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Product Review: X-Rite ColorMunki

Accurate and Easy Color Management

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After spending money on a quality monitor and an inkjet printer, how do you know if you're getting the best color reproduction possible? If you don't edit your images on a calibrated monitor, you can't possibly guarantee accurate color.


The DSLR is a fine instrument and most Canon, Nikon and Pentax cameras, from entry-level to high end, multi-thousand dollar professional cameras are capable of capturing millions of pixels of information. We tend to trust the manufacturer that the colors captured are true to what we saw through the view finder, but that really depends on a few other factors, i.e., exposure settings and white balance. Therefore, when editing images, it's common for the color values to look different from when you took the picture.

There are two main factors that affect how we view these images on our monitors: ambient lighting in the work area, and the monitor's ability to reproduce the color gamut accurately. In fact, a monitor, be it LCD ot CRT, changes over time—and not a long time either. Some monitors need to be calibrated every week, but for most of us, monthly calibration will suffice.

Accurate color output from inkjet printers is dependent on the printer, ink, and paper combination. Change any one of those three and there is a potential for a color shift. If you use third-party (non-OEM) paper or ink, there is absolutely no way you will get accurate color without a printer profile.


ColorMunki


The ColorMunki™, from x-rite, can create both monitor and print profiles (icc or icm files) and it does so efficiently and with noticeable accuracy.

I used ColorMunki to set my dual monitor setup, both a Samsung 22 inch LCD and a 21 inch older ViewSonic CRT (there is no limit to the number of displays). Although the application shows both my monitors (primary and secondary), there is no discrete setting for a CRT, just LCD, laptop and projector. So, I used the LCD setting for my 10-year-old Viewsonic CRT.

I selected the "Match My Printer to My Display" option and followed the step-by-step instructions on the ColorMunki application to first calibrate the ColorMunki hardware device, a full-spectrum Spectrophotometer, measure the ambient lighting in my work area and then calibrate the monitor.


ColorMunki Display Calibration

The device has a rotary wheel with detents at specified locations. Calibrating the ColorMunki is simple; rotate the wheel to the calibrate detent and click a button (on the ColorMunki or on screen). That's it. The ColorMunki is powered by a USB port on your computer, so connecting it both powers the device and interfaces with the application.

To measure the ambient light, rotate the wheel to the upper detent, set the ColorMunki device near your display and click the button to start reading the light values. It tells you both the strength and quality of the ambient light. Profiling the monitor(s) was just as easy. Move the wheel to the lower detent, put the device in the accompanying pouch and hang it over your display (the pouch has a weighted strap to hold the ColorMunki in place).

I had profiled my monitor a few weeks prior with another device, but ColorMunki did make an improvement (while subjective at this point, it was proven later after I profiled a printer). My secondary display, the old ViewSonic, hadn't been calibrated since... gosh, I can't remember. However, at the conclusion of the monitor profiling operation, both my primary and secondary displays matched. That brought a quick smile, but the true test was to come with the printer.

Profiling a printer

I chose to create a profile for an Epson printer, using third-party ink (not Epson) and Red River Placid Lite semi-gloss paper. This would be a critical test from the beginning because if you are using Epson printer, ink and paper, the settings in the Epson print driver (paper type) actually call a profile included with the Epson software installation. Since I wasn't using Epson ink or paper, I can only use the Epson settings to "get close" to accurate color. While this may be okay for someone printing snapshots, it wouldn't do for my critical eye. 

Again, I followed the step-by-step instructions on the ColorMunki application to print a test sheet with five rows of colored patches and let the sheet dry for ten minutes; the software includes a ten minute count down timer. Then, with the ColorMunki out of its pouch and the wheel set to read the colored patches, I slid the device over each row, pressing the wheel in to start reading, starting with the white area preceding across each row, sliding the ColorMunki past the last block and releasing the button again on the white area after the last colored patch. Do this for each of the five rows and watch your display to ensure there are no errors (an outline on each row changes to red, if there is an error or yellow if it's okay to go to the next row).

Once you've read all five rows, the software performs some calculations and asks you to print a second test sheet. Color profiling with the ColorMunki is an iterative process, using two tests to dial in the color correction. After you read the second sheet, the application creates the profile (icc or icm file), saves it by whatever name you want and can apply it to a few image editing applications.

I created profiles for four different papers; a high gloss, two semi-gloss and a matte. With the exception of the paper's gloss, the test prints matched color on all paper and with my newly calibrated monitor.

Complicated? No, this is so easy a photographer can do it. You don't need to hire a technician or specialist. Creating printer profiles takes about 30 minutes per paper type, 20 minutes of that is for the test sheets to dry,  and, at the end, you have a custom profile for that particular printer, ink and paper combination.

But wait—there’s more!

If this were all the ColorMunki did, it would be well worth the ease with which you can keep your workflow color managed. But, as the infomercials say, "wait, there's more!"

There is an "Advanced Printer Control - Print Profile Optimization" that uses ColorMunki's intelligence to build another test from the actual colors in one of your images. After you've created an initial profile for your printer, going into the advanced mode allows you to load one of your images into the ColorMunki software, which analyzes the values and produces a test sheet based on key colors from your image.

Again, print this test sheet, let it dry and use the ColorMunki spectrophotometer to read in the test sheet values. You can either rename the resultant profile or keep the same name. If you tend to make the same type of images (weddings, for example) this further refines your profile for your image types.

Two other items included with ColorMunki are DigitalPouch™, a program to transport images with embedded profiles and check for correct viewing conditions on the receiving end and Photo ColorPicker™ to extract colors from your images and create color palettes with unique PrintSafe™ checking capabilities.

Finally, as ColorMunki is a spectrophotometer, you can measure spot colors from everyday objects to build a palette of real-world colors for design and advertising.

I had only one problem with the ColorMunki. It wouldn't read one of my printer test sheets. While it would successfully calibrate and profile both my monitors, I couldn't get it to read the print out. After trying to blame it on a faulty device, I did a printer nozzle test and found my yellow nozzle was firing intermittently. Mea culpa.

Our recommendation

There is no doubt in my mind that the ColorMunki is a worthwhile addition to a photographer's arsenal. Monitors and printers will change over time and will do so more slowly than your eyes can discern. A regular monitor calibration is a necessity (minimum monthly). Even if you use OEM ink and paper, you'll get better and more consistent results from your printer. And, if you print with artistic paper, from a company other than the printer manufacturer, you must have an accurate custom profile. While you can certainly purchase a profile, having the ability to do it yourself ensures accuracy within your workflow. Don't forget you can refine profiles to your image type; wedding, summer/winter landscape, portraiture, and so forth.

I had one opportunity to contact x-rite's support (see my yellow ink problem above) and it took a little longer than I expected for them to get back to me. When they did, however, they were quite cordial, professional and helpful. I don't see this incident as being anything but a one-off experience.

At a retail price of $500 (Adorama $349.95 with a $50.00 rebate), the x-rite ColorMunki is a "no brainer" addition to an electronic darkroom. If using any paper other than OEM (or non OEM ink), you cannot be serious about your work unless the ColorMunki is part of your workflow.





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