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Color Management on a Shoestring Budget

(January 2009) posted on Thu Jan 29, 2009

A little color management is better than none at all.

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By Stephen Beals

It’s true; setting up a shop-wide color-management system can be expensive to implement. And if you don’t have any in-house color experts, it can be tricky as well. In such situations, it’s probably wise to call in a consultant who can evaluate your entire process and profile at least your most important input and output devices. Color management is being done on many different levels by different print providers, from just calibrating monitors and a couple of output devices to creating profiles for every device and output condition imaginable. Then there are those who are not doing any color management at all. If you’re in the latter group, your time has come.

To be honest, for most print providers, profiling every different type of paper you send out is probably just more trouble and expense than it’s worth. Most consultants recommend you create profiles for your most critical jobs, and generate a generic "happy medium" color profile for the rest. That means lumping similar paper stocks and output devices together. It won’t give you the best possible output, but it will almost certainly keep your customers happy and your output consistent.

Can color management be done at a reasonable cost, without bringing in a consultant, and still yield acceptable results? I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. I say "qualified" here because color management on a shoestring will not yield the best possible results. But it’s also true that even the most rigorous and thorough implementation cannot give you perfection. There are simply too many variables in the process. Differences in inks, papers, environmental conditions, and even in color perception will always be problematic.

So perhaps the question is: How close is close enough? For folks who are not doing any color management, some implementation is certainly better than none. But the good news is that there are products out there that make it possible to do some pretty good calibration and profiling without the thousands of dollars of hardware and software investments the best systems require. A high-quality spectrophotometer costs approximately $3000, and that’s just more than a lot of small shops want to spend. You can’t expect a spectrophotometer that costs a tenth of that price to be as precise, but fortunately, you can expect it to give you results that are acceptable to a wide range of printers and their customers.