Once again I'm writing about that Apollo-Soyuz photograph that's part of last week's TOP print offering and was the subject of my column, "Nobody Cares How Hard You Worked." Indeed, I had to work quite hard to get this photo to look exactly the way I wanted, but who cares? That's my business and my problem. But why I wound up working that hard turns out to be most curious, and has raised a puzzle for which our best minds (well, me, Oren Grad, and Dave Polaschek) have no answer.
Intrigued? I hope so. Me, I'm gobsmacked.
Although I've been offering this photograph as a small digital print for a half dozen years, taking it up to 17x22" meant reworking it substantially. Of import was the rendering of the floodlight beams. In a small print, they are only something of an accent. They're what make the photograph unusual, but the eye doesn't spend a lot of time lingering on them; they're a framing device for the rocket.
In a large print, the aesthetic balance shifts considerably; one really notices the beams. And, well, truth is they were never rendered that well in the small prints. The tonality was harsh; the color and luminance changes abrupt. They didn't have the delicacy you'd expect of floodlight beams. but it worked fine in a small print. In the large print, I needed to get that delicacy or it just wasn't going to work.
No problem; moving shadow detail is routine. A little tweaking of a curves adjustment layer, a little playing around with a hue/saturation layer, some masking to limit the effects to the areas I wanted. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except this time it didn't work. I spent two days and generated over two dozen test prints on my Epson 3880, using myriad adjustment layers of all sorts, trying to wrestle those dim blue beams into being well-behaved. No matter what I did, I never got results very far from figure 1, which is a scan of one of my test prints. What was truly bizarre is that on the monitor everything looked fine. Nice smooth gradients where I wanted them. In the prints, it was harsh and ugly. Now, I know better than most that WYSIWYG ["what you see is what you get" —Ed.] is a lie. The monitor doesn't look like the print. But it's usually some reasonable approximation.
This wasn't even close. I was getting harsh print transitions such as if the colors were going out of gamut, but the gamut warnings were all saying it was fine. Be that as it may, the prints just wouldn't look anything like what was on the screen, and I couldn't figure out how to fake the values and colors to make the print look good.
After two days I gave up, set that photograph aside, and went to work on one of the others. Came back to it in two days and thought to myself, "Well, maybe there is a 'hole' in my profile." The thing about custom profiles is that they can't fix everything perfectly, and they emphasize fixing some colors better than others. Furthermore, printers will often have a sour spot in their color rendition somewhere down deep in the shadows where you won't usually notice. The Epson 2200, for example, was really bad about deep forest greens. After I got a well-made custom profile for it, it behaved beautifully.
Maybe the 3880 had a weak spot in the deep blues that I hadn't noticed before. I have the tools to deal with that; not only can I generate custom profiles, but I can hand the profiler specific photographs and tell it to make sure that the dominant colors in those photographs get extra special attention. And that's what I did.
The test print I ran out with my new, customized profile looked a bit different—but it didn't look any better! Okay, maybe my profiling system is broken. Let's try printing out the photograph using some of the Epson canned profiles that came with the printer.
They, too, looked a little different. And they were still all very wrong in fundamentally the same way.
At this point I'm starting to wonder if I might not have some kind of weird printer problem. When all the profiles print out bad in roughly the same way, no matter the source, that says it ain't the profiles. Let's get as much extraneous stuff out of the loop as possible and see what's going on. I turned off color management in Photoshop printing, telling it to let the printer manage the color. Then I turned off ColorSync in the Epson printer control panel and told it to use "Epson Color Controls" instead. That kept Mac OS from assigning a profile. I told the printer to use AdobeRGB color and let it loose. Now I'd get to see exactly what was wrong, unmassaged by custom profiles or Photoshop.
The print looked fabulous (figure 2). I got gorgeous, smooth, delicate gradients in the floodlight beams that looked just like what I was seeing on my monitor.
What the %$#@!!!
I have never, ever before in my life seen a situation where the standard, unmanaged printer driver did a better job of rendering tone and color than a good profiled workflow. Not even a little better, to boot. It was spectacularly better.
That's when I e-mailed Dave and Oren. I made a test file available to Oren, who also owns an Epson 3880 printer. He ran a couple of quick prints out, using one of his profiles and printer-managed color. He got essentially the same result I did. The printer made a good print, the profile made a lousy one. That was doubly important. First, it proved I wasn't making some stupid "is it plugged in" mistake (I still do that on occasion). Second, I'm running Mac OS and Oren is running Windows, so our printing chains have absolutely nothing in common; all the code is different. If this is a bug in how profiles get handled, or in Photoshop, the OS or the rendering engines, it's exactly the same bug in both platforms. That's beyond unlikely.
We're stumped. The colors aren't close to being out of gamut. Eight-bit versus 16-bit printing makes no difference. The OS doesn't make any difference. The actual profile doesn't make any difference. What does make a difference is letting the printer and printer driver have their own head and go whichever way they want to.
We have no idea why this works.
Put on your thinking caps. It's a fine mystery.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.