Colour Match

Despite attempts to solve the conundrum of matching colours on screen with the printed job, a failsafe solution remains elusive. However, while the design industry waits for answers, there are steps you can take to improve your results.

Key to the problem is basic physics. Colour composition on-screen is based on the broadcast of primary-coloured light – red, blue and yellow, while printed matter relies on light reflected from the basic subtractive printing colours of cyan, magenta and yellow. Essentially, images lose something in translation, for example, clean yellows on screen turn into terrifying lime greens on paper. The problem is compounded by the fact that while our eyes see a massive colour range, its full scope is not matched by the capacity of a monitor or printer.

Currently, the hiccup is solved by attempting to reconcile differences – the fiddling of calibration and recalibration, setting preferences, studying colour profiling and, generally, much faffing about.

“The EFI system has come close to the answer,” says Tim Moore of Revolution. “It has created profiles for a range of printing devices and monitors and then, in theory, once you select the output, your screen automatically recalibrates itself. To a degree it works, but no one trusts it fully. Apple has developed ColorSync which does a similar job, but I’m not sure how many people bother with that either.

Generally there is a lack of trust in the options, and maybe they’re not easy enough to use. As a result I think a lot of designers do what they’ve always done – they look at the printed swatch and produce the designs on screen, keeping the swatch colours in mind while trying to ignore the colours they’re seeing in front of them.”

He adds that the problem is far from limited to screen-to-page transfers, there is also concern in screen-to-screen traffic in media such as the Internet. “Because all monitors are different there’s no hope of accurate colour rendition until perhaps across-the-board, global standards are brought in. It would be nice to know that what I’m seeing is what everyone else will see.”

Alan Farrelly of Giant agrees that most designers have opted to live with the limitations. “I think we now accept that what you see is not an accurate rendition,” he says. “Even with the EFI system, accurate colours are difficult to achieve. If I print out a Pantone swatch from a Fiery and compare the result to the original book, most colours are quite good, but there are still a lot that are not.” He also says that even from Mac to Mac in the studio there are significant variations. “The other day two of us printed out the same job and got very different results – we didn’t have our preferences set the same, but then we’re always changing those because we’ve never found a right setting. All this results in a lot of time-wasting.”

Representing the solution-makers, John Cunningham of Adobe says that work is continually in progress on improvements, but meanwhile colour management has been devised to smooth out blips and provide cross-platform standards. “Along with Adobe, colour management standards are agreed by Apple, Microsoft, Sun and others.” Cunningham stresses that because a job can pass through so many different machines and formats, it’s a good discipline to carry out regular calibration.

Cunningham is also a firm believer in talking to service providers. “Talk with your repro house, for example, to get an idea of what suits you both best. Sorting out these things early can save a lot of wasted time and frustration.”

One of the most positive and optimistic voices however is Ian Mills of the Redhill-based systems dealer Artworker, who is also a member of the Apple Publishing Alliance. “In an ideal world, what a graphic designer sees on-screen will be what gets output. But one problem at the moment is that QuarkXPress does not currently support Apple’s ColorSync. However, there are at least two Quark extensions available – costing around 500 – which can allow this to happen.” The good news on this front is that the next release of Quark, version 4, is understood to support ColorSync. “This will allow the whole document, rather than imported images generated in other applications, to be colour- managed,” says Mills.

And Mills suggests designers are not comparing like with like. “Pantone colours as used by most designers are made from mixing up ink from nine pots of colour, so it’s not surprising that when just four colours are being used for spot colour it’s not possible to achieve an accurate rendition.”

In a perfect world, colour management should reside in the RIP and should be applied at output, says Mills: “So when a user is deciding whether or not to install a server and which type of server to choose, it is a good idea to check whether the networking software will support ColorSync. For example, Helios EtherShare and EtherShare OPI do support ColorSync. This means that networked Mac users can enjoy the speed and performance of Unix, while knowing that they can leave ColorSync in the server to apply colour management to the file just before final output.”

Meanwhile, as we await the next steps in making colour management easier still, members of the Apple Publishing Alliance offer training, and in some cases, a regular colour calibration service.

In the final colour feature on 11 April, Fay Sweet looks at colour and graphics and asks what colour consultants can do for you.

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