Display Colour Management in the Affinity apps

Make the most of colour management within the Affinity apps by learning to use it correctly.

Whether you’re processing images, designing vectors or laying out print designs, colour management is an important part of the editing process. It ensures that the colour values in your document are being translated accurately to both the display and the printing device (if you are intending to print your work).

We’re going to look specifically at display colour management. Let’s break down how you can achieve accurate colour management in the Affinity apps and look at some good habits to develop for ensuring accurate and consistent colour viewing whilst we work on our documents.

Document to Display

The Colour Display Profile window in macOS which allows you to set the active display profile.

The Affinity apps perform what is called document-to-screen colour profile conversion. This means that the colour values (or ‘numbers’ as we might refer to them) are translated from their initial document values based on the current display profile. This display profile is configured at the operating system level.

Every display has different characteristics or properties—even with the same make and model, you will find variance between different displays in how they represent colour. Display profiles describe these characteristics so they can be factored into how colours are shown.

Here’s a very basic example: imagine we have a red colour value in our document which is in the sRGB colour space, and in 8-bit precision (where you have 256 unique colour values) we’ll say this red value is 240. Without colour management, this value would be sent to the display as-is. However, there’s no guarantee that the display will represent this red value accurately, especially if it reproduces colours much greater than the gamut of sRGB which is the colour space our imaginary document is in.

With colour management in place, that red value would no longer just be sent straight to the screen: instead, it would be translated based on the display profile to ensure it looks correct according to the characteristics of the display.

Regardless of what type of work you do—whether it’s image editing, graphic design or print design—colour management is important for a professional workflow to ensure that your editing decisions regarding colour and tone are based on some kind of standard and are consistent. It’s even more important if you plan to interwork with other creatives, companies and print houses.

Calibration and Profiling

There’s no easy way around it—if you’re serious about having a colour managed workflow, you will need to calibrate and profile your display, typically using a device such as a colourimeter. Colourimeters include X-Rite’s i1 Display Pro and ColourMunki and datacolor’s Spyder models.

These devices sit on the surface of the screen and interact with calibration and profiling software to produce a bespoke display profile that accurately describes that display’s characteristics. Calibration and profiling have some distinct differences, but they work together to achieve the final colour managed result.

Calibration

Think of calibration as the ‘hardware’ part of the process: this involves changing the display’s brightness, contrast and colour settings to get as close as possible to the profile target. For example, most office, web and photographic editing will use a white point of D65 (6500 Kelvin), which is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: not too blue, nor too orange. Displays often have red, green and blue contribution controls which can be adjusted to try and match this white point.

Using DisplayCAL with an i1 Display Pro to calibrate a display to D65 at 80cd/m2

In addition, there is also the overall brightness to consider, which is measured in candela per square metre (cd/m2) or ‘nits’—the terms are interchangeable here as they both use the same measurement. The display brightness should be adequately set to match the perceptual brightness of the room. Too dark and you don’t see crucial detail, but too bright and you’ll skew your perception of how bright colours are, then wonder why your edits look too dark on other devices or in print.

As a rough guide, your typical dimly-lit office may warrant a brightness of 80 cd/m2, sometimes 100cd/m2. An office with a window and plenty of natural light may justify raising this to 120cd/m2 or even slightly higher.

Most displays come straight from the factory looking very bright—sometimes eye-searingly so. Whilst this looks impressive, it not only wears on your eyes and causes fatigue but is often perceptually incorrect. Images might look vibrant and punchy, but that won’t represent the average experience across many different devices or even in print.

If you do decide to calibrate your display to a more suitable brightness level, you may find it difficult to adjust at first to how dim it looks—most people instinctively reach for the brightness control on their keyboard if they’re using a Mac, for example! Be aware that dramatically adjusting the brightness will void the calibration and profiling, since it will affect the colour reproduction and require a readjustment of the colour controls.

If accurate colour and tone is really your goal, try and fight past this initial desire to have a brighter display.

Profiling

DisplayCAL calibration progress as the display profile is being created

Profiling is the ‘software’ part of the process: the colourimeter takes measurements from the display and creates a display profile that the operating system can use to manage the colour values being sent to the display.

Adjusting the colour controls with a monitor’s OSD (on screen display) prior to profiling

Imagine calibration as 90% of the work—adjusting the controls on the actual display—and profiling being the last 10%. No display is perfect, and you often can’t fully match the target white point or brightness. Profiling accounts for these marginal errors, so the final small amount of tweaking is done in ‘software’ as the colour values are sent to the display.

For some devices, however, profiling is the only step available. Most laptops and Mac devices (e.g. iMac displays, the LG UltraFine display) have no colour adjustments on them whatsoever, and there sometimes isn’t enough fine control over brightness either. In this case, the display profile has to do most of the heavy lifting as it were—this is less than ideal, since colour values (‘numbers’) may have to be heavily adjusted and are subject to rounding errors and precision limitations.

Profiling a MacBook Pro screen (no colour controls) with an i1 Display Pro and DisplayCAL to reach a white point of D65 (6500K)

Nevertheless, even if you can achieve at least one of these two steps, it will significantly improve the tonal rendering and colour accuracy of your display and enable you to work with more confidence.

Affinity apps and colour profiles

Now let’s move onto the Affinity apps and how they tie into this colour management. The apps will always colour manage from the document profile to the display profile, so examples of this might be:

  • sRGB to Display Profile
  • Adobe RGB to Display Profile
  • CMYK U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2 to Display Profile
  • LAB CIELAB D50 to Display Profile

This part of the process is where there is often some confusion—we see a lot of users of the Affinity apps who calibrate and profile their screens, then use the display profile as the document profile. In fact, some users will find their way to the Colour preferences and change the defaults like so:

Colour preferences: default settings on the left, incorrect assignment of display profiles on the right.

This is a really bad idea, because now your documents are going to use the display profile rather than a known, standardised device profile. Depending on how extreme the profiling adjustments are, the colour values could be way off-base compared to a standard profile like sRGB. If you were to then export your work and view it on a device or app that is not colour managed, the result would look very wrong.

If you have done this, I would recommend setting them back to the default values (sRGB for RGB and 32bit RGB) and leaving them like that unless you have a specific workflow reason to work in a different profile by default.

Converting a document’s colour profile to sRGB using Affinity Photo’s profile conversion dialog

Managing correctly

Setting up accurate colour management within the Affinity apps is actually very straightforward. Literally the only change you need to make will already have been made for you if you have used a colourimeter and profiling software: the display profile needs to be changed at the operating system level.

That’s it! You don’t actually need to change anything within the apps themselves. Continue setting up your documents and processing your images using the standard profiles you are accustomed to—sRGB for regular image work, Adobe RGB/ROMM RGB/ProPhoto RGB for wide gamut work etc—and the apps will do the rest, ensuring the colour values in your document are converted accurately using the display profile. The same applies if you are working in CMYK for print: use whichever CMYK profile is applicable and it will be colour managed to display accurately on screen.

The Colour Management dialog on Windows

If you need to change the display profile manually, this is relatively straightforward on macOS and requires slightly more work on Windows depending on your version:

  • macOS: go to System Preferences>Displays and click on the Colour tab. Select the appropriate display profile from the list.
  • Windows 10: from the Start menu or the search bar, type ‘colour management’ (or ‘color management’) and choose the option that appears to access the display profile window.
  • Windows 7, 8, 8.1: please read this guide from pcmonitors.info.

Whites look yellow

Windows users may often come across this issue: both the document view and interface areas that display colour of the Affinity apps have yellow tinting where it should look pure white.

Left: pure white (correct). Right: yellow tinting (incorrect)

This issue is not exclusive to the Affinity software: it actually happens with many colour managed apps (simply Google a phrase like ‘whites are yellow’) and is related to specific display profiles that are installed by default for various displays. They are defective in regards to their compatibility with colour management solutions and do not work properly.

There are two solutions to this: one is to use a colourimeter and create a bespoke display profile, which you should do anyway! All profiling software (i1Profiler, DisplayCAL etc) is capable of creating proper display profiles that work with colour management implementations.

The other solution is to reset your display profile to the sRGB device profile. I do not recommend doing this, since you are effectively negating any benefit of colour management, but if you are unable to calibrate and profile your screen this is the remaining option. You may also try searching for a custom profile for your particular display and installing that to see if it remedies the issue.

Exporting

There’s one final area we need to cover, and that’s when it comes to exporting your work. We’re going to use an image/photographic editing workflow as a typical example here.

If you work exclusively with sRGB as your document colour profile, you have probably never encountered any issues. Images you export look consistent (as much as is reasonably possible) across all devices and web browsers.

If you work in wide gamut colour profiles like Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB, however, you may have experienced an issue when viewing your images in web browsers (e.g. when uploading them to image sharing websites or your own website), on other devices, or simply just with other software.

An image in ROMM RGB, a wide colour space. Left: colour managed and correct. Right: unmanaged and incorrect

The common issue here is that these web browsers, image viewers and image editors may not be colour managed. That means they have no concept of how to translate the colour values of the image to ensure they appear accurate by the time they reach the display. With documents whose colour values are in sRGB, this isn’t usually an issue: sRGB is a standardised device profile and its primaries are safe to ‘assume’ if an image has no colour profile or if no colour management is present. Whilst there may be differences when viewing with an unmanaged application, they are likely to be minor.

However, if an image is exported with a wide colour profile and then viewed with an unmanaged application, the colours will often look dull and faded. Worse still, uploading to an image host may strip out the colour profile and leave the image ‘untagged’ without making any attempt to convert the colour values to sRGB.

In this scenario, the best approach we can take to mitigate these issues is to convert the image to sRGB on export. This does mean potentially losing very vibrant colour detail, but this only really applies to edge cases: most typical photography and digital imagery does not lose too much when converted to sRGB.

Exporting with an sRGB colour profile in Affinity Photo

To achieve this in Affinity Photo, for example, we would do the following:

  1. Go to File>Export.
  2. Choose the desired export format e.g. JPEG.
  3. Click the More button.
  4. Click the ICC Profile dropdown and choose sRGB IEC61966-2.1.
  5. Export the image. Its colour values will be converted to sRGB values.

Note that this approach is also great for foolproofing against imagery that may use outlier colour profiles: for example, screen grabs on macOS have the display profile embedded which can cause similar issues if viewed unmanaged. You may also receive external files from creatives or other sources that are not in a standardised colour space.

In summary

Hopefully this article has helped to clarify how display colour management works in relation to the Affinity apps.

I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’re serious about achieving consistent colour and tone with your display, I would really recommend investing in a colourimeter to calibrate and profile your display to a known standard. This will at least allow you to work with increased accuracy and ensure that your brightness is set to be perceptually correct for the lighting conditions you are working in. Having a colour managed application is simply the ‘icing on the cake’ that will allow you to make the most of your bespoke display profile, but it’s important to get the fundamentals in place using calibration and profiling.