How should I discuss color management with my printer?

Answered by Stephen Beals, Digital Pre-Press manager and industry writer

I haven’t been keeping up with color management techniques and technologies, but it seems that it’s getting a bit easier to coordinate color management issues with print suppliers. What’s new in this area? What kinds of things should I be talking to my printer about?

Color management hasn’t so much gotten easier as it has gotten better established, and printers, buyers and designers have gotten more experience with it.

There are several critical items that you should discuss with your printer. The printer should be able to provide the ICC profile you want to target for output. Remember that when it comes to putting ink (or toner) on paper (or other substrate), color management is tied to an OUTPUT profile. Every output device prints color a little bit differently. If you have a profile for the proper output device and a calibrated monitor you can, at least in theory, get a very good idea of what the finished product will look like before you even send it to the printer. Also remember that color management is a two-way street, so it does little good to manage input independent of output. You need to know what the final output device will be to have a fully color managed workflow.

You’ll also want to discuss how the printer handles RGB to CMYK conversions. Many printers who used to rail against RGB files are now happily accepting them and doing the conversion in a color managed RIP. But know up-front that a CMYK version of a file WILL BE DIFFERENT from an RGB version. Printing inks simply cannot match the color gamut of a slide, digital camera, or computer monitor. With current technology, it is quite easy to preview the conversion in a program like Photoshop without actually performing the conversion. Digital proofing can also be color managed so the proofs you receive can be profiled to the final printing device. Printers are in a better position than ever before to provide proofs that will very closely match final output.

Lastly, you should be aware that Pantone has changed its formulas for matching PMS colors with CMYK equivalents. The change was made because almost all printers are using brighter papers, finer screening and digital screening. The upside is that the converted colors are a closer match than they used to be. The downside is that the PMS 186 formula you used last year will not look the same this year. It may be more important to match last year’s printed piece than to have a closer match to the swatch book. Also note that older versions of software will use different formulas than newer versions as software publishers upgrade to the new data base Pantone distributes. You can download the new formulas from the Pantone website at and read an article about the new formulas at

Color management is still not "magic." It takes considerable effort on the part of all parties.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at
© Copyright Print Buyers, Inc.