By Olivia Cahoon
Color management software helps print service providers (PSPs) deliver accurate, concise color to brand owners as well as color-critical clients. Most solutions include tools that verify color, create profiles, and manage color mapping for digital printing.
To accompany software, color correcting hardware like spectrophotometers and lighting boxes are available. Used together or independently, color management software and hardware ensures PSPs deliver reproducible color while avoiding challenges and reprints.
Above: GTI offers a variety of lighting boxes and wall viewing systems that conform to the ISO 3664:2009 viewing standard.
Color Management Tools
Color management software verifies color, creates ICC profiles, and inputs spot color mapping to ensure consistent, accurate color.
In basic terms, color management verifies color via hard or soft proofs and builds color profiles with image files that allow for correct color. “If you cannot create a profile then there is no color management,” shares Geert De Proost, director solutions marketing, Esko.
While many consider the ICC standard as the definitive profile to create color correctly, ICC-based color management is somewhat challenged once spot colors are introduced on different substrates and output to a four-color printing device. If the device is a six-color extended gamut digital printer, De Proost believes ICC profiles are largely insufficient. “You must rely on technology best suited for that kind of work for expanded gamut,” he explains. “You need tools to create color profiles, manage expected color results, and create proofs to judge if the color will be represented correctly when in production.”
“Worthy color management handles end to end from designed file to finished print product,” agrees Bryan Manwaring, director of product marketing, Onyx Graphics, Inc. This includes tools that measure how ink and media work together, create media profiles, render images with color profiles, calibrate or linearize, and verify color.
According to Manwaring, the simplest solution to color management is to render then RIP the image, however, this method grants no output control and only uses profiles and decisions that others made. To ensure color, he suggests PSPs manage from design settings to print validation.
Tools should offer variety, as well as address related challenges. For example, input spot color mapping overrides mistakes in incoming files while output spot color mapping matches and fine tunes difficult corporate colors, shares Gudrun Bonte, VP of product management, SA International. “When it comes to color that falls outside of a printer’s color space, print providers can call upon the rendering intent control tool.” It enables print providers to complete jobs quickly and crucially, as well as increase throughput and expand profit margins.
Color normalization tools are also important, but often forgotten. Erik Schmitt, director of sales, Canada and wide format product specialist, GMG Americas, says very few companies ensure that a strategy is in place to handle the original creative artwork at the designer’s office. “Files can arrive as RGB, sRGB, or CMYK. Normalization is required to honor the intended look while maintaining the color output.”
Wide format PSPs utilize color management software to ensure precise color, save time and money, and simplify the printing process.
Color management is especially important for PSPs working with large consumer brands. In fact, Schmitt says in offset, some significant brands need a report to confirm that brand colors are matched. “Without verified color management, there is no way to consistently keep that work—not to mention the amount of waste and time taken attempting to make a color match in a sign shop environment.”
“Frankly, it is tough to be in business if you do not own color management software,” admits De Proost. According to him, color management is vital for PSPs handling brand work or color-intensive projects—like fashion colors. “Certainly, it is critical if you own more than one print device. You need to know how wide the color gamuts are and align the color of each printer to make sure they perform consistently between each other.”
“Color management software is crucial for print providers as it ensures accurate and reproducible color,” agrees Bonte. Investing in a high-quality solution saves time and money for the company by ensuring corporate logos and reprints precisely match. “From a business perspective, this can play an important role in securing repeat work.”
According to Arnaud Fabre, product manager, Caldera, calibration guarantees acceptable colors with little difference in a single run, characterization ensures common color appearance on a heterogeneous fleet of printers and media, spot color management offers brand colors for any run, and process control guarantees the same color with few changes over time.
Considerations for Color
Before selecting color management software, PSPs should consider if the solution offers tools beyond ICC profile creation. To avoid color challenges, it’s important that the software is device independent.
A number of tools play a role in meeting brand color requirements and running an efficient and consistent print shop. “It is hard to measure individual feature importance as they work together for complete color management,” admits Manwaring.
To help, he suggests PSPs ask color management software providers about specific color engines designed for the shop’s needs, seamless integration with design applications, solutions that support white and specialty inks, tools for profile accuracy verification, and methods for managing, mapping, and matching Pantone or spot colors.
If looking solely at software tools, it is important PSPs consider features that handle color beyond producing ICC profiles. According to Bonte, tools like spot color mapping, spot channel control, color replacement, rendering intent settings, and a high-quality spectrophotometer ensures premium and consistent color each and every time.
Not only are the tool functions important, but also the tool set quality. Many prepress operators in the digital space do not have as much color management expertise as those in other print areas, like packaging and flexographic work. Schmitt believes the best solution for digital press operators is to simplify the process. “A lot of the tools vary so much that you need an expert or consultant to deploy them.”
PSPs should also make sure that the software is compatible with their output devices. If the PSP intends to utilize a uniform color management system consistent from one printer to the next, Schmitt says it should be able to drive all of the PSP’s printers.
Selecting a software that is device independent ensures all presses and software are compatible. “A PSP must make sure that irrespective of make or model, the system is capable of covering color needs,” adds De Proost.
Proof with Light
Lighting boxes, viewing booths, and viewing walls are one color management method that proofs printed graphics in several lighting types prior to installation. The hardware is designed to provide a consistent, repeatable, and standardized environment to compare and evaluate color and texture.
“Without a standardized viewing environment, the visual evaluation of color and printed materials become an arbitrary, unstandardized, and uncontrolled process with unpredictable results,” comments James Summers, VP, JUST Normlicht Inc.
When an item is viewed, the color is a result of the light source’s color quality and the item’s reflective characteristics. As a result, color can appear to match under one light source and then appear significantly different under another. “Therefore, designers, brand owners, and production staff should all evaluate a color under a consistent light source,” recommends Brian Wolfenden, field marketing manager, GTI Graphic Technology, Inc.
To achieve accurate prints, industries developed international standards for viewing color. For example, the graphic arts and photographic industries adopted ISO 3664:2009, which specifies D50 daylight viewing conditions. “ISO 3664:2009 requires that viewing conditions meet strict specifications with regard to color quality, light intensity, evenness of illumination, viewing/illumination geometry, and surround conditions,” offers Wolfenden. Differences in any of the conditions should affect color appearance.
If color quality is important in any part of the production supply chain—photography, designing, prepress, or pressroom—PSPs should invest in consistent lighting conditions that conform to ISO 3664:2009 viewing conditions. For example, Wolfenden says if a designer is working in a studio with a combination of natural daylight and incandescent, prepress is in a window-less room with overhead fluorescents, and the pressroom is in a large room with overhead tungsten lamps, each room affects the color’s appearance—resulting in poor color communication and unsatisfied customers.
While lighting boxes are integral for color-sensitive clients, they should be considered for all print shops. Summers explains that PSPs should want the ability to consistently judge color to a known standard to determine the actual color, regardless of quality. “If the viewing environment isn’t controlled, it’s not possible to judge how good or bad the color actually is.”
Maintenance, Lifespan, & Costs
A variety of lighting boxes and light sources are available with options for desktop viewing, wall viewing, and floor stands.
Lighting boxes typically require little maintenance to remain in the ISO 3664:2009 viewing standard specifications. “All a user needs to do is keep the viewer clean and change the lamps after every 2,500 hours of use,” suggests Wolfenden. Select viewers include a timer that tracks usage and notifies users when it is time to relamp.
Lamps are made with different lighting blends, including LED-based solutions and fluorescent tubes. The box itself typically has a five to 15 year lifespan, depending on design and usage. For products with LED-based lighting, ISO-compliant lighting maintenance can be limited to changing lenses every five or so years, says Summers. Lenses, tubes, drivers, ballast, and other parts are sourced direct from the manufacturer or dealer.
A small format entry-level box with one light source can cost as little as $600 while a complete room-programmable illumination system with multiple light sources can exceed $100,000, according to Summers. Generally speaking, the cost is determined by the size of the ISO-compliant viewing area, number of light sources, light source quality, and the physical product’s structure.
For example, Wolfenden says a single source desktop viewer costs around $540, a floor stand $3,900, and a four-foot wall viewing system is $2,300.
As brand owners hold PSPs to tighter color requirements, the use of spectrophotometers becomes increasingly important. A spectrophotometer takes the guesswork out of color management and monitors every step of the printing operation. Two options are available—those for manual use and those included in the press.
“Spectrophotometers are needed to measure and provide real measurement data, which is the starting point of every color management process. Such spectral data is fundamental to create a high-quality color profile and therefore high-quality final output,” explains Viktor Lazzeri, VP of product and operations, Barbieri Electronic.
In addition to measuring unique properties of color, spectrophotometers are used for calibration and linearization. “A spectrophotometer is required to build ICC profiles—a necessary part of any digital print process,” shares Ray Cheydleur, printing and imaging portfolio manager, X-Rite, Incorporated. For most commercial, digital, and wide format printers, spectrophotometers are an integral part of color management.
Most wide format printers use RIP processing, which requires a spectrophotometer. The RIP process needs linearization and calibration for a PSP to maintain the same print quality each day. Additionally, the combination of a RIP process and ICC profiles also provides consistent color. Once this is in place, Cheydleur says PSPs want to have even better color quality and gain production efficiencies. “Using a spectrophotometer to conduct ICC color management is the natural next evolutionary step.”
Spectrophotometers are often purchased for calibration to drive consistency, which helps reduce both waste and setup time. According to Lazzeri, other factors include strengthening customer relationships. “All PSPs should consider this investment as it pays off very fast. Reaching stability and quality in production over time is the goal for every PSP and spectrophotometers are the key to achieve it.”
Spectrophotometers can be used in conjunction with a lighting box or luminaire as part of the overall color management process. It’s important to note that a spectrophotometer does not replace the need for lighting and visual evaluations.
Angles & Types
Spectrophotometers are available in different angles. For example, a 0:45-degree device is commonly used in the graphic arts. Zero refers to the illumination angle and 45 describes the viewing angle. According to Cheydleur, 0:45-degree spectrophotometers are historically popular for measuring color on smooth or matte surfaces in printing and packaging operations.
Several types of 0:45-degree spectrophotometers are available. Some are designed to perform a single task—like calibrate monitors—while others conduct both emissive and reflective measurements and can be automated. “This is an affordable solution that enables hands-free test chart reading for automated color profiling or color validation,” says Cheydleur.
Some print shops working with metallic inks and effects have added sphere or D:8 spectrophotometers to color management tool sets. A sphere spectrophotometer illuminates the object diffusely from all directions and the detector receives the reflected light at an eight-degree angle from the object’s surface. With a sphere spectrophotometer, Cheydleur says users choose to include or exclude the gloss component of an object’s surface.
The last type of spectrophotometer is a multi-angle device. Once used exclusively for automotive paints, multi-angle devices are found in applications with pearlescent or metal flakes.
Brand owners and PSPs are increasingly concerned with color. As a complex and critical aspect of the digital printing process, color is maintained and measured throughout the production workflow with the use of software, spectrophotometers, and lighting boxes. Together, color management solutions ensure PSPs deliver accurate, color-intensive work.
Apr2019, Industrial Print Magazine