Mastering the Digital Workflow

In my previous post I covered the time until the beginning of 2006, when I still hadn’t achieved much of an understanding of the digital workflow. But since I had a real interest, I kept experimenting, reading, asking, learning, and slowly I began to grasp one idea after the other…

Understanding RAW

I’d tried working with RAW images earlier, but since I didn’t really know much about raw, I’d given it up again. Luckily I made one more attempt. Remember that great tutorial that I’d found on how to set up color-management in Photoshop? Well, it was written by someone named Bruce Fraser, and Bruce seemed to really know his stuff. So I searched what else he has written and found “Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS2.” Take my word on this: this book is head and shoulders above all others. If you want to really understand RAW, this is the book to get. Or the new edition, “Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS3.”

After reading the CS2 book, I understood what RAW is, what it is good for, and how to efficiently work with one or many RAW files. I’ve hardly ever shot a JPG since then…

Understanding Color Spaces

Bruce’s book also helped me understand what color spaces are and when to use sRGB, Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB. Essentially, if you don’t know much about color spaces, set your camera to sRGB and everything will work. If you want to get more vibrant prints, you should use Adobe RGB, but before making JPGs for the Web, you need to convert your files to sRGB. If you don’t, the JPGs will have funny colors. Also do note that PaintShopPro and Photoshop Elements cannot convert between color spaces, so Photoshop is pretty much your only choice here. Do note that most Internet printing labs only accept JPGs and assume that these are in sRGB.

If you are looking for the ultimate color gamut, you should shoot in RAW, then convert the RAW files into 16-bit ProPhoto images. Note that 16-bit images can only be saved as TIFF or PSD.

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Above is an image in sRGB. Click on it to see the same image in ProPhoto RGB. If you think you understand color spaces, try to explain why (1) the second image “looks funny” in a Web-browser, and (2) looks funny even in a color-managed application.

Monitor Calibration via Print

But I am getting ahead of myself. I finished my last post with the JPGs that I’d sent for printing after having “calibrated” my monitor using the ColorPlus spyder and after making sure that the JPGs are in the sRGB color space. Well, even those prints came out too dark!

I was about to give up on the whole thing when I discovered that fotocommunity-prints offers a JPG file for download and a paper print of that same file. You load the JPG in your color-managed editing application and compare it to the print. You then tweak the monitor settings until you get the monitor image to match the print in your hand.

It was a quite difficult to achieve a good visual match (since the monitor projects light and the print reflects light), but I did the best I could. The major revelation was that my monitor was set up way too bright. I had to lower the brightness down to 37 out of 100. Afterwards the monitor was so dark that it was difficult to work on it on a bright day!

I asked more questions on the Internet and learned that the standard brightness of a monitor is around 120 cd/m2. However most monitors (especially TFTs and especially when they are new) can produce more that 200 cd/m2. Also apparently all new monitors are set to 100% brightness when they are shipped, so if you’ve never calibrated your monitor, it’s probably set up way too bright. And if your monitor is too bright, your JPGs are too dark, and if you tell the lab not to make any corrections, you get prints that are too dark. Simple, isn’t it?

Understanding Monitor Calibration and Monitor Profiling

After I had calibrated my monitor using the print from the fotocommunity, I prepared a large JPG and sent it out for printing on a 50 x 140 cm canvas. I was confident that the result would be very good, but in fact it was a bit too light. Now I know that the reason for the small difference in brightness is that I hadn’t done the comparison with soft proofing turned on, but at that time I decided that calibrating visually is not very accurate, so I bought a better calibrating device. All the details can be found here, but let me just say before profiling a monitor you should calibrate it first. Calibration means that you bring the monitor to a well-defined state (120 cd/m2, Gamma 2.2, D6500) and profiling is the process of creating an ICC profile that describes how your actual monitor differs from the ideal properly calibrated monitor. The ColorPlus software was only capable of profiling and the manual never mentioned anything about having to calibrate first.

Luckily Gretag MacBeth’s Eye-One Display 2 guides you through both processes, and so finally I had a properly adjusted monitor.

Learning All the Rest

From Bruce Fraser’s “Real World Adobe Photoshop CS2” I learned a lot about layers, layer masks, blending modes, paths, curves, levels, etc. But I wouldn’t say that I know all that much about image editing. Bruce helped me out once more, when I was learning about image sharpening. For soft proofing and printing I turned to Michael Reichmann and Jeff Schewe, and in the end, the long-awaited end, I printed my first ink-jet print.

So that my friends was my path through the digital workflow. It was not an easy one, but it feels great to have a good understanding of all these concepts!

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