Celebrating 20 Years of Color Management Consulting

20+ years ago I was splitting my time between a job where I was a Leaf45 scanner operator and an apprenticeship with a master printmaker. In the printmaking studio we were making large digital negatives on an imagesetter and using them to make hand-coated platinum/palladium prints in a wet darkroom. Back then everyone was using Photoshop 2 and had CRT monitors. While the color scans coming off the Leaf45 seemed pretty decent after a little color correction in curves, I was frustrated with how different the handmade B&W platinum palladium prints looked in comparison to the same images onscreen. We had developed curves to linearize the imagesetter that made the negatives but still, the prints on Arches Cold Press paper looked soo much different than they did onscreen. The paper had a warm tone that was darker and more yellow that what I saw onscreen. And the platinum palladium blacks were much lighter and warmer than the deep neutral blacks we saw onscreen.

Knoll Gamma

One day in the early 1990s I decided there had to be a way to fix this problem. I launched the Knoll Gamma Control Panel and made radical adjustments to the black and white points to match our wet darkroom platinum palladium printing process. I had been using Knoll gamma for a while but had never attempted to make such radical adjustments like matching the paper color and gentle blacks of a 19th century printing process. With just a minute’s worth of work I was able to get an astonishingly excellent match! All of the sudden, everything on screen looked like platinum palladium prints – even email! I saved these settings for platinum palladium and made another set of settings for the 4 color press work I was doing at my other job.

I was so excited about ‘monitor matching’ that I started going around to everyone I knew adjusting their monitors to match whatever printing process they were working with. I learned to adjust the RGB gain, brighness and and contrast settings on their CRT monitors before doing the final tweaking in Knoll gamma.

A Platinum Palladium Print
Platinum Palladium print made from a digital neg in 1994

There was no such thing as ICC profiles in the early 1990’s but we could achieve something similar to printer profiles buy using Photoshop’s “Custom RGB” and “Custom CMYK” dialog boxes. I was making custom RGB and CMYK ‘color spaces’ for the Iris 3047 and Encad printers I was using and for various offset presses that my scanning clients were using. I would also make print-specific adjustment curves to compensate for density and color casts on these processes. So that’s how I ‘managed color’ before color management with ICC profiles and RIPs with calibration came about.

Photoshop's Custom RGB and Custom CMYK dialog boxes are still in Photoshop today

Photoshop’s Custom RGB and Custom CMYK dialog boxes are still in Photoshop today

Before I know it, I was getting phone calls from complete strangers in advertising agencies, print shops and service bureaus asking if I could visit them and ‘match their monitors’. I started charging for this service in 1994 and have been doing it ever since. I became a drum scanner operator shortly afterwards using the world’s first drum scanner that supported RGB scans in addition to CMYK. Scanning in RGB was a revolutionary concept that I loved because I could better correct the images and convert them to a custom printer color space that I had created. Before I knew it, I was getting phone calls from places like New York, Iceland, London, etc from people that wanted to get the same scanner and hire me for a few days of training. In the late 90s, Photoshop 5.0 brought ICC profiles to the masses and devices like the MC7 and Colortron took things to the next level and the color consulting work became a demanding 60+ hour a week full time gig for me. That was when I created the “Onsight” name for the business I had already been doing for years.

Onsight Logo of the 90's

Onsight Logo of the 90’s

Onsight Logo of the last 10 years

Onsight Logo since 2008

So this year, Onsight is celebrating 20 years of professional color management consulting. It’s been a fun ride. In addition to offset presses and toner based pritners, I’ve worked with just about every aqueous, solvent, latex and UV Curable printer ever made, on every RIP. I’ve had the chance of traveling all over the US and Mexico and have made a few trips on jobs to Europe and Australia. Today I have a diverse client base that I support remotely all over Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and North and South America. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be a beta tester for a variety of the developers creating the best color management software in the business.

Looking back, I’m surprised that I’m doing a lot of the same things I did so long ago. I would have thought that color management with ICC profiles would have been automated by now. Apple’s CRT Studio Display calibrated itself 15 years ago and today HP’s Z series pritners make their own profiles with an onboard spectro. I would have thought that all displays and printers would work in this way by now and I’d be doing something else. I’d like it if there was better integration throughout the industry so that people like myself weren’t as needed. I like progress and don’t fear change.

Some of the Solvent and Latex printers I see on location

Some of the Solvent and Latex printers I see on location

Looking forward, the RIPs that solvent, latex and UV Curable pritners use generally have a lousy calibration and profiling process. To make matters worse, the profiles that ship with these printers aren’t very good either. Users of these printers tend to endure much less than perfect image quality. This tends to be the majority of the color management consulting I do today. People are always shocked at how much better their prints look once I’ve calibrated and profiled them onsite. Because the color science in these RIPs is so poor, I’ve developed my own methodology for determining optimal ink limits, linearization curves and total inks limits outside of the RIP. It’s RIP agnostic methodology that takes the guesswork out of calibration and allows me to consistently get optimal results with any RIP and printer. I’m working with some key players in the industry to bring this methodology forward though software that could also be integrated into RIPs via an OEM arrangement. I think this could be the ‘next big color management thing’. Perhaps once this technology matures, us color management consultants can finally move on to other things.

– Scott Martin

February 9, 2014 · filed under: articles , commentary

4 Responses to “Celebrating 20 Years of Color Management Consulting”

  1. Jan R. Smit Says:

    Scott, congrats. An enormous amount of experience you have built up.
    Jan R. Smit

  2. Scott Martin Says:

    Thanks Jan!

  3. Frank Armstrong Says:

    Congrats are very much in order. I’m amazed that you can find time to conduct your night-time photography workshops.

    Frank
    V&PA
    Clark University

  4. Scott Martin Says:

    Thanks Frank! Finding time to make one’s own images is the most important thing isn’t it? All this print quality stuff isn’t much without the right content to work with. Cheers.

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