Color Management Primer: Printer Profiling
I focused the first three parts of this series on creating a color managed framework for your digital photography workflow. This set of systems helps ensure colors and tones in your digital photos are preserved as they transfer from one stage of workflow to the next. Part 4, the final article in this color management series, focuses on the most perplexing and often finicky stage of any workflow: printing.
As inkjet printing technology has improved, the quality of inkjet prints has accelerated. Today’s printers can reproduce a dazzling array of colors and stunningly well-detailed prints with remarkably high consistency. This is due not only to the high degree of accuracy in the printer’s manufacturing, but also in the consistency of the ink and paper formulation. With all these achievements, producing a great print from your inkjet print should be easy, right?
Odds are, you are reading this article because you’re frustrated by the differences between what you seen on-screen and what you see on paper. Or, just as likely, you’ve become lost in the maze of dialog boxes, pull-down menus and options in your printer driver. I’ve had clients call me literally in tears proclaiming “my printer hates me.” After years of troubleshooting inkjet printers for photographers, I can assure you, the culprit is almost always the printer driver software—the one piece of printing technology lagging dreadfully behind the others.
The first part of this article will walk you through the myriad options available in the printer driver. Once you’ve negotiated this hurdle, you will be able to print reliably day-in and day-out without much hassle.
When you’re more comfortable with this stage, you may wish to further improve your print accuracy. The second part of this article will address advanced printing options including soft proofing, generating and using custom ICC profiles for your printers, and introduce you to software RIPs for photographers. Lastly, since most people don’t have large-format printers at home, I’ll offer advice on preparing images for printing at a digital photo lab.
Printing Reliably from Photoshop and Lightroom
To limit the scope of discussion, I’m going to concentrate on the steps necessary to print reliably from Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
Printing is a futile process if you do not first calibrate and profile your monitor. The odds of your print matching your monitor drop precipitously if you are working on an uncalibrated monitor. Room lighting plays a significant role as well. I’ll address lighting more fully in the section below. If you’d like a refresher on monitor calibration, visit Part 2 of this series. I am also going to focus my attention on the color management aspects of printing.
If you are unfamiliar with your operating system’s controls for setting page size, margins and so forth, I encourage you to revisit your owner’s manual or the support section of the manufacturer’s web site.
Printing from Photoshop
Adobe improved the printing process significantly over the last two versions of Photoshop. I’ll demonstrate the process using Photoshop CS4. If you are working with an earlier version of Photoshop, the dialog box may be structured differently than is shown here, but the fundamental steps are exactly the same.
1. Begin by resizing your image to your desired print size and adding sharpening accordingly. From the File menu, select the Print command. (Note: In versions earlier than CS2, this command was called Print With Preview).
2. In the Print dialog box, verify the correct printer, paper size and print options (borderless, roll vs. sheet paper, etc), are configured correctly. In the Color Management portion of the Print dialog box, check the Document Profile to verify your photo has an ICC profile embedded. It doesn’t so much matter what ICC profile is embedded, as long as it matches your standard color management policies.
3. From the Color Handling pull-down menu, select Photoshop Manages Colors. This will perform the color conversion from your document’s ICC profile to your printer’s ICC profile in Photoshop, instead of within the print driver.
4. In the Printer Profile field, select the ICC profile that best corresponds to the printer, paper and ink combination you are printing to. With most 13-inch or wider inkjet printers these profiles are automatically copied to a folder on your hard drive when you install the printer driver software. These should be visible within Photoshop’s Printer Profile pull-down menu. If not, look to see if you can download the profiles manually from the manufacturer’s Web site, then copy the profiles to the following folder:
- Mac OSX: Macintosh HD > Library > ColorSync > Profiles
- Windows Vista and XP: \Windows\system32\spool\drivers\color
You may need to back out of the print dialog, restart Photoshop and resume the printing process for the profiles to appear in the dialog correctly. On Windows, you may need to restart your computer for the newly downloaded profiles to register with the operating system.
It is important that your profile is created specifically for your printer, paper and ink combination. Subtle changes in paper color, ink formulation or printer behavior will prevent you from producing good prints. If you are using a third-party paper, you will need to download the ICC profiles from the paper manufacturer’s Web site that have been specifically designed for their paper and your printer. For example, if you’re using Moab Entrada paper in your Epson 2880, you need to visit the Moab paper web site to download their profile for your printer. Using Epson’s ICC profiles won’t give you accurate results.
5. In the Rendering Intent field, select Relative Colorimetric and be sure Black Point Compensation is enabled. The Rendering Intent controls the way out-of-gamut colors are converted between the source profile (your editing profile) and the destination profile (the printer profile). Relative Colorimetric improves color accuracy at the expense of out-of gamut colors. Perceptual, another viable option, is superior for reproducing out-of-gamut colors, but sacrifices overall color accuracy and is therefore poorly suited for everyday printing.
Press the Print button to continue from Photoshop’s print dialog to your manufacturer’s printer driver.
Depending on the printer driver you are using, the options you see in the printer driver may differ from those shown in the illustration. The concepts, however, are the same, and regardless of whether you’re printing to an Epson, Canon or HP printer, the basic steps are largely the same. In this section, I’m printing to an Epson R2880 printer.
Navigating Your Printer Driver
In Mac OSX, verify your printer is selected at the top of the dialog, then select print settings from the pull-down menu. In the Print settings pull-down, set the following items:
- Media Type: The media type is used to help the printer apply the correct amount of ink to the paper. Be sure the media type selected matches the paper installed in your printer. If you are printing to a third-party paper, read the paper’s data sheet for the correct setting to use in this menu.
- Color Settings: Select Off (No Color Adjustment) to prevent the printer driver from applying a secondary color conversion.
- Print Quality/Resolution: Select the appropriate print resolution for your prints.
In previous versions of the Epson print dialog, these options were spread across two separate fields—Print Settings and Color Management. Regardless of the specific printer model or manufacturer, you need to address all three settings: media type, print resolution and disable color management in the print driver. This is often the most difficult task in creating great prints. As you can see, the print driver for the HPZ3100 and the Windows print driver for the Epson R2880 address all three of these settings even though the layouts differ.
Printing from Lightroom
Printing to an inkjet printer from Adobe Lightroom is very similar to printing from Photoshop. The primary advantage of printing from Lightroom is you do not need to resize and sharpen your image before printing. Lightroom handles both tasks automatically during the printing process.
1. After configuring your print settings (page size, print size, number of prints, etc.) focus your attention on the Print Job panel within the Print module. In the Print to: field, select Printer, set your print resolution and desired print sharpening (low, standard, high).
2. In the Color Management field, select the the ICC profile corresponding to your printer, paper and ink combination from the Profile field. If it is not listed, select other, then check the boxes in the Choose Profiles dialog to activate your commonly used profiles and make them visible in the Profile menu.
3. Select Relative for your Rendering Intent and press Print.
Optional: Before pressing the Print button, I strongly recommend saving a print template for each of your common printing setups. For example, I have a template for printing to my 17-inch printer and another for my 13-inch printer. Each contains my desired print sharpening, print resolution and color management options for their respective printer. The time to take to set up these templates is certainly worth the time it saves in the printing process.
After pressing print, you will continue on to the manufacturer’s printer driver. Follow the directions in Navigating Your Printer Driver above.
Improving Print Accuracy
Once you’ve dialed in the settings within Photoshop, Lightroom and your printer driver, you should produce good quality prints without any additional work. To improve the accuracy of your prints and match what you see on your monitor and in your prints, I’ve included some “next steps” to take your printing to the the next level of quality and consistency.
Room Lighting & Environment
The colors you see in your prints are heavily influenced by room lighting and any colors in your studio. For example, standard household incandescent lights in your room will add a warm orange cast to your prints. Photographers frequently blame printer settings or monitor calibration for the discrepancy between what they see on screen and on paper, when the real culprit is lighting.
One of the best and least expensive solutions to judge the true colors of your prints is to use north facing window light. Although this light tends to be a little on the cool side, it is generally more accurate than any other artificial light source commonly found in your home.
If you’re looking for something more reliable than true daylight, add a daylight-balanced light source for working and print-viewing. Photographers have long used Solux brand halogen bulbs for desk lamps or halogen track lighting. These bulbs are ideal for viewing prints because they are balanced to the graphic arts and color management standard for print viewing.
In industrial spaces, the GE Chroma 50 is a popular fluorescent tube approximating the D50 standard, the International Standards Organization (ISO) recommendation for graphic arts viewing of hard copy media. The best solution is to use a dimmable viewing booth in a darkened room. This isolates the print and the monitor from other colors and reflections within the room, offering the most control in matching brightness of the viewing light to the brightness of the monitor.
Custom ICC Profiles
As the quality of inkjet printers has improved, so too has the accuracy of the manufacturer-supplied ICC profiles. While these go a long way toward creating an accurate screen to print match, a custom ICC profile created specifically for your printer, paper and ink combination is still superior to the manufacturer’s generic profiles.
With a custom profile, you can expect to see better color accuracy, improved shadow detail and more neutral gray balance. In particular, dedicated black and white photographers should find a remarkable improvement over generic profiles. You can build custom profiles using a spectrophotometer and profile building package or hire a color management consultant to create one for you. Several consultants offer remote profiling services. Two companies I recommend are the Color Valet from Chromix or RP Imaging. Both have consulted for many years and are well respected in the industry.
A software RIP (Raster Image Processor) is a standalone application that replaces the manufacturer’s print driver, allowing you to interface directly with your printer. Not only do RIPs offer improved print quality, they offer a host of color management and print production tools not found in a typical print driver. Unfortunately, these additional features come at a cost. You can expect to pay 50-100 percent of the cost of your printer for a professional software RIP, but if you are producing a high volume of prints, the time savings and improved quality may pay back your investment more quickly than you think.
X-Photo RIP from Colorburst and the Image Print RIP from ColorByte are the two most commonly used RIPs for digital photography. Black and white photographers looking to improve the quality of their prints without spending a lot of money may want to look at the Quad Tone RIP (http://www.quadtonerip.com/html/QTRoverview.html). Although it lacks many of the production features of other RIPs, it improves the black-and-white print quality of most inkjet printers considerably, at a fraction of the cost of other RIPs.
If you are serious about printing your photography and print primarily from Photoshop or Aperture, you will want to become acquainted with the Soft Proofing features found in these applications. Soft Proofing allows you to preview on-screen the appearance of the finished print. Soft proofing is heavily reliant upon an accurate monitor and printer profiles and can help eliminate surprises in the printing process.
Soft Proofing works by displaying your photo through the printer’s ICC profile. This allows you to preview changes in contrast, shadow detail or color. For example, when printing on watercolor or cotton-rag paper, which has a smaller color gamut, the colors in your photo will appear muted and detail in the shadows will lose definition. With the soft proof activated, you can see these changes on screen and use Photoshop’s editing tools to correct these problems, optimizing your photo to get the best possible print.
In Photoshop, activate Soft Proofing using the View > Proof Setup > Custom command.
In the resulting Customize Proof Condition, select your printer’s ICC profile in the Device To Simulate pull-down menu. For Intent, select Relative Colorimetric and ensure Black Point Compensation is enabled.
The two Display Corrections options give you additional control over the Soft Proofing process. The Simulate Black Ink checkbox matches the darkest black in your photo to the darkest black the printer can reproduce. This can help you identify corrections you need to make to your shadows to make your print reproduce correctly.
The Simulate Paper Color matches the white of the highlights to your paper color and activates Simulate Black Ink. Although this is technically the most accurate method of Soft Proofing, I often find the Simulate Paper Color displays more visual compression than I see in the finished print. This is primarily due to our perception of colors and the ways our eyes adapt to colors relative to the surrounding area.
Printing to a Digital Photo Lab
Even though inkjet printing has improved tremendously, digital photo labs still play an important role in photographer’s workflows for cost-effective high-volume printing and for large-format printing. Because these two printing methods fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, the steps you need to take to prepare your files optimally differs on the intended use of the prints and the equipment the lab uses to make your prints.
Digital Minilab: High-volume, Low-cost
Digital minilab machines, exemplified by the popular Fuji Frontier printer, are commonly used in digital photo labs and online print fulfillment services for making inexpensive prints up to 8×12 inches.
For best results, convert photos to the sRGB color space before delivering them to your photo lab. This step is necessary, as many of these machines are ill-equipped to work correctly with color managed files and can cause inconsistent results when other ICC profiles are used.
If you frequently make prints using a digital minilab, you may be well-served by visiting Dry Creek Photo’s database of ICC profiles for digital photo labs. This is a repository of ICC profiles created for specific photo labs.
These profiles should improve the overall print quality, but be aware, these machines are designed to print high volumes of photos of good quality. These prints should not be used for your fine-art portfolio.
Large Format: High-quality, Limited Edition
On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the high-quality large format printers used in professional digital labs. Like the Fuji Frontier minilab, these printers use red, green, and blue lasers to expose your image onto photosensitive paper. Unlike the minilab machines, these printers can be calibrated and run to very exacting standards. At the lab I commonly use, they calibrate their printers twice daily to ensure consistency from print to print.
While these prints are far more expensive than those made at the digital minilab, their size (up to 44-inches wide), image quality and consistency justify the extra cost. Frequently, professional photo labs will provide a custom ICC profile for use when soft proofing photos for their printer and request that you either convert your photo to their custom profile or the Adobe 1998 ICC profile for printing. As an added benefit, many professional labs can answer specific questions about resolution, file format, and color spaces to help you get the best prints from their lab.
Color management has made remarkable strides in the last several years making it more effective and easier to use. While you do need to learn a few technical terms and key concepts commonly used in ICC-based color management, you no longer need to be a color geek to calibrate your monitor or produce good photos from your inkjet printer.
If you’d like to learn more about color management, I recommend the following resources:
- Real World Color Management by Bruce Fraser, Chris Muphy and Fred Bunting; Peachpit Press, 2004
- Color Confidence: The Digital Photographer’s Guide to Color Management by Tim Grey; Tim Grey Guides, 2006
- Color Management for Photographers: Hands on Techniques for Photoshop Users by Andrew Rodney, Focal Press, 2005
- X-Rite has produced several training videos to compliment their ColorMunki product line. You can view the tutorials for free at:
- Datacolor, makers of the Spyder line of products has an extensive Learning section on color management fundamentals and specific tutorials on using Spyder products:
- Digital Outback Photo has several articles on color management for photographers.
- To read in-depth discussions on the cutting edge of color management, subscribe to the ColorSync Users mailing list:
- Photo.net Digital Darkroom Forum
- Jay’s member page
- Jay’s gallery page
- Photo.net Digital Photography Workflow series
Color Management Primer by Jay Kinghorn
Jay Kinghorn is an Adobe Photoshop Certified Expert, Olympus Visionary photographer and full-time digital workflow consultant and trainer. He specializes in helping corporations use their photos efficiently and effectively by streamlining workflow processes and improving employee’s skills using Adobe Photoshop. Jay is co-author of Perfect Digital Photography and author of two Photoshop training DVDs, Photoshop CS3 New Feature Training and Beginning Photoshop for Digital Photographers. Jay lectures and presents to businesses and universities internationally. His presentations focus on digital photography workflows, color management, image optimization and the future of photography. His clients include Olympus, Sony, Adobe, Cabela’s, Vail Resorts and the Rocky Mountain News. Jay is often found climbing the rock walls, running the trails or scaling the mountains near his home in Boulder, Colorado.
Text ©2009 Jay Kinghorn.
Text ©2009 Jay Kinghorn.