How NOT to Do Color Critical Work

Subtitle: Whats Wrong with this Picture?

A Great Example of How Not to Configure Your Workspace, Compliments of Dell

The intent here is not to pick on Dell in particular; they offer a range of displays that are often quite good for their price points. But they are promulgating The Myth of the Corner Office in the image captured from one of their ads above. Take a good look at it, and see if any flashing lights or sirens go off. If not, then please read the rest of this article, to avoid making similar mistakes yourself.

Views are a wonderful thing, and when you work your way up to a corner office, the idea of blackout shades dimming your room to low light levels, and not allowing you to even see whether the sun is shining or not is something that many resist. After all; you’re an editor (architect, advertising account manager, etc) now, not a photo retoucher (draftsman, graphic designer, etc). However; if you select the images for articles, choose amongst architectural renderings, or ad versions, or if you are in any way part of the workflow that processes images and layouts for press output, web output, fine art prints, wedding albums, or any other color critical use, then either you are part of the color managed solution… or else you are part of the color management problem.

Its particularly ironic that the ad copy accompanying this image talks about superb color and immaculate precision. Because the configuration shown will virtually guarantee inaccurate color, incorrect shadow detail, eye strain, and other problems. Lets start with the big issues, and work our way down.

Trick Question: Should you place your display with the windows in the wall behind it, in the wall beside it, or in the wall behind you, as you face it?

Correct Answer: None of the above! There should be nothing vaguely resembling a window in a color managed workspace. This means that users serious about color and density judgements on screen may have to resort to radical methods, such as applying their own black-out curtains to whole walls of windows at any time when they are doing serious image editing, image selection, or other color critical work. For the vampires in the audience: yes, you can do your image editing only a night, and avoid having to deal with window light, but it won’t automatically solve the other issues below.

Viewing Elsewhere: There are various ways of meeting this rather drastic criteria. One is to not review images for publication or other such work on your own computer. Instead, go to the color managed workstation of the person who prepares the files, and review them there. This loses the important cross-check of having viewed the images on at least two color managed systems, but it also avoids the much worse situation of having made decisions in an noncolor managed environment. Another solution is to have a central viewing location, somewhere in a readily available, dim room in the center of the building, where anyone needing to view images correctly can go to make such decisions. This could be as nearby as the secretary’s office right outside your door. Yes, they don’t call them secretaries any more, and yes, they don’t tend to even have them any more, but you get the idea…

Fixing Your Windows: If you are obliged to do your color critical work at your desk, and there are one or more windows involved, then consider acquiring a sheet of Typar, the dull gray building paper used to wrap houses before the siding goes on. Its inexpensive, especially if you have a friend in the building business, since the piece you will need to cover your window or windows with a generous overlap on all sides, would probably be considered a scrap at the building site. Why ugly gray Typar, instead of pretty white Tyvek? Typar is more opaque, and the medium gray color is a better background that bright white. And as you will see below, anything that makes your office or studio dimmer is probably a good thing. Tack the sheet of building fabric over your windows whenever you are doing color critical work, and your color perception will be much improved. It will also impress your boss that you are both serious and busy, when you put this up and take it down several times a day. Consider this a good form of exercise, and avoid standing on chairs and filing cabinets while dealing with the top corners, or it will go from healthy exercise to dangerous workplace behavior.

So, now that we have established that it is important to have low, consistent lighting, without glare from windows, variable light from windows, different light color from windows, or excess light from windows (or basically anything at all to do with windows; but please do not consider this a criticism of the operating system spelled with a capital “W”) we can move on to the second difficult problem with color managed work: Office Lighting.

Office Lighting: The level of light considered appropriate in the American office is bright, to say the least. Years ago, when all image work was done on big, deep CRT displays, the brightness that could be reached by such displays, and maintained for at least two years, ran about 75 to 80 candelas per meter squared. I won’t use that rather awkward set of units again, but remember the number, for comparison’s sake. At a brightness of 75, a display had to be used in the dark. So dark the USP driver can’t even see into the room to walk in without tripping over the furniture.

With Today’s LCD Displays, a new compromise has been reached. Instead of working at 75 or 80 candelas in the dark, color managed work is often carried out in relatively dim light (the UPS guy may still complain, but he can at least enter the room without tripping over things) and a screen brightness in the range of 125 candles, or moderate light, which still seems quite dim compared to a typical office (but where even someone from outside can see where they are going without difficulty) and screen brightness that it still well below 200.

Default is at Fault: Each generation of LCDs is brighter than the one before it; its now common to see LCDs being run at brightnesses of 350 or 400. These brilliant displays were created, at least in part, to do battle with bright office lighting and big windows. But, while such displays make it possible to see your screen under bright and variable ambient lighting conditions, it does not mean that quality color work can be done this way.

Real World Conditions: What I typically see in the field is two types of mismatches between ambient light levels and LCD display brightness levels. Either old school image editors and photographers, out of habit, keep their workspaces very dim. Too dim for the default brightness of LCDs, or in a few cases, too dim to even use with the LCDs at the lowest brightness setting the displays controls allow. This situation creates eye strain, and causes editors to make their images far too dense, resulting in dark prints. The other common situation is bright office lighting, which may or may not be balanced by bright LCD settings, but which does not offer a quality situation for editing or viewing.

Lighting Solutions: In order to produce a lighting situation dim enough for color managed work, you may have two or three options, if you are in a brightly lit office space. You can stand on a chair (Note to OSHA: I am not officially recommending this!) and loosen half to three quarters of the fluoresent tubes in the overhead fixtures. You may need to leave a note to building maintenance that you want it this way and to please not “fix” it. Or if you are lucky you may have multiple switches, so that you can turn off much of the overhead lighting without resorting to bulb twisting. And finally, if there is no hope of adjusting your overhead lighting, you can simply turn it off entirely, and use one or at most two desk lamps, ideally Ott-Lites or some other high CRI proofing light. Again, you can do this only for color managed work, but will you actually get up several times a day, if necessary, to adjust your viewing conditions? And if you have office mates, or work in a large open office area, none of this fixes may be practical.

Desperation Options: There are a few fixes for unfixable lighting. At a minimum buy or make a monitor hood for your display, to keep direct light from shining down on it. 1/4″ Black FoamCore board is the ideal material. Unfortunately, this tends to convince people that the problem is solved, when it is only reduced. Variations that actually do more good, but that look progressively more odd, are to use a big black golf umbrella over your workstation when necessary, or to use a photographer’s cloak, which is used rather like the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter: you throw it over both you and your display to keep Voldemort, I mean excess light, from reaching you or your display while doing color managed work. LCDs may run cooler than CRTs, but you will find that much time under a black cloak with one or more heat producing displays can lead to worse health conditions than eyestrain.

Compromises: If none of the above solutions are possible for you, what can you do? I suspect that at least a shallow monitor hood should be possible in almost any situation. And if its a bit deeper, its possible to put your forehead up against it to block out most excessive light, and get a better sense of color, shadow detail, and other critical factors when necessary. And clearly you need to determine the actual brightness level of your room, attempt to keep it as constant as possible, and calibrate your display to a whitepoint appropriate for that light level, and a brightness appropriate for that light level. And last but not least, if you can’t neutralize the windows, at least works sideways to them, so that they are not in your field of view as you work, or causing reflections on your screen.

Next time I address color managed viewing conditions, I’ll cover laptops and tablets, which add a few other factors to the mix.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: CDTobie.com Return to Blog’s Main Page

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2 responses to “How NOT to Do Color Critical Work

    • I was trying to stick to a couple key issues. After telling people that they had to work in the dark, I didn’t figure telling them they must wear black would go over too well…

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