Adobe Lightroom and colour management

I took a geekily pleasing 256 photographs this weekend, and I was planning to use Adobe Lightroom to process them. I’d heard good reports of the new photo management / editing app, so last week I downloaded the 30-day trial. After a few hours play I was impressed, with a few caveats (that I now understand). A trial run with this weekend’s photos seemed like a good idea.

Immediately I ran into a problem. There were differences between the appearance of photos in LR and anything else:

Colours in Adobe Lightroom vs. ACDSee

Even exporting from LR produced something almost identical to the right-hand image, when viewed in anything but LR – what was going on? I considered asking for help on the LR Flickr group, but a quick Google suggested my question was common. To understand it, I needed to learn about colour management. I’m not there yet, but here’s what I know so far:

The average photograph viewer assumes everybody has a perfect computer monitor. They see a photograph with a blue sky and tell the monitor to display a blue sky. However, monitors are not perfect. Yours may be bad at displaying reds, mine might be too strong on the greens. The differences can be dramatic. The solution to this is the monitor profile, which contains information on the shortcomings of the particular unit. ‘Colour-managed’ applications look at the blue sky and adapt it according to the monitor profile: if your monitor isn’t good with blues, it’ll punch up the blue by an appropriate amount that you see the photograph as it ‘actually’ is.

My usual picture management utilities – Picasa, ACDSee and Microsoft Picture Viewer – don’t support this kind of colour-management. Adobe Lightroom does, hence the differences.

As it happens, I think the right-hand image is far more representative of the actual scene. It appears my Dell-supplied monitor profile is a bit dodgy. But even if I had a perfectly calibrated monitor, the only people to see exactly the same colours as me would be the ones using equally well calibrated programs. Neither Firefox nor Internet Explorer have this kind of colour-management (although the Mac-only Safari does, I think), so the vast majority of people are not going to see the image exactly as I intend. Having said that, I haven’t seen major differences when viewing my images on other people’s computers, suggesting that gambling with colours works passably most of the time.

However, I’d like to use a colour-managed application like Lightroom, as then I at least know similarly equipped people will see the colours as intended. I need to calibrate my monitor. How to do that? With a calibration device like the Pantone Eye-One Display Pro 2, currently listing at £140. Screw that. Adobe Gamma might be able to produce a roughly-correct profile without attached hardware, but AG only comes with Photoshop, the 30-day trial of which isn’t currently working…

Even if I can’t properly calibrate the colours, Lightroom’s management and editing facilities are excellent and I’d like to use them. Unfortunately as of now the colours are too far out for it to be useful, and LR doesn’t have an option to turn off colour-management (which makes sense). I could get around this by changing the monitor profile to a ‘perfect’ monitor. This would effectively turn off all LR’s colour-management functions and cause photos to display identically in all my programs. It’s frequently described as heresy.

I’m a bit stumped by this. I’ll have to stick with Picasa for the time being.