Color Management and Printing

The previous article covered the basics of color theory and color spaces.  Now it’s time for the ink to hit the paper.  How can you get accurate prints the first time?

Devices, such as your monitor and printer, use a profile to determine how to render a color.  A profile is simply a table that indicates what mixture of primary colors should be used to obtain a certain color.

Generating a custom profile for your monitor is a necessary – but not sufficient- step on the path to print nirvana.  Without a custom monitor profile, it is unlikely that you will be able to print accurately without a lot of trial and error.

Profile Test Strip
Profile Test Strip

Profiling your monitor requires a hardware/software package. It’s true you can generate a profile by eyeballing the monitor but using a hardware device to generate the profile is far more accurate.  Such devices cost on the order of $100 and up.

[Sidebar]Is profiling your camera possible? Adobe supports profiles in Adobe Camera Raw. That means both users of Lightroom and Photoshop can use profiles that match those of the camera manufacturer or, even more important, a custom profile specific to your camera.

These profiles are in beta release and are available on the Adobe Labs website. The profiles require Camera Raw 4.5 / Lightroom 2.0 or later. The profiles only work with RAW files. You will need the GretagMacbeth ColorChecker to generate a custom profile.

The color management problem can become even more challenging when printing.  If you have profiled your monitor you might still have prints that are color inaccurate.  Why?

Printer manufacturers base the profile included with your printer on an average printer, not on your printer.  If you print by letting the “printer determine colors” in Photoshop, you are using the profile supplied by the manufacturer.

While this may be a reasonable way to proceed – the price is right – for more accurate color you need to generate a custom profile.  This is a profile for your printer with the ink and paper that you want to use.  It will, in general, be more accurate than the profile included with the printer.  And it’s not free.

There are several ways to obtain custom profiles for a printer.  One, buy the hardware required to do it yourself.  This is the high priced method; typical hardware/software packages to do the profiling start at $750.  For most, this is not a realistic option unless you are running a print shop.

The second option is to have a lab generate a profile.  Googling custom printer profiles will give 1.5 million results.  So there are some options to consider.

The process for generating a custom profile is straight forward.  First, download a target from the company selected.  Depending upon the company and the paper you are profiling, there are different targets.

Next, make sure your printer is printing without any artifacts. Then, print the target(s) on the paper you want to profile following the profiler instructions.  After it dries, snail mail it to the profiler.

In a few days you will receive, via email, a profile.  It will have the extension .icc and needs to be installed on your machine.  On a Mac, it should be placed in the folder /Library/ColorSync/Profiles/ In Windows( XP and Vista) the profiles are in \Windows\system32\spool\drivers\color.

To use the profiles (You may have to restart your machine) just select that profile when printing.  That means you will have to use “Let Photoshop determine colors…” in the Print Dialog. Soft Proof should work also.

Printer Dialog
Printer Dialog

The price for the custom profile varies but can be as low as $25 per profile.  You might save that much in ink and paper in a few days.  I used InkJetArt  ( I have no connection with Inkjet Art other than as a customer.) to generate profiles for Epson Matte and Brilliant Luster papers for my Epson 2200 printer.

Comparison of Profiles
Comparison of Profiles

The results were very good for the Matte paper but only slightly better with the Brilliant paper. The canned Epson profile that came with my printer had always been unsatisfactory with matte paper.  Green, in particular, was so bad that with certain prints I was forced to use luster or semi-gloss papers.  The custom profile was very good and fixed the problem.

If you want to move to the next step in printing, consider a custom profile.  It can be an inexpensive way to improve your prints.