Modern Printmaking Part Two: Consistency

Understanding color spaces, profiles and device calibration
display calibration
Color rendition before (left) and after (right) display calibration. Calibrating your display is one of the most important steps in creating a consistent digital printing workflow.

In case you missed it, we kicked off this four-part series on printmaking with modern tools by focusing on the value of printing in our digital era. Here, with Part Two, I’d like to jump into distilling the complicated practice of digital printing—or, at least, to jump into distilling the theory behind the practice.

Digital printing workflow is all about consistency. The thing with analog printing, especially printing that requires dodging and burning, and masking, is that no two prints are exactly alike. Digital printing, when practiced well, eliminates the unpredictable nature of analog printing. Once an image has been developed and proofed in Lightroom, Photoshop or elsewhere, printing becomes a matter of hitting “Print.” Admittedly, it’s not as easy as that, but compared to building a darkroom, mixing chemicals, developing and fixing paper, it kind of is. Making the one-hundredth print versus the first should be, theoretically, the same—even if you print on different printers or on different papers—as long as you know how to practice a workflow that supports such consistency.

Consistency also refers to knowing that what we see on our computer screens will match what comes out of our printers. It’s true that the criteria for consistency can vary, depending on how critical your eye is, the requirements of your audience and clients, your budget, and what equipment you already may be invested in and using. Considering all that, I suggest your goal should be to create consistency relative to your needs. Whether your standards are high and you need perfection because your clients and studio demand it or you’re fine with relative accuracy (most are, as I am), the secret to consistency lies in training all the hardware along your workflow chain to speak to one another.

ICC Color Management Basics
All of the cameras on the market today, and all of the computer monitors, portable tablets, printers, printer inks and photo papers, render tones differently. Some can reproduce a wide range of tonality and color, while others are limited. Adding to the complexity, some devices use one language to communicate color, while other devices use a completely different language.

Since different devices in our workflow chain speak different languages, we need a standard that enables one device to understand another, allowing us to manage colors in our images when moving them from device to device. Luckily, such a standard language exists, created by the International Color Consortium (ICC). In a nutshell, the ICC is an organization that was formed in 1993 to help solve the problem of digital color reproduction, and it did so by creating a vendor-neutral color management system. Referred to as ICC Color Management, the system is practiced simply by integrating ICC profiles into our workflow.

The first step in color management is knowing a few terms related to device calibration, including the difference between a color space, a color profile and an ICC profile. From there, we can talk about how to integrate ICC profiles into our printing workflow.

Color Spaces. Color models such as RGB (red, green, blue) or CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) can be mixed together in endless ways. To define color in a digital environment, red, green and blue need to be quantified numerically. Color spaces provide a way to do this. Adobe RGB, sRGB and ProPhoto are commonly used color spaces for photographers (Figure 1).

Adobe RGB
Adobe RGB and sRGB
Figure 1: Adobe RGB and sRGB are commonly used color spaces that assist computers and programs in defining the parameters and range of color. Spaces can be big or small.

Color Profiles. A color profile essentially is a color space attached to an image. For example, Adobe RGB and sRGB are color spaces, but if I embed one of them into an image, that space is then the image’s color profile. Our computers and software such as Lightroom need to reference a color profile in order to define color and tonality as we work with our photos.

ICC Profiles. An ICC profile is a color space that characterizes a specific device, such as a monitor, printer or camera, and associates that space with a vendor-neutral industry-standard set of colors defined by the ICC. This process of characterization is also called calibrating. Figure 2 shows my colorimeter, a monitor-calibrating device, analyzing my monitor as software projects colors at different shades and brightness values. After my monitor has been calibrated, all colors and tones will be displayed through the ICC profile created during the calibration process. ICC profiles further define a mapping protocol between the source color space and a profile connection space. This allows for efficient communication and translation of color when moving from device to device in a given workflow—as long as ICC profiles are used all along the workflow chain.

colorimeter
Figure 2: As you calibrate your monitor, your monitor will display an array of different colors at different brightness values that are analyzed through the colorimeter and accompanying software.

Calibration and the Practice of Color Management
Even though all of your devices need to be profiled to practice an ICC Color Management workflow, that doesn’t mean you need to invest in the tools and the time required to do it all yourself. In fact, I suggest you don’t do that. All you—and the vast majority of photographers out there—need to do in order to start experiencing some degree of consistency is to calibrate your monitor and begin incorporating ICC print profiles into your routine.

Personally, I’ve owned and used the X-Rite ColorMunki Display. I think it’s a great moderately priced calibrator and does everything one would need to obtain a good profile. With that said, I also like and suggest the Spyder5PRO or the Spyder5ELITE by Datacolor.

Here are my top tips for calibrating your monitor:
Calibrate once per month.
Use a room with consistent ambient light that’s moderately lit and has no direct sunlight hitting your monitor.
Use your monitor calibrator to measure the room’s ambient light when creating your profile.
Use gamma 2.2. Not all calibrators do this, but it’s a good feature if you’re working in places with drastically changing light conditions.
Set the brightness at 80-100 cd/m2. Monitor calibrators that measure your room’s ambient light likely will suggest a brightness value based on the amount of available light in the room.
Use white point D65. This is generally the go-to white point, but if you’re certain of the color temperature that’s lighting your prints, adjust accordingly. Using the monitor’s “native” white is also a good choice if your colorimeter doesn’t give you the option of choosing a custom white point.

After calibrating your monitor, which may look weird to you at first because you’re seeing colors displayed in a new way, use the same monitor calibrator to verify your calibration so you know you’ve created a good profile. Different colorimeters do this differently, so refer to your manual to get instructions on how to verify the quality of your profile.

Integrating ICC Print Profiles
Calibrating your monitor is essential, but I can say with confidence that consistency isn’t possible without the use of the ICC Print Profile. While monitor calibrators characterize your monitor, printing profiles characterize your printer, your ink and the papers, canvas or other media you’re running through your printer.

spectrophotometer
Figure 3: A spectrophotometer can be used to scan a target print to create a profile for a specific printer, ink and paper combination.

To create your own custom print profiles, you’ll need to invest in a spectrophotometer like the one shown in Figure 3. You’ll need to make a neutral target print by turning off all color management in your printer driver, and then you’ll need to scan all of the individual colors on the target. And, yes, you’ll need to do this for every paper you use. It’s time-consuming to do this, which is why I suggested earlier that you don’t need to. If you want to, and like “geeking out” on such things, scan your target prints to your heart’s content, but in the spirit of keeping your life easier, let me suggest a couple of alternatives.

The easiest, most affordable solution is simply to use the printer profiles supplied by your paper’s manufacturer—they’re free. I don’t know of any paper manufacturers today that don’t make and offer ICC profiles for the media they sell. They offer profiles for all popular photo printer models from Canon and Epson, and most from HP. Simply go to the manufacturer’s website and look for “ICC profiles,” or Google the name of the paper you’re using followed by ICC profiles (e.g., Canson Infinity Rag ICC profiles).

You also can use a service to create a custom profile for you. I think this a great way to go. It’s not free, like using the manufacturers’ profiles, but they’re customized to your specific printer and thus usually will provide you with a more accurate profile to work with. CHROMiX, Digital Technology Group and IT Supplies are a few companies that offer services for creating custom profiles. The good news is that they’re not that expensive, starting at around $30.

As you print files through Photoshop, Lightroom or another program, your image will need to be converted to the printing profile before you hit “Print”. In the next article in this series, I’ll go into more step-by-step explanations of the print process, but before that, Lightroom, Photoshop or another program needs to be able to find the profile that we’ve downloaded or has been given to us. It’s simply a matter of placing the profile in the correct folder. Below is a set of directions, or paths, where you should place your ICC profiles, depending on what computer platform or operating system you’re using.

For Mac OS X, place profiles in Library > ColorSync > Profiles, from your home directory

For Windows Vista or later, go to Control Panel > Color Management > All Profiles > Add

For Windows 2000, the correct location is C: > WINNT > System32 > spool > drivers > color

Now that we have some foundation in the theory and practice for creating consistency with digital printing, the next step is to start doing it. So, I humbly ask that you stay tuned to the next issue to learn more. Believe it or not, there’s a bit more to know in addition to putting the right profile in the right folder. I’ll provide a step-by-step workflow illustrating a print workflow through Lightroom. Until then, begin by calibrating your devices, and get them ready to jump into good color management practices.

Read Part 3: Workflow of this article series.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.

2 Comments

    Bradley’s second installment is interesting and informative but…
    His comment that ICC profiles for different papers has a huge exception. Epson produces profiles for their (very nice) papers…for their printers but they emphatically do not produce them for Canon printers (I wonder why?). Likewise Canon produces profiles for their papers and include links to after market papers…but not Epson papers.

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