Port Clyde Summer Gallery

September 28, 2011


evening slack tide and still water, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Evening slack tide and still water, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine


Summer ends, fading to a deepening season. Despite last weekend’s warm termperatures, which inspired the mosquitos in my backyard to rise from their torpor to a frenzy, summer’s memory will become winter’s distant dream.


I invite you to share a bit of summer in one of Maine’s rich places, Port Clyde on the St. George peninsula. Port Clyde has become an important locus of renewal for me over the past several summers, a haven of rich natural light and beauty unique to Maine. Scroll down, and if you wish to see a much larger and more comprehensive galley you can click here.


Rowboat on a dock in Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Rowboat on a dock at sunset, Port Clyde, Maine


Most visitors see Port Clyde simply as a pass-through port on the way to Monhegan Island — Monhegan of the artists, Monhegan of the dreams. Port Clyde gives up its secrets more slowly than Monhegan, not yet wrapped in a big-art mythos, not yet gentrified or cute. Port Clyde is a working port first and foremost, and plans to stay that way for a long time to come.


Marshall Point Light House And Port Clyde Harbor, Dusk

Port Clyde Harbor with Marshall Point Light, dusk


Lobster boats are as ubiquitous in Port Clyde as skyscrapers are in Manhattan. They’re simply everywhere you look, tools of commerce at the heart of the economy. To shoot here one must cast aside limiting ideas of art high or low, and simply see that which is here now. Who knows how long this fishing economy will last?


Twilight Rainstorm And Kayaker, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Twilight rainstorm and kayaker, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine


Marshall Point Light And Fog, Early Dawn

Marshall Point Light and fog, early dawn


Heavy Fog, Evening, Port Clyde, Maine

Heavy fog, evening, Port Clyde, Maine


Cleaning the hull of the Ella Christine, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Cleaning the Ella Christine, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine


Sun Through The Fog, Port Clyde Harbor And Marshall Point Light

Sun through the fog, Port Clyde Harbor and Marshall Point Light


Sweatshirt, Port Clyde Harbor

Sweatshirt, Port Clyde Harbor


Heading Out With Traps, Port Clyde Harbor

Fresh traps, Port Clyde Harbor


Morning Lobster Gear At Port Clyde Harbor

Lobstering gear, Port Clyde Harbor


Lobster boat going out in the morning, Port Clyde, Maine

Morning sun outward bound, Port Clyde Harbor


Lobster Buoys On The Dock, Port Clyde, Maine

Buoys, Port Clyde


Rope on the dock in late sun, Port Clyde, Maine

Ropes on the dock, Port Clyde Harbor


Sun Through The Fog, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Sun through the fog, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine


Gulls, Evening, Port Clyde, Maine

Gulls, evening, Port Clyde, Maine


If you’d like to see more in depth, click through to my website gallery here.

Color Management Part 3: Web Or Print?

June 30, 2011

In my previous post “Color Management Part 2:  Your Monitor” I wrote, “whether your monitor is brand new or of any recent vintage, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be running too bright and too contrasty.” This is absolutely true in the context of color management for print, and by “print” I mean the large universe of offset press printing, fine art inkjet, office color laser printers, and more.

But what if you don’t intend to “print” your work, but only intend to publish it on the web? What do you do if your customers, audience, users and target market are mainly on the web?

There is no web standard for monitor brightness.

I’ve pointed out previously that the sRGB color space is the defacto standard for color on the web; there is no fully agreed standard, just a preponderance of choices that have been made for you by the major hardware and software manufacturers. At this point, choosing the sRGB color space for your photography and art on the web is the best choice you can make for the largest number of viewers to see your photos “accurately.”

But what about monitor brightness? There is no web standard for brightness, and monitor manufacturers compete aggressively to produce brighter and more contrasty monitors. For sRGB, our “standard” color space for the web, the monitor brightness specification is 80 candelas per square meter. But your uncalibrated monitor or laptop is probably more than double this amount. I’ve measured friend’s and client’s monitors over 190 candelas!

Photographs prepared for print look too bright on the web.

In film days, there was a simple standard for evaluating the quality of any photo transparencies:  put them on a standard light box and look for yourself. Are the photos exposed correctly and is the color accurate? Standard light boxes were everywhere, inexpensive and easy to use.

There is no simple light box to evaluate digital photographs. If you’re using a professional photographer who is shooting digitally, the ICC calibrated workflow is the only independent standard to evaluate photographs for exposure and color accuracy. A professional has to master and deliver his/her photos this way so that clients and color professionals downstream can also view, evaluate and use the photos properly.

Digital photographs are prepared for print using ICC standards on calibrated monitors running between 90 and 110 (rarely, up to 120) candelas; this depends on the brightness of the office environment.

The dilemma is that clients who are not color managed will then take those photos and view them on computer systems vastly indifferent to ICC standards. Photos prepared for print correctly look too bright and washed-out when viewed on a typical user’s over-bright and uncalibrated monitor.

And millions of monitors driven by millions of computers are older, newer, brighter, darker, more or less contrasty, and all unique.

It seems you’re  faced with a choice:  do I want my photos to be seen accurately by a very small number of people who are using color-managed computer systems? Or do I want to get my pictures “sort of right” for the overwhelming number of web users who are not calibrated?

What if you need both print and web? Can you have it both ways? Yes, with certain limitations.

You can make separate monitor profiles for print and web use, and switch when needed.

The strategy I suggest is to master your photographs or art for your most important distribution medium. Then, evaluate your photographs for other uses by switching between different monitor profiles built at higher and lower brightness settings. You then “save as” versions of those photos for use in the different media. Please, test and evaluate my suggested settings below for yourself before using them to prepare important or professional work!

I’m going to assume you have followed my advice in my post Color Management Part 2: Your Monitor and purchased a professional-level monitor calibration package (software and hardware). Scroll to the end of that post for links to suggested packages. The capability of these packages lets you build profiles for your monitor at different brightness levels. You can specify monitor brightness in candelas (or lux, the number will be the same).

You can make one monitor profile for print and one monitor profile for web, and switch between them as you need depending on the medium you’re targeting. My best guess for “uncalibrated web brightness” is 165 candelas. However, if you make dual profiles for web and print as I suggest later in this article, 165 candelas may be too much of a stretch for the typical monitor. And, the brighter you run your monitor, the sooner it will burn out!

Calibrating software is easy to use.

With good profiling hardware/software packages, monitors are ideally (and easily) set as follows: (1) you attach your colorimeter to your computer, (2) you launch your calibration and profiling software, and (3) as part of the process, your colorimeter measures your monitor brightness. You’re advised to adjust the monitor’s hardware brightness control until you get close, just a little bit above, the target brightness you want. The software then finishes the calibrating job by adjusting the video card for final brightness and color.

The software only adjusts brightness down.

On the typical monitor, the software can only adjust the brightness down from the hardware control level you set; it can’t raise it. So if you want two profiles for your monitor you have to set the monitor hardware brightness control for the higher level you want, then build both profiles while leaving the hardware brightness setting alone.

You will let the software achieve the final brightness setting for the print-use monitor profile. First, build a web-use profile (I suggest 150 candelas), using the monitor’s hardware controls as directed by your software. After building this brighter monitor profile for web, build another monitor profile for print use by changing only the brightness level you need in the software. I suggest 100 candelas.

How it works.

By design, the software compresses certain parts of the signal and stretches other parts. This reduces the number of different levels (tonal separations you can see) sent to the monitor. The more the brightness is lowered by software only, the more levels you lose and the harsher the transition from one tone to another. Large software adjustments can become visible as banding of broad, smooth areas of tone or color. The more you use software only to adjust brightness downward, without using the hardware controls, the more levels (tonal separations) you lose.

The monitor profile you build for print using the hardware brightness setting for the web will be less accurate than the one you might otherwise optimally build for print use. This is a compromise inherent in this approach.

But it may not matter to you at all. If you primarily want to evaluate your photos for the web, and only need occasionally to check print accuracy, you can use this strategy with a typical off-the-shelf monitor.

Print users should stick to one hardware and software profile.

If you primarily need print accuracy, this strategy will not work for you. If you’re an artist making fine art inkjet prints, you will definitely be happier building your monitor profile at optimal hardware and software controls. You will not be able to adjust your monitor to a higher brightness level without ruining the profile you made for print. You can only make an informed guess about adjusting your photos for the web. I suggest applying a curve or level adjustment in Photoshop and then  ”saving as” the adjusted photos for use on the web.

I’ve placed an action setting that makes a curve adjustment layer in luminosity mode here if you care to download and try it (option-click or control-click the links). On my calibrated system it works reasonably well to make photos mastered for print at 100 candelas look more acceptable at 150 candelas, the unmanaged web. Place the action in your actions folder. Remember to “save as” your photos because the adjustment is permanent, and use the adjusted versions only on the web.

If you absolutely, positively need the most accuracy at all brightness levels, you will need a monitor with internal electronics that support 10, 12 or 14 bit color and can communicate two ways with the computer via the monitor cable or USB.  These specialized monitors set brightness levels both higher and lower precisely via software control of the internal monitor electronics. The accuracy is outstanding, as are the price tags ($1,250.00 to $2,500.00). With these monitors, you can easily build accurate profiles at different brightness levels and suffer no loss of quality. This is the strategy I have lately adopted, since I have a monitor of this type. I have profiles at 90, 110, 150 and 165 candelas. I use 90 for print mastering. 165 looks extremely bright to me, and and I have, for now, settled on 150 for a valid web preview.

I’d love to hear your experiences and whether or not this approach works for you.


June 6, 2011

My philosophy is simple — excel with every assignment. Always overdeliver. Pay careful attention to clear communication and client service, from initial contact through delivery. Prepare diligently, then be flexible and alert for new opportunities to improve the shot. Be considerate and patient. Remember that attitude is as important as talent in producing the best work.


April 29, 2011

I’ve been in love with photography since I had my first camera, a Brownie Starmite, at age seven. I built my first darkroom in eighth grade.

I grew up in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree from Syracuse University, 1974. After graduation, I worked for Children’s Hospital Medical Center as a neuroscience photographer, then moved into commercial photography in 1975. I assisted several fine commercial photographers, then went on my own. I moved to Maine in 1977.

Since then, I’ve been creating photography for local, regional and Fortune 500 clients. Assignments have taken me throughout the United States and to England, Sweden, Germany, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. I specialize in location photography of people, technology, architecture and the natural world. My experience has made me an adept and nimble traveler, attuned to negotiating different cultures and languages.

As a New Englander by disposition in the one-second-attention-span Internet age, I’m still a bit bashful about banging my own drum. So let me say, as Walter Brennan’s character did in a certain ’60′s TV show, “No brag, just fact.” My specialty is making magic – seeing beyond the everyday. Whether a laboratory or a landscape, my photos are impeccably produced, with clean composition, beautiful color and masterful use of light. I’m a digital expert and meticulous at preparing photographs for reproduction. I do photo Mastering, complex compositing and color management consulting.

Photography, the Language of Light, is my vocation and my passion. My point of view is that the world is a marvelous place, and it is my life’s work to capture and communicate that marvel with the camera. My fine art work embraces both the traditions of film photography and today’s digital media. I’m a master printer well known for the evocative beauty of my silver and gicleé prints. My work resonates with a charged sense of place and moment.

I reside in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, within easy striking distance of major airports and assignments anywhere.

Color Management Part 2: Your Monitor

April 21, 2011

If you’ve gone through the effort of setting up Photoshop CS(X) preferences correctly, you can be comfortable knowing that Photoshop is handling all image file information accurately on your computer system. And, you won’t accidentally ruin the image files you want to view or approve. But there’s an important next link in the chain of color management if you want to view your image files accurately:  your monitor.

Whether your monitor is brand new or of any recent vintage, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be running too bright and too contrasty. And it’s definitely not showing color accurately. Right out of the box, most new monitors are running at 160 or 180 candelas or more, when a proper target range is 90 candelas (in a dark environment) to 120 candelas (in a very bright environment).

Hardware and software to profile your monitor is affordable and easy to use.

Furthermore, Photoshop uses your computer system’s “default profile” for your monitor. Remember profiles from the previous color management article? Without a custom profile, the default profile is typically a generic monitor name and is certainly a non-standard RGB color space. Monitors are especially, wildly inaccurate. Go shopping for a monitor or a TV at a big box store where they’re all tuned to the same channel and you can see huge differences from model to model.

Your monitor needs a custom icc profile generated by a hardware and software package. Attempts to visually color match a monitor with the brightness, contrast and color temperature controls, or a program like the old Adobe Gamma, will always fail. They fail because they are global adjustments only; they affect all colors at the same time, so all color errors are transposed together equally. Think of this as a two-dimensional approach.

You need both the hardware and the software.

You need both the hardware and the software. I can tell you from personal experience, there is no way to muck up your monitor settings to get it to show anything accurately. Ten or twelve years ago (a lifetime in computer technology), the hardware/software packages to profile monitors were very expensive and exotic. I remember spending a couple months (!) making wildly inaccurate inkjet prints on my unmanaged color system, then monkeying around with the monitor controls to try to “match” the print. The hope was to duplicate the errors onscreen and then be able to use Photoshop color corrections to “fix” the color. All you can get is a deeper mess. I finally sprang the money for the hardware and software, and it was astounding, night and day, the improvement in accuracy of both my monitor and my prints.

Hardware and software packages to calibrate and profile your monitor are now easily affordable and easy to use. There’s really no excuse for any visual professional with even the slightest interest in seeing digital files accurately to not invest in a hardware and software package. You can buy a really good professional quality package for $230 – $300. There’s a highly capable mid-level package at just $170 msrp. You install the software and connect a colorimeter “hockey puck,” typically via USB. The software sends a calibrated signal of different colors and gray tones to the monitor and the puck reads the actual output from the screen. The software compares the results read by the puck to what the the signal should be. For each color and gray, it builds a three-dimensional look-up table (LUT) in an icc profile.

What the profiling does.

It’s “three dimensional” because, for each color tested, the LUT will adjust the signal to your monitor for hue, value and chroma so that it will display correctly. Colors that lie between those points are interpolated from their nearest neighbors in the LUT. Color-savvy applications like Photoshop then send the display signal through this LUT in real time, which adjusts the display signal so that what you see is what you’re supposed to see from your color-managed file.

This process does not change the underlying image file! All this “digital massaging” is to the monitor display. The underlying image file and the display are independent. Theoretically, and in most reasonable practice, different monitors with custom profiles will display the same (independent) image file to look exactly the same. This is the color-managed work flow, also called device-independent color.

Once you have profiled your monitor, you’re done. Photoshop does all the rest. In your color-managed work flow, you are now seeing your image files accurately. You need to re-profile at regular intervals, but that can be as infrequently as three months for the casual user. And by running at a much lower brightness setting than out-of-the-box, your monitor will last much longer and can be replaced at a much greater interval. Yes, you will save money on hardware.

Recommended hardware and software.

OK, what should you use? You need both the right software and a device called a colorimeter. I have no financial interest in my recommendations. My personal experience lets me recommend these packages:

Spyder3 Elite hardware and software package from Datacolor

(I suggest the Elite package because it lets the user set the monitor brightness precisely; Datacolor’s lower level “Pro” software is effective but less exact at setting brightness.)

ColorEyes Display Pro Spyder3 Bundle hardware and software from Integrated Color

BasICColor Display from Basiccolor

You can buy these packages directly from the manufacturers, through pro camera stores or a good online company like Chromix. Basiccolor Display may or may not be bundled with an instrument. Like all the software in these three programs it will work with a large variety of different colorimeters, so it’s possible to buy an instrument from one company (Spyder3, Squid or DTP94) and the software from another. These packages are easy to install and come with a wizard interface to guide you through the process. I’m using BasICColor Display 4 with a DTP94, but the Spyder3 is gaining recognition as an excellent and reasonably-priced colorimeter for today’s large-gamut LCD and LED displays.

When it’s time to replace your monitor, you should do some research about types appropriate to your needs, set your shopping price point, etc. Generally, IPS panels have been the choice for those who demand the best color accuracy, but acceptable color can be obtained at fairly modest price points from other panel technologies. You can read more about panel technology here:

overview selection article

technology in-depth

I’d be very interested in your feedback and whether this article has been helpful. I also offer color management consulting services and can assist you in setting up and getting through the process. Let me know if I can help. Thanks for reading!

-Jeff Stevensen

A Visit To Olson House

April 4, 2011

I paid a visit to Olson House in Cushing, where Andrew Wyeth painted many of his great works over the course of decades. It’s a straightforward drive to the midcoast of Maine, and one peninsula south from where my wife, Dana, a fine pastel artist, and I were staying in Port Clyde.

We had avoided Olson House for years – tourist trap, we assumed. Not because we dislike Wyeth – just the opposite – but because we know how unsatisfying the experience of the “Famous Subject” can be. Too many Sunday artists plant themselves in the footsteps of the masters, hoping to relive the thrill of another’s vision. But whenever I’ve traced the journey of artists I admire – and I have paid my homage at Taos, at Yosemite, at Point Lobos and more –  the experience always seems desiccated. The juice has long ago been squeezed from these places. Re-creations seem trivial or transparent; one is struck most by what is now lacking. The present seems inadequate in the face of such freighted past significance.

I believe every generation has to discover its own power places, for the power most definitely does not linger. Port Clyde, a power place in my current circuit of exploration, is an exception for me because I discovered it before knowing of the famous Wyeth presence. But I had thought Olson House belonged to the past.

I’m not normally a diarist, but I felt compelled to record a remarkable day.


Morning dawned clear and windy, cool – a bit of a surprise for summer. The alarm clicked on at 4:30 AM, but no station was broadcasting. Still, the click was enough to awaken me. I looked outside, spent a few moments summoning the will to arise, and finally determined that I must. Dana and I drove down Horse Point Road to look at the channel entrance to Port Clyde Harbor. Then it was a flurry of shooting – painting for Dana – decent material for me, good but not as interesting as my visit here last year. After a few false starts the sun came out seemingly for good. OK. Shoot. Back to the cottage to nap.

After a long, middle day lazy, we decided it was finally time to go to Olson House. We arrived there about 2 PM.

Olson House in Cushing, Maine

Olson House in Cushing, Maine

At first blush my lowered expectations seem justified; almost all the original furnishings are gone. There is a museum office with freshly painted floors in the old dining room. The living room has a flat panel TV playing a video presentation about Wyeth and the Olsons. The kitchen still has the big stove, but the coffee pot on it is shiny and new, everything carefully styled in a museum tableaux. It’s hard to find any sightlines without explanatory cards tacked on the walls.

People flock to Olson House like a visit to the fountainhead. Hushed and awed they stop at each window, each informational sign and reproduction, as though they were Stations of the Cross. How could any place justify such intensity? Yet, anyone with even a glimmer of artistic sensibility senses how close the intersection of private and shared universes is here. Wyeth is a guide into a world of isolation and transcendence, where the the human condition and its underlying tragic nature is uplifted through a conscious, loving art. Yes, love. Love is the current running through his paintings; not romantic love or youthful passion, but an all-encompassing love for each temporal moment exquisitely lived. In Wyeth’s heightened universe there is significance in small things, spirit lingers despite time and decay, light delicately constrains an underlying darkness. One senses the darkness beneath the light in his paintings, though it’s only an unconscious awareness to the casual observer. Without the love breathed into each brush stroke, if there were only darkness or only light, his paintings would never have struck such a universal chord.

Dana Trattner sketching in the third floor bedroom of Olson House, Cushing, Maine

Dana Trattner sketching in third floor bedroom, Olson House, Cushing, Maine

A number of professional critics dislike Wyeth, who worked when Modernism was all the rage to make or break a reputation for artist and critic alike. Wyeth refused Abstract Expressionism for what is commonly called realism, though almost all art is inherently an abstraction; refused oil for tempera and watercolor; and, most importantly, refused Modernism’s cerebral dispassion. Many critics are suspicious of popularity, suspicious of any emotional currents in art; validating only pure intellect, they mistake emotion for sentimentality, interest in specific human experience for a regionalist’s naiveté. The guardians of Post-Modernism mistakenly regard the weak copies of Wyeth churned out by legions of Sunday painters as the distillation of the original vision, and then heap upon it their disdain.

Much has been written debating Wyeth’s place in modern art history and reviewing it in detail now is beyond my day’s musing. But even a cursory look into Wyeth’s process shows he carefully constructed, formally, his paintings.

And so, despite my initial misgivings, my visit began to unfold into something marvelous, invigorating, mesmerizing – something completely unexpected.

I walked the house, looked at the Wyeth reproductions and read the curators texts. The pathos of the Olson’s existence and the transcendence of Wyeth’s vision became palpable. I had expected to shoot nothing – the cynicism of prior experience tracing footsteps. Instead, I felt compelled to make photographs. I looked for details on the first floor, especially around the areas I was most drawn to:  the kitchen and the tool shed.

I found myself transfixed in the pantry before a remnant of original vision: a lamp, glassware on shelves and a crock pot on the counter. Whether the glassware was original Olson or modern simulacrum, it mattered not; the light from the window was lovely. A rope and hanging sign across a doorway in the background nagged at my vision. Should I take it down surreptitiously or use Photoshop later? Photoshop later, I determined – I would be respectful and a good guest. No tripods are allowed inside, it’s strictly hand-held cameras only. Well, how little do the worried curators of the Farnsworth understand the impressive high-sensitivity capabilities of today’s digital cameras.

Pantry in Olson House, Cushing, Maine

Olson House pantry.

I understand the crock pot was the only item left unpurchased when the house contents were auctioned.

Then I stood at the rope barring access to the tool shed. Again, lovely light raked over a hanging basket, tools beneath, ancient wood all around. I shot in a breath-hold moment.

Workshop, Olson House, Cushing, Maine

Workshop, Olson House, Cushing, Maine

These views were probably painted by Wyeth in some form or other, but the appeal to me in making them is that I have not seen those particular originals. I’m not interested in duplicating compositions. These photos I made are most definitely homage to his vision, though, and I think that’s OK.

Most startling to me as I reviewed my shots was the color– the parched plaster walls and dry wood were alive with Wyeth’s subtle palette, penetrating and enveloping each small scene. Wyeth was a keen observer of color. Green bounces up from the lawn and trees into the corners and ceilings, blue washes sky lit counters and the lower part of walls, and the windows are diffused with decades of dust.

Shelf with pine cones, Olson House bedroom, Cushing, Maine

Shelf with pine cones, Olson House bedroom, Cushing, Maine

The din of past lives echoed powerfully across the weight of years to my present in that house. I felt the unflinching truth of Wyeth’s vision, the transcendence of his art. It was powerfully manifest as I walked the corridors and peered into the same corners so long ago studied. Wyeth breathed unrelenting clarity and compassion, godlike, into such little things – latches, drying corn, pieces of string and wood.

Late that afternoon I walked to the Olson graveyard and read the stones. I was moved by the largeness and the smallness of death, found my own heart aching as I peered into both past and future toward the fate all face and almost all avoid. My thoughts went to my parents, my father dying now so slowly. I imagined what it would be to stand at their graves and feel the same consuming sadness. Graves of young children crushed me. It had all ended, the line ended for the Olson name – now forever memorable for the art that was created from the dust of their lives. The smallness of each life’s single existence came over me, and I could affirm the only solution I could see – we must love one another, give meaning to life with love and friendship, make the world less burdensome, love with overwhelming conviction.

Dana joined me, happy and energized, and I felt overcome for a moment with how much our family means to me – but I was chastened in silence.

As the day went on we struck more and more to the heart of being artists, carried by our own visions and joy in creating. At dinner I shot some marvelous dusk photos of Port Clyde from the docks around the General Store. It was a spectacular evening, the energy was infectious, and both tourists and locals alike were drawn to see the previews on the back of my camera, which I happily shared at their request. It was fun.

Port Clyde General Store Restaurant on the wharf in Port Clyde, Maine

Dining at the Port Clyde General Store on the wharf in Port Clyde, Maine

Umbrella and Picnic Table, Port Clyde General Store, Dusk, Port Clyde, Maine

Umbrella and Picnic Table, Port Clyde General Store, Dusk, Port Clyde, Maine

And most spectacular of all was the last shot, glowing clouds backlit by the full moon, a long exposure capturing windswept movement, flowing water, a few distant houses and the twinkle of stars. 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 200 – like all moments, unique in eternity.

— 20090705

Windswept clouds and mid-summer moon, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Windswept clouds and mid-summer moon, Port Clyde Harbor, Maine

Color Management Part 1: Set Up Photoshop Correctly

December 23, 2010

“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer,” said Paul Ehrlich, and he could easily have been describing color management. It’s arguably the most baffling computer task to wrap your mind around.

Why do we need Color Management? It’s a system of software and hardware through which one can create, edit, view, share and reproduce visual art (here I’m concerned with photographs) in a way that provides controlled, consistent and reliable reproduction of color independently across different devices. “Devices” includes computer monitors, printers, scanners, printing presses, digital cameras, TV screens and more.

Even visual professionals find this topic daunting. It’s filled with jargon and arcane workflow recipes. Faced with the seemingly incomprehensible, most people default to doing nothing. But ignorance is not bliss; in the mix of results, some photographs print or display as expected while others get turned to mush.

Even if you to hire the most talented and knowledgeable professionals, and they deliver superb photos to you, you can undo all their careful work simply by opening and saving the photograph in your system.

Even if you have little or no interest in being a tech guru, you should take a few minutes to set up color management in Photoshop. Small mistakes can snowball into bigger ones that require tedious or expensive corrections.

The bad news:  even if you hire the most talented and knowledgeable professionals, and they deliver superb photos, you can undo all their careful work simply by opening and saving the photograph in your system. That’s right, just by opening and saving. It’s important to set properly the default preferences of your programs.

The good news is that you can set the preferences so that color-managed photographs and art work keep their color management settings. And you will be able to view, save and send files downstream to your creative professionals, service bureaus, offset printers and web site designers with confidence.

Background Of Color Management

Open standards for color management were developed by the ICC, or “International Color Consortium.” You can read more about the ICC here.A color profile tag or ICC profile is a small piece of software that is embedded in image files to convey the color appearance of the raw numbers. It’s a kind of “Rosetta Stone” for color; the color profile tag tells a program that can read it the meaning of the color numbers the file contains. Repeat, the meaning of the numbers. Depending on the profile attached, the exact same digital file can mean radically different color appearances.

A color profile tag may be attached to digital photographs upon creation or at different stages in preparing a photograph for reproduction. If no profile is attached, or the profile is stripped away, different software will make assumptions about color appearance which can be quite wrong.

The majority of computer software that can open and display image files (JPEG, TIFF, PICT, etc.) do so with little or no color management and without honoring embedded ICC profiles. Examples of these programs include Internet Explorer, Flash, e-mail programs, MS Word, early versions of Adobe products, QuarkExpress and many more. It’s pretty typical that photographs or artwork being passed around for approval or review in any corporate or business environment will find their way in and out of these programs, where all color management information will be at best ignored and at worst stripped away. There is little or nothing you can do about the behavior of these programs except to be aware and try to minimize the inevitable inaccuracies.

First:  Do No Harm

There are a number of file-browsing programs now that offer speed and accuracy in viewing digital image files:  Adobe’s Bridge and Lightroom, Apple Aperture, PhotoMechanic, Google Picasa (color management must be enabled, see here), and more. Out-of-the-box today, these programs are capable of strong color management controls. But before and after photographs go through these programs they may be delivered, shared or transferred in and out of other software with the potential to create or amplify color problems.

Adobe Photoshop is the most robust and most likely program you will use for opening, adjusting, creating and saving photographs. Its color management preferences apply powerful leverage to your settings, whether right or wrong.

There are three levels of concern:  first, do no harm; second, save and send files downstream properly; and third, power-user control. Most people need only to address the first two, which are easy, free and my topic. Power-user color management is beyond the scope of this article.

What kind of harm can be done if your preferences are wrong? Let’s use a typical assignment as an example, head shots of the company executives. Your photographer has given you a disk of photos, prepared very carefully. You open the photos, view and make your selections, send JPEG copies via e-mail and save the photos to your hard drive. Pretty simple? If you’re not color managed, and depending on your program and preferences settings, very bad things can happen. Let’s look at two too-common outcomes. I’ll use a portrait of my daughter, Gina, to illustrate.

sRGB Portrait Example

Color-Managed sRGB


Profile Stripping: Without telling you, an improperly configured version of Photoshop, or many other programs, can remove the ICC profile from the color managed photograph.
Profile Stripped From ProPhoto RGB

Profile Stripping Example

Hidden Conversion: Photoshop might convert photos into to an unknown RGB color space, or a printer might convert into unknown CMYK space at the wrong point in the chain with devastating results.

Simulates CMYK hidden conversion

Hidden Conversion

In the profile stripping example of our head shot scenario, the photographer prepared the portraits in ProPhoto RGB and sent you JPEG files that were properly tagged with an icc profile. You handed the photos off to your web designer, who is not color managed. When dropped into your web site the photos look very dark, mushy and with ugly color. The digital files are unchanged, but the icc profile tag that conveyed the meaning of the numbers was removed. The web designer then compounds the problem by attempting to re-edit the images on an uncalibrated system. Many hours time can be wasted and regaining accurate color is almost impossible.

In the hidden conversion outcome of our head shot scenario, errors can unfold a few ways:  (1) your photographer mastered the photos in a managed color space, but when you opened the photos and saved them your system converted the photos into a bad RGB default space, such as a monitor profile; or (2) your photographer prepared your files in CMYK but your system converted them into RGB without telling you; or (3) you sent the photos to an offset printer in RGB. The standard policy of many offset printers is to feed everything directly into the plate-setting RIP. The RIP is set up for CMYK only, is not color managed, and does a “black box” conversion of any RGB files into a really bad version of CMYK. The result:  garish, off-color with red-green crossovers and harsh contrast.

To do no harm, set your preferences correctly. Small differences in preferences locations and dialog boxes exist from Photoshop CS2 through CS5, but to set you color management preferences follow the following recipe:

The Recipe

1) Launch Photoshop with no document open.

2) Under the “Edit” pull-down menu, go to “Color Settings.” There are a number of important settings here.

3) On the right of the dialog box, select “More Options” if it is available.

4) At the top center Settings pull-down menu, select the most universal default, “North American General Purpose 2.” You will see the Working Spaces with the RGB color space “sRGB,” the CMYK color space “U.S. Web Coated (SWOP V2),” the Gray space “Dot Gain 20%” and the Spot to “Dot Gain 20%.” Color Management Policies should show “Preserve Embedded Profiles” enabled for all. This is extremely important so that your computer does not alter the color of files you open and save (more on that later when saving.) Leave the Missing Profiles boxes, particularly “Ask When Opening,” unchecked (disabled). If you check it, no harm will come, but you will have an annoying number of dialog boxes popping up when you open files with different color profile settings than your system. You might want to enable “Ask When Pasting” when you know more at a future date, but leave it alone for now.

5) The third section down, Conversion Options, should show the Engine as “Adobe (ACE)” and the Intent “Relative Colorimetric.” Also checked (enabled) will be “Use Black Point Compensation,” “Use dither (8-bit/channel images)” and “Compensate for Scene-referred Profiles.”

6) Leave the Advanced Controls unchecked (disabled) for “Desaturate Monitor Colors By” and “Blend RGB Colors Using Gamma.”

If you have an older program and don’t have “North American General Purpose 2” as I’ve described, you should be able to select these same settings in the individual drop-down menus and then save a custom setting file for the group.

7) Click OK to close the dialog box. This screen capture shows the settings:

Adobe CS4 Color Settings Dialog Box

Color Settings For North American General Purpose 2

Finally, quit Photoshop. Now when you restart the program, these settings will be the new default.

Set up this way, when you open any image that is tagged with an ICC profile, Photoshop’s built-in color management will be used to display the image properly. Your ability to accurately view the photo will be limited by the quality and color-management status of your monitor, but the underlying file accuracy will be preserved.

Your monitor requires a separate software and hardware package to bring it into compliance with ICC viewing standards. You should not make color edits to photographs unless you’re quite sure you know exactly what you’re doing. Most off-the-shelf flat panel monitors are driven at much too high a brightness (luminance) level. Photos will appear over bright and washed out, and when you “correct” them you will be making them too dark for print.

To save your photos accurately for other users or service bureaus, there is one thing more you must do:  when saving files, in the Save dialog box always check (enable) the box Embed Color Profile.

This preserves color management in the round trip through your system. Sending your photographs downstream to your designers and service bureaus requires you to answer another question accurately:  RGB or CMYK?

CMYK is needed for offset printing and some in-house laser printers. The vast majority of everything else is best left in a color-managed icc-tagged RGB. Professional RGB color spaces can contain vastly more individual colors than CMYK spaces, even exceeding the range of human vision. There are significant advantages to doing late-binding color conversion from RGB to CMYK. When you convert to CMYK spaces, information is thrown away that cannot be retrieved, and every printer will have different standards for ink density, black plate generation, and a host of other specific requirements. Editing color in CMYK is difficult, non-linear and non-intuitive. Each round of editing will degrade image quality.

Think of RGB as a fully equipped kitchen, with every recipe and every ingredient. CMYK is like the cake you bake for a party; each one is unique. You make it for a specific function but you don’t expect to keep it around forever. If you need CMYK, work closely with your printer and design professionals to make your conversions properly, and save as copies to preserve your original RGB files.

To explain each of these settings in detail, I recommend any of the Real World Photoshop books, and other reference works for advanced study. Web links follow.

You don’t need to know all the mechanics in order to take advantage of correct preferences. Of course, power users such as graphics professionals and photographers will have very compelling reasons to make other choices at different stages of the process, but the default settings for the average user should be as I’ve described.

Now that you are color managed, you can use Photoshop to open, review and save photographs with their color profiles preserved and utilized to display as accurately as your monitor makes possible, even exotic RGB or CMYK color spaces. When you save files to your hard drive, enabling Embed Color Profile, nothing has been changed. The photo stays in the color space as it was provided to you, and the meaning of the numbers has been preserved.

The settings described above are the best (or “least unsatisfactory”) choices for everyday users. Mismatches between color profiles and program rendering assumptions are the most common problem with photographs used in different programs. The “sRGB” color space, though in no way the largest or “best” RGB color space, has become the de facto standard color space for the World Wide Web, e-mail programs, Windows programs, desktop printers and virtually all unmanaged color devices. Any digital photos intended for these programs (or which will be viewed by decision makers using these programs) should be prepared in or converted to the sRGB color space prior to delivery. You will want to make sure your service bureau and creative providers know how to deal with color-managed digital images.

I hope you can see that even modest use of Photoshop requires you to set up preferences correctly. Follow these steps and you’ll get the maximum quality from your image files.

I welcome all feedback and suggestions. If there are other topics you’d like to see discussed, or for specific problems I might be able to help you with, you can post to this forum or e-mail me at jeff@jstevensen.com.

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About Sightlines

November 18, 2010

Thank you for visiting Sightlines. Sightlines is my blog covering diverse topics in photography, both professional and fine art. On the professional side, I’ll offer tips on assignment photography issues my clients struggle with daily, such as color management, booking jobs, problem-solving examples and more. On the fine art side, I’ll add articles from time to time covering a broad appetite of personal musings, including trends worth comment, links to interesting work and samples of my own fine art. I hope you will find it helpful, informative, even meaningful. Please post some feedback or send me an e-mail with suggested topics when you can. I invite your help in shaping this blog into a useful resource.

— Jeffrey Stevensen