Everyone knows what happens to technological pioneers. Unfortunately, sometimes even prudence and caution won't save you.
The last generation of operating systems seemed designed to exterminate the pioneers. People pointed fingers and laughed at how many problems Windows Vista caused its adopters, until Mac OS 10.5 (a.k.a. Leopard) came along, and demonstrated that a major code rollout, no matter which team you played for, was going to cause no end of grief. (Yes, yes, all you UNIX users can feel smug about how you roll your own bug fixes out of string and sealing wax and twigs. Goody for you. Now go away.)
My MacBook Pro came shortly before Leopard was released, and when I heard about all the compatibility issues, I just decided to hell with it and wait for the "bug fix" release. Kind of the way a lot of PC users avoided Windows Vista and stuck with XP. We stayed with Win 2K. Ironically, we're now running Windows Vista on our iMac, and you know it's great. I don't see what everyone was complaining about—all it needed was a full set of patches, a totally pristine environment to run in, and a state-of-the-art 2010 computer with performance equivalent to a dozen supercomputers. Runs smooth as glass!
But back to the Mac side. Snow Leopard came along, the operating system that would fix Leopard. Well, kiddies, guess what? They broke printing. Really, really badly. It's weird that this hasn't received more widespread publicity outside of the geek lists, because if you're someone who cares at all about color management and having your prints look right, you're pretty much screwed. In particular, if you're someone who happens to use Snow Leopard, Photoshop CS4, and a high-quality Epson printer, right now you are in hell. That hardly describes anyone except...oh...maybe most of the serious graphics professionals out there.
Can you tell I haven't been a happy camper? That's right, I knew you could.
The problem isn't limited to that combination of components, but it's certainly the most notorious one. What makes the matter especially pernicious is that there are several things that are screwy, so that fixing one problem doesn't get you out of Hell, it just moves you into a different level.
Problems and workarounds
Here's my understanding of what's going wrong. Now, I need to preface this by saying that I am not a color management guru. Normally if I write an article about something technical, you can take it to the bank. In this case, you should deposit the check but not spend any of it until it's cleared (stretching a metaphor well beyond the breaking point). I'm 90% certain of what I'm talking about, but that's about it.
In any case, I'm indebted to a friend and reader at whom I was whining last weekend in serious frustration over these problems. Turns out his job is closely tied to this whole mess (I had no idea, I was just emotionally imposing), and so he could describe to me in simple terms what was going wrong. That let me get part of the way out of hell.
First, Snow Leopard has a bug in it that screws up rendering if you're using a version 4 ICC profile (this bug appeared in MacOS 10.6.2; it didn't exist in 10.6.1). That's going to be any profile that's been generated recently. Color Utility will tell you information about your profiles. You might have some that go back to version 2. If you don't, you are hosed until the 10.6.3 release (we hope).
Doesn't matter what software you use, what printer you use, and what hoops you jump through: If you attempt to color manager output using a v.4 ICC profile, it is not going to work. The print is going to come out horribly wrong.
Some people figured that if they can generate new profiles from within the operating system, they can use those to undo the distortions the operating system is inducing (understand that such profiles would fail when the operating system gets fixed, but as a stopgap it's not an entirely bad idea). Now you run into the second problem, and this falls mostly on the heads of some printer manufacturers. If you're using a profiling system that expects you to print out targets using Photoshop, printing out targets that haven't been color managed has become somewhere between very difficult and impossible. (For those who haven't done this kind of thing, creating a profile requires printing out a test target that shows the printer's uncorrected output, so the software can figure out what it needs to correct). The reason for that is that printing with profiles entirely off under Mac Photoshop requires breaking some rules, and that's what the third-party software authors did. The rules changed with Snow Leopard—those who didn't pay attention (read: many of the printer driver authors) have left us with obsolete code running our printers.
As I said, there are some workarounds, sometimes. In fact, I do all my profiling using ColorMunki, which doesn't even go through Photoshop and can generate test targets just fine. But...
...The resulting profiles won't work! Why? Because, guess what, they are the latest v4 ICC profiles! Back to square one.
There's another gotcha, which may or may not be a bug, that needs mentioning. Your printer has a default profile assigned to it; ColorSync Utility can tell you what. If it's sRGB or no profile at all, you're going to have problems. Understand that this has nothing to do with whether you let Photoshop manage colors or let the printer manage colors; it's a system setting.
But that's just me
In my case, this story has a semi-happy ending. I checked all the profiles on my new iMac and, joy of joys, the profiles that Bill Atkinson provided me for my Epson 9800 printer are old enough that they are v2.x. I installed the latest Epson printer drivers, printed out my killer test targets under CS4, and they are 99.99% perfect. There's a truly minuscule difference between printing under Mac OS 10.4 and Mac OS 10.6, but it's pixel-peeping, it really is. My test targets ferret out things like that, and the differences are ones that will never be troublesome in a real print.
So, happy happy, joy joy, I at least have one professional printer that's running on my new iMac. After only four months!
I have no idea when I'll get the R2400 and R800 working properly. At least I can still run those off of my MacBook Pro, which, you may be sure, has not yet had its OS upgraded.
Ctein's regular weekly column is posted every Thursday morning.
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "I have no useful info to add to this, just a comment. I am just so sick and tired of the fact that the industries that make computers, screens, printers, cameras, scanners, and everything else, cannot get this colour matching thing easy and correct. If geeky experts want to live on the gamut fringe and worry about all sorts of exotic colour reproduction issues, well go ahead, the world needs people like you. But like 99% of the world, why can't I just buy some paper, and have some button to push on my printer that gets it 95% right. No museums want my prints yet, so why should I have to learn all this arcane detail just to put something on my wall, and that only after wasting untold dollars on ink and paper. They sell papers in boxes of 25 but all the trial and error sends the first 20 to the recycling bin.
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"The instant you move away from sRGB, it's a minefield. But even restricting your entire workflow to sRGB, there is still no guarantee that your printer will spit out something acceptable on the paper you buy, never mind matching what the calibrated screen showed. Then every month, there are new papers and printers on the market.
"It's fun taking pictures but everything else about the hobby sucks. Frequent software and hardware upgrades, colour matching incompatibilities everywhere. Some applications use corrected colours, other don't. It's a crock. I wrote software for 25 years before being put out to pasture by the industry and in the old days they fired people who made products this lousy. Why do we put up with it?
"There's a lot written how people don't print anymore; they only show pictures on screens. That might be because most prints are ugly and dull. Maybe we need a printshop in every neighbourhood staffed by professionals who we can pay to do our printing for us. But hey no, let's all waste hours, paper and ink trying to do it ourselves using equipment built to standards that no one on earth observes.
"If our banks and car companies worked this badly, we'd put them all out of business, wouldn't we?
"Sorry, rant over. I'll calm down now."