True Colour

May 18, 2008 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Design, Hardware, Software | Leave a comment
purple flower
Creative Commons Photo by Subramanyan

Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.
— Paul Klee

In the TV world, North America uses a technology known as “NTSC” for reproducing colours on the screen. Jokingly, this is said to mean ‘Never Twice the Same Color’. This meant when you visited Aunt Freda’s, your favorite characters on Bonanza might look rather green. The ‘Auto’ button on newer TV’s helped quite a bit to calibrate the drifting settings. Flat screens are further improved but any visit to a TV store will illustrate the variety even today.

Computers suffered worse. At first a “Color” monitor meant just 256 colours. And they weren’t the same 256 colours on a Mac. (just 216 in common) Slowly, people got better monitors that supported more and more colours. But they still had programs that would change monitor settings around and not set them back. So even though they may have been able to see 16 million colours, it may have been set much lower. In the early days of web design, coders used “web safe” colours. That is, colours they were pretty sure would show OK on most computers. If they used other colours, they might look horribly blotchy. (The Web Ref tab above has more on this) Still, I had a few meetings with clients to show work on the web and I was horrified at what their monitor was showing. Bleeding reds, washed out tones, or light text faded into the background.

These days, there is more stability but still lots of variability.

You also have problems when you try and print. Printers use a different colour model (reflected colour) and may be set quite differently. Send your work to an expensive printer and what came back was !! or you wasted that expensive paper.

If you have recently upped to having multiple monitors (big desktop) you will likely have noticed that even 2 screens from the same place will have different colorings. This gets a little distracting when you move images from one side of the desktop to the other. Or across a network.

All this can put a real cramp on digital photography and art.

Like Typography, early Mac’s included colour calibration so you could save proper colour settings for your monitor and do more accurate colour work. Thats why Macs became favorites for designers. PC’s meanwhile have NEVER had decent colour calibration included in Windows. Adobe developed utilities when they ported PhotoShop to the PC. (It adds Adobe Gamma to the Control Panel) Some video cards, like my ATI add a colour tab. (Monitor Properties, Settings tab, Advanced button, color tab) Microsoft does actually have a Color Powertoy available, but as an unsupported download for XP.

Pros often use hardware tools to calibrate their monitors for correct colour. The excellent Spyder line has introduced more affordable products for the serious user.

Recently, the once paid-for program Calibrize has changed to an advertising model, with banner ads on the tool. The download is completely free. If you don’t have an Adobe package and don’t have a good monitor adjustment utility, this may be a great option. Its easier to use than the Powertoy too. It can remind you to check every so often but by default does not nag.

When I tried to follow the very simple directions, my monitor would not let me change the contrast settings. However, in the ATI control panel (Monitor Properties, Settings, Advanced, color tab), I could adjust all settings there easily. This meant I didn’t really need Calibrize but it still had handy visual guides for the settings. Without Adobe and ATI on board, it would be very useful. I’ve tried a number of such tools and this is one of the few that doesn’t need a manual to use.


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