems aim to control the way colours appear from the initial capture or creation, through display and editing, to final output, ensuring that what you see on your screen or print matches the original colour as closely as possible.

So colour management is about the accurate reproduction of colour.

  • An artist may want to accurately reproduce a colour they see in a natural scene using oil paints.
  • A designer may need to identify colours in an original photograph and then ensure they appear the same when printed.
  • An advertising company must ensure products look the same across all the platforms where consumers encounter them.
  • A film-maker may want to use consistent colour grading across every scene within a movie.

A colour management system might be an informal process an artist or designer has developed to streamline how they set up their work, tools and equipment.

A professional colour management workflow might include the following:

  • Capture: In this initial stage, a photographer or filmmaker captures the image or footage. They would usually set their camera to capture in RAW format for maximum colour information.
  • Monitor Calibration: Before editing, the professional makes sure that their monitor is calibrated correctly. This ensures that the colours displayed on the screen are accurate. Tools like hardware colourimeters might be used for this process.
  • Image Editing: When editing the image or footage in software like Adobe Photoshop or Premiere Pro, the professional uses colour profiles. These are mathematical models that describe the colour capabilities of each device. They ensure that the colours are represented accurately on the screen. The professional might use an International Colour Consortium (ICC) profile, which is widely accepted across different devices and platforms.
  • Printing or Display: If the final product is to be printed, the professional will use the printer’s specific colour profile to ensure the printed colours match what’s seen on-screen as closely as possible. If the final product is to be displayed on a different device or online, they will convert the colour profile to a standard one like sRGB, which is widely used for web images and video.
  • Proofing and Quality Check: A final check is performed to ensure the colours appear as expected in the final medium, whether print or digital display. For print, a hard proof might be created before running the full print job. For digital displays, it might involve checking the product on multiple devices and display settings.
About colour management & photographic workflow
  • In photography, the main goal of colour management is to control the accurate capture of original colours and ensure consistent reproduction of specific colours or entire gamuts throughout the creative process.
  • When producing a photo, colour management is used to ensure consistent output across various devices, including digital cameras, scanners, monitors, TV screens, computer printers, and offset printing presses.
  • Colour management compensates for the differences in technologies, devices, and media all of which may have distinct capacities for reproducing gamuts and intensities of colour, potentially leading to unintended shifts in appearance.
  • At the consumer level, all operating systems include built-in colour management by default.
  • Most hardware and software related to visual design and image reproduction offer colour management options that can be set by default or require configuration based on specific purposes.
  • The International Colour Consortium’s (ICC) colour management system serves as a comprehensive industrial standard for cross-platform colour management.

The principal components of a colour management system include:

About colour management in practice

A typical colour management workflow starts by ensuring that colours seen through a camera viewfinder are captured and digitally recorded. Editing software such as Adobe CC allows extensive choices to be made about the appearance of images. When the workflow demands it, the calibration of monitors ensures information is accurately reproduced when viewed on screen. A successful outcome is one where all the decisions made during the editing process are accurately rendered in the resulting image.

A. Image capture   B. Image editing   C. Monitoring images   D. Image output


A. Image Capture
  • Digital cameras provide settings to allow colour profiles to be selected that affect how colours are recorded, these deal with:
    • White balance
    • Photo style setting includes control over sharpness, depth of field, contrast, saturation and tone (including monochrome) etc.
  • Digital file formats enable control over the quantity and types of information stored about an image:
    • Raw file formats store all the recorded information without compression.
    • JPEG, TIFF and PNG use algorithms to produce a balance between file size and image quality.
B. Image Editing
  • Software suites such as Adobe CC allow for almost limitless choices when editing visual material.
  • Applications within Adobe CC such as Photoshop and Illustrator allow workspaces to be selected prior to editing.
  • A workspace in Adobe apps is an intermediate colour model-related colour space used during the editing process.
  • A global setting for the colour mode of a workspace in Illustrator can be selected in the Document colour mode dialogue box during the set-up of a new document.
  • Workspaces can also be temporarily switched between CMYK, HSB, RGB, Greyscale and Websafe RGB in the Colour Settings dialogue box without affecting the Document colour mode.
C. Monitoring Images
  • Monitor profiles control the translation of data within image files into a monitor’s colour space.
  • On-screen controls may include:
  • Monitor calibration tools ensure accurate colour across the visible spectrum and fine tonal adjustment. Professional monitor calibration packages include:
    • Datacolor SpyderX
    • Calibrite ColorChecker
    • Wacom Colour Manager
    • SpectraCal Colorimeter
D. Image Output
  • Colour management systems use output device profiles to prepare and translate the data in edited documents to match the capabilities of an output device and ensure the best possible match.
  • To ensure consistency across applications, Adobe CC provides options to be selected in the Colour Settings dialogue box that ensures all applications are synchronized to use the same device-independent colour space.
    • RGB Colour Settings options include:
      • Adobe RGB (1998)
      • Prophoto RGB
      • sRGB
    • An extensive range of CMYK colour space options are also available.

A. Lab colour space (entire visible spectrum)   B. Documents (working space)   C. Devices 

This diagram illustrates the generic colour gamuts of different types of devices and documents.