Hands On with ColorMunki Photo

Aug 4, 2008
Theano Nikitas

Color management is one of those necessary evils that can sometimes confound, confuse, frustrate and intimidate even those who understand what the process is all about. Enter X-Rite’s ColorMunki Photo, an affordable, all-in-one monitor/projector/printer calibration and profiling solution (with a few interesting extras) that takes much of the pain out of color management.

If you compare the four-figure prices of higher end color management solutions to the $499 ColorMunki, you’ll get a general idea of the product’s target market — photographers who are serious enough to know that color management is important but may not have the skills or the funds needed to invest in more sophisticated products.

The ColorMunki kit consists of a spectrophotometer device about the size and shape of a heavy-duty tape measure, a protective pouch and strap, a USB cable, CD-ROM, and a printed quickstart guide. Available for Mac (OS X 10.4 or higher) and PC (XP, Vista), ColorMunki comes with a 3-computer license, which should be sufficient for most users.

Unleashing the Munki
Setup is relatively straightforward although the CD contains nothing more than an installer so you’ll need an Internet connection to download the software. On the plus side, this means you’ll always have the latest version of the application; on the other hand, the download can take a while. Once the application is downloaded, getting started is simply a matter of rebooting the computer, plugging in the spectrophotometer and activating the software.

Since the ColorMunki software is wizard-driven, even color management novices should be able to get through the monitor and printer profiling process relatively unscathed as long as they don’t run into any glitches or try to venture too far off the step-by-step wizard’s path. A recent update is supposed to have fixed some bugs that affected Vista and Mac OS users but I experienced few problems on Windows XP with the original 1.0 version.

Although users are prompted to profile both monitor and printer(s) upon initial use of ColorMunki, each task can be accomplished separately.

I wasn’t thrilled with the sand-filled counterweight strap that’s used to balance the spectrophotometer; it just seemed kind of cheesy for a $500 product. It took me a few tries to get it balanced correctly with the spectrophotometer positioned right, especially on a small PC laptop.

You have a choice of Easy or Advanced profiling and, frankly, the Easy method should suffice for most users. The Advanced option did offer some extra fine-tuning but what I found throughout the software is that if you’re very knowledgeable about color management, you may very well become frustrated at ColorMunki's limitations. But keep in mind the target audience – it's for first-timers not color management mavens. ColorMunki does not have all the fine-tuning capabilities that high-end color management solutions like X-Rite's own i1Photo system offers. And, if you have a CRT, ColorMunki won't work for you.

Printer Peaks and Pitfalls
Since I love experimenting with different papers, ColorMunki’s printer profiling capabilities were of more interest. Basically, you print the ColorMunki Printer Chart on the paper you want to profile, let it dry (the software has a 10-minute timer to ensure that the print is dry). Then, with the spectrophotometer removed from its case, you simply run the device over each of the five rows of ten color swatches (for a total of 50). Easy so far, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the potential pitfalls is making an accurate print of the chart. If you don’t already have a reference point (either an automatically installed profile from the printer manufacturer or suggested printer settings from a third-party paper manufacturer), then you’ll have to do some guesswork. This came into play when I decided to profile some unusual papers that I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years.

It took more than a few sheets of paper and some experimentation but I managed to profile most of them successfully for the Epson R1900 and the HP B9180. Most users will probably stick with more common brands/types of papers and, hopefully, know what settings to use when printing the chart.

Simple Scanning (with a Few Blips)
Once the chart has been printed, scanning was relatively easy — after I cleared off enough space on my desk to lay the paper flat while still having enough room to maneuver the spectrophotometer. The software tracks the scan of each row and shows the results (green for good; red for error) on the computer monitor.

I had only a few problems scanning and had to repeat the scan on a couple of rows (one scan had to be repeated three times and I still don’t know what I did differently on that row versus the others) but, errors aside, the process was much faster than anticipated.

Because ColorMunki uses an iterative process, once the data from the first chart is scanned into the computer, a second printer chart of 50 swatches is generated. Once that is printed out and scanned, your profile is ready to be named and saved. You then have the option of allowing the AppSet feature to add the profile to your imaging applications. If you can, you might be better off adding the profiles manually.

Once your profiles are done, you can use one of your images to “optimize” the profile or create a new one based on the image. I thought this process would be ideal for getting better output for skin tones. While it worked fairly well, it was less impressive than the original profiles I made.

Munki Around
ColorMunki can also profile digital projectors, although I didn’t have a digital projector handy to test out how well that worked. But I did play around with ColorMunki’s Photo ColorPicker to create some custom color palettes. I particularly liked the ability to read a color off a surface and save it. ColorPicker has additional functionality but is probably more useful to designers than photographers.

DigitalPouch is another extra included with ColorMunki and is designed to help ensure that clients view images properly regardless of the monitor they’re using. It may be useful to some ColorMunki customers but obviously, the monitor and printer profiling will be of most value to photographers.

The Bottom Line
ColorMunki isn’t perfect but when it works as planned, it’s a relatively simple and straightforward tool for photographers who want to take charge of their monitor and printer without a huge investment of time, money or effort.

Pros: Affordable profiling solution; relatively easy to use; fast and (mostly) accurate printer profiles

Cons: Monitor profiling capabilities may seem limited to more experienced users; software can be a little buggy; counterweight for spectrophotometer hard to use on a laptop; application has to be downloaded from Internet

Price: $499

Further information: www.colormunki.com

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