Thinking in Color with CHROMIX ColorThink
One complaint I often hear from people trying to learn about color management is that it is hard tell what a profile actually does. Use the right one and things come out looking great. Use the wrong one and things look awful. If you've ever wanted to see inside what color profiles are all about, one of the best tools I know of is CHROMIX ColorThink. And they've just released a long awaited new version that improves stability on Windows 7 and Vista.
I've been a user of ColorThink for some years now and have mentioned it more than once over the here on Earthbound Light but I've never actually written an article about how cool it is. The problem was that they really had seemed to have stopped supporting it and it had a few quirks when running on modern versions of Windows. It still ran, but it wasn't completely stable. Finally after more than a two year gap with no new versions, CHROMIX this week released version 2.3 specifically to address this Windows stability issue. Thank you CHROMIX.
So what exactly does ColorThink do?
The heart of ColorThink is the Profile Manager window. Here you can see a list of all the profiles installed on your system. You can filter the display by folder, by type and so on which can be somewhat helpful if you have a lot of profiles. You can enable or disable profiles if you really have a lot and don't really want to load them all. Profile Manager will also show you whether ColorThink has detected any errors or warning for each of the listed profiles. Be aware that many profiles will show warnings since the file name of each typically ends with the ".icc" or ".icc" suffix while the embedded internal name generally do not. It would be great if ColorThink would just accept that this warning exists and suppress it so you could more easily see any other warnings, but it doesn't. This is a minor nuisance though. The truth is that ColorThink is correct and that the profile manufacturers (including Epson and others) are wrong by not having the internal name match the external. But they don't really get any extra points for being right and it does make for a lot of yellow warning icons.
Double click on a profile in Profile Manager and you will open it in the Profile Inspector where you can see details on what's actually inside that profile. Not all profiles are created equal and Profile Inspector will let you see what makes each profile tick. Some profiles are matrix based and some are table based. Some table based profiles have more grid points are therefore capable of producing more accurate results, all other things being equal. Additional details available include device manufacturer, ICC format version, preferred color management module (CMM) and default rendering intent and more. You can see the neutral rendering curve for each intent to see just how grays get created. Here too you can see if there are any warnings or errors other than the previously mentioned naming issue. Profile Inspector also lets you rename profiles, install them on your system (if they aren't already), and launch any of the other built in ColorThink tools.
One of the best features of ColorThink is its ability to graph profile gamuts. You can Graph in 2D and Graph in 3D with numerous options in each. You can select to use LAB, Luv, or Yxy coordinates. Even better, you can graph more than one profile at the same time in order to compare them. Each one can be individually rendered as an outline or wireframe, solid color, or true color. 3D graphs can be rotated in all directions. If you're not familiar with 3D graphs, think of the vertical axis as representing brightness from black at the bottom to white at the top. Slicing through at each point along this axis gives you the extent of the gamut in terms of hue at each brightness. This makes sense when you consider that a monitor or printer may be capable of more saturated colors at brighter or darker colors but rarely both equally. All together, when you stack up all these slices you get a volume shape that represents the total range of capabilities for a profile in three dimensions. There's also an option to show the gamut projection of this 3D shape into two dimensions. This gives a quick indication of a profile's gamut that is essentially equivalent to the 2D graph view.
Image Inspector is another cool feature. With it, you can see the profile embedded in any image and even export it so you can use it on your system for other images. You can also graph a sampling of the color points from that image on your 2D or 3D graph to spot check for in-gamut versus out-of-gamut colors.
Profile Medic lets you fix many common profile errors and warnings. For instance, if you want to fix all those internal versus external name warnings, you can do so here.
Profile Linker is a more advanced feature that lets you create device link profiles used by some RIP and high-end printing systems.
If you're an extreme color geek, CHROMIX also makes ColorThink Pro that adds a number of power user features to what the regular version offers. Unfortunately, it also adds quite a bit to the price tag. ColorThink 2.3 sells for $150 while the Pro version will run you $399. You can find the full list of extra features in the Pro version on the CHROMIX website. There are some I do wish I had but since the regular version does most of what I need so I've never been able to justify going Pro. If the higher price tag doesn't scare you away though, the Pro version does indeed look great. One feature I do wish I had is the Color Worksheet mode which helps you see what your images will look like on various papers printed with different rendering intents. This thing makes soft proofing in Photoshop look rather anemic by comparison. And to help learn and use all the features CHROMIX built into the Pro version they've included a wizard-like tool they call the ColorSmarts Guide.
OS X ColorSync and some other tools will do at least part of what ColorThink does, but nothing I'm aware of does it all, and in one very nice package.