David Cardinal: Taming Color in Your Slideshows
Apr 2013 02

As photographers, more and more of our images never make it to paper. They are seen online, often in a slideshow. Of course, slideshows have gotten a lot more complex than dropping some of our “as shot” slides in a carousel. With that complexity comes a host of new problems – first and foremost among them the accurate reproduction of color in a variety of challenging situations. Most projectors and HDTVs don’t do a great job of truly representing the color in our images to begin with, so they need all the help they can get from us.

As with most of color management, there isn’t any simple way to ensure that your images are seen the way they are supposed to look on every possible device, but with the right tools and some careful planning, you can greatly increase your likelihood of success.

sRGB is a great baseline

If you only take away one piece of advice from this article it should be that converting to sRGB is the best single safety net in image preparation. Unless you are certain your image will be color-managed correctly when it leaves your hands, you should convert it to sRGB. An image in any other colorspace will look bad – typically unsaturated, for example – on a system that isn’t properly calibrated and managed.

As a practical matter, most devices that are used to show slideshows don’t have a substantially larger gamut than sRGB anyway, so you’re not giving up much. If your show winds up on the web, it is especially unlikely that your viewers will have an end-to-end color-managed solution. In my case I have an action that does a slight sharpening of my images, as well as resizing them for an HD projector and converting to sRGB as a generic prep for making them slideshow ready.

Color manage your own shows

Of course, if you’re going to be delivering your own slideshow, you can take matters in your own hands and provide an end-to-end color-managed environment. The first key is to profile your output device (whether it is a projector or HDTV). Datacolor’s Spyder4ELITE is perfect for that. It only takes a few minutes, so when I’m giving a talk I just try to arrange early access to the projector so that I can profile it.

For success profiling on the road, remember to bring a tripod (it can be a light one) and a way to attach your Spyder to it so you’ll be ready to profile. I also travel with a USB extension cable in case I need to run the Spyder a large distance from my laptop to the screen (for best results the Spyder needs to be fairly near the screen). Try to give yourself a little extra time to let the projector warm up, and remember to profile it under similar lighting to what will be used during your talk.

The next key is having a color-managed slideshow workflow. In my case I use the excellent ProShow Producer from Photodex. It is by far the best slideshow package on Windows. Mac users who use Keynote should also be able to benefit from color-management, although it seems to come and go depending on the application and OS release.

Managing color workflow with ProShow Producer

ProShow Producer offers two very different options for managing color in your presentations. When you create an EXE that can be shown on any PC, you have the option of pre-defining the output color space or allowing the ProShow player to use the display profile as determined at runtime. If you know in advance the profile of the display you’ll be using you can simply build it in to the show.

More likely, you’ll want to let ProShow use the display profile at showtime and then make sure you have it set properly when you set up your talk. If you’re not sure whether that will be possible you can always set your display profile to something safe, like sRGB, and hope it is close enough.

Publishing for the web and mobile

Web slideshows have an additional problem that there is no way to predict how they will be viewed. Typically either your show will wind up as a video or be used in a custom player. Most photo sharing sites also don’t honor embedded profiles. So almost always you’ll be much safer in this case converting your images to sRGB in advance, rather than risk them looking bad on a system without color management. ProShow Web is a pleasant exception, as it honors embedded color profiles just like the desktop version, then uses sRGB to display them. Even better, for users of ProShow on the desktop, it integrates with ProShow Gallery, a color-managed slideshow sharing service on the web.

Mobile devices present a similar set of challenges. sRGB is the target color gamut aspired to by mobile device vendors, although only Apple seems to take it seriously enough that it has devices that match it right out of the box (mostly the iPhone 5 and the newest iPads).

If you are planning to show your images on your own mobile device, Datacolor’s SpyderGALLERY can help you characterize it and give you a color-managed photo viewer to work with. It doesn’t support full multimedia slideshows though, so for those you’re still better off converting to sRGB.

So what about PowerPoint?

Unfortunately, the Office group at Microsoft has never been all that concerned with color. Even now, over 20 years after the introduction of PowerPoint, a search in Help for “color management,” “color profile” or “sRGB” yields nothing. In fact, PowerPoint 2013 does not honor embedded profiles in images. Since Microsoft doesn’t provide this information I verified this by running a simple experiment. The two images below (of women working in a lacquerware factory in Bagan, Myanmar) are identical. Except that the one on the left is in ProPhoto RGB (a large colorspace often used for editing), while the one on the right has been converted to sRGB. As you can see, the ProPhoto RGB image does not render properly, looking extremely washed out:

So if you’re stuck using PowerPoint to show your slides (it is still one of the quickest and most powerful tools for presenting a lot of text and charts along with your images) then you’ll want to remember to pre-process all your images into sRGB before putting them in PowerPoint. Otherwise you’ll be stuck trying to hand tweak them all after the fact, which is a lot more work.

Putting it all together

First and foremost, if you’re in doubt, convert everything to sRGB. It’s your safest fallback. Then if you can, profile whatever display devices you’ll be using with your Spyder. If you’re traveling, creating several projector profiles for different light levels will help you accommodate to various venues. Finally, if you have the option, using a color-managed slideshow package like ProShow Producer will give you the most accurate color possible for your setup. Remember, your great images deserve great color.

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience