[Before we get started, a brief aside: My Minolta DiMAGE Multi Pro AF-5000 scanner has died and is in need of electronics servicing. Precision Camera no longer works on this model. If you know of someone in the U.S. servicing this scanner, would you please drop me an e-mail at email@example.com? Thanks! —Ctein]
This is the next-to-last (I think) of my columns on getting started in digital printing. Mike asked me if I would do some articles geared toward the folks just getting into it, and I agreed that was a good idea. The intended audience is those who haven't done any serious digital printing but would like to. In other words, this is the introductory stuff (and, to pre-answer the question I know I'll be asked again, no, there is not going to be a series on advanced printing). It doesn't matter if you have wet darkroom experience or not. If you don't have digital printing experience, this is for you.
In the first part of this series I told you about all the things you shouldn't be taking into consideration when getting a printer. In the second part I told you about what you should. This time I'm going to talk about color management. Do not run away in fear (usually a justifiable reaction). I'm going to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible.
First, let's talk about the monitor. Monitors cannot display tones and colors the same way they look in a print. It's only an approximation. Serious professionals (like me) use very expensive monitors, and we profile and color-manage them to make them look as much like the print is possible. They still don't look exactly like the print. For someone starting out, I don't think that level of display refinement is important. What you really will need to do is to learn how the monitor will look different from the print, and that just takes practice and experience.
I do recommend that you run the "monitor calibration" utility, if one is included with your operating system. This will produce a generally correct tone, contrast, and color balance. It's nowhere as sophisticated and accurate as full color management, but it's more than good enough at this stage.
Now, about your printer. While I don't think color-managing the monitor is especially important, I very strongly advise it for your printer.* You remember me recommending that you find a printer and paper combination you like and sticking with it for the time being? This is part of the reason why (the other part being that you could spend your whole life just testing different papers out and never getting around to making a print you liked).
A printer does not automatically produce good color. All it knows how to do a shoot droplets of ink at a sheet of paper. The thing that tells the printer what combination of ink droplets it needs to squirt to produce a particular color is called a printer profile. A profile is basically a conversion table that tells the printer, "Hey, that RGB value of so-and-so in the image file? You need to squirt precisely these amounts of each of these inks to match it." Without a profile, a printer will produce prints much like the top one in the illustration below. With a profile, you get the bottom print.
All printers today come with canned profiles that get installed when you install the printer drivers. Those profiles vary in quality from pretty good to downright awful. On average, they score maybe a B. You can kick that up to an A. You will get markedly better color out of your printer—even the cheapest printer—by getting a profile made for it for the particular ink/paper combination you're printing with. Personally, my favorite source for profiles is Cathy's Profiles [Note: You might want to hold off on this. We're looking into it. —Ed.]. One of her excellent profiles runs $35.
Don't think because you bought a cheap, low-end printer, the profile is less important. It's actually likely to be more important; canned profiles for low-end printers are rarely very good. It's quite astonishing the improvement a good profile will make for low-end printers; it can turn them into very decent photographic printers.
To get a profile made, you print out a small set of 8.5x11" prints that contain color patch patterns, using files you download from Cathy's website. You send the prints off to her, she analyzes them, and she e-mails you back your profiles. You install those profiles on your computer. I think in the current flavors of both Windows and Mac OS, that is as simple as right-clicking on the profile file and selecting "install," but I won't swear to it.
Using profiles isn't that difficult, but I can't give you specific instructions on how to do it; sorry about that. It's different for every flavor of OS and every image processing program. So which exact buttons you have to push and which settings you have to set how? You'll have to research that for yourself.
It's worth it, believe you me.
*(Regular readers may remember me writing about some vexatious problems I had with getting a good print that turned out to be solved by not using full color management. That was an extreme exception to the rule; for every photograph I've printed that was made worse by proper printer color management, I have printed hundreds that were made markedly better.)
Ctein's regular weekly column on TOP appears on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured [partial] Comment by yunfat: "I agree with everything said here, but would like to add [something]...If you are getting good prints, don't mess with anything, it's not worth it, and you may never get back those 'good prints' again, because you started messing with stuff." (Read the rest of yunfat's comment in the Comments section —Ed.)
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "Printing has driven me nuts for a while. I don't mean getting museum quality or fashion industry colour reproduction—I mean getting a simple proof print that doesn't annoy the hell out of me.
"I own a slightly upmarket dye inkjet, an 8.5x11, 6-ink thing. Using the profiles that came with the printer and the papers from that same manufacturer, and after tracking down on the web which to use with which (because the manufacturer's documentation does not make that clear), I could not get prints that even looked remotely right. Worst for me was muddy greens.
"Then I found this print profiler utility that came with my monitor profiler; it was just sitting there on the CD. It's based on visual comparison. That is, you generate a profile based on their base files, make a test print, look at it, adjust the profile, print again, and so on, until satisfied or totally annoyed. I tried this a few times in the past two years and always got totally annoyed.
"Then two days ago, I figured out that the software has a bug, and so the test prints were meaningless. I had to get out of that utility and print from Aperture to see actual changes from tweaking the profile. Cost me a lot of paper and ink, but I can now makes prints that don't annoy me. Greens are greens.
"So, the canned profiles from the manufacturer were beyond bad, and the print profile utility combined with the driver had a bug so bad it made it unusable.
"In my previous life, I made my living writing software. What we put up with from the software we buy today is beyond belief. In no other domain do we tolerate this low level of quality control. Twenty-five years ago, I would have been fired for producing product this bad."
Featured Comment by Edward Webb: "One of the main problems with colour management for printing, in my experience, has been software and operating system updates, which play havoc with settings used to print profile calibration prints, and with print settings generally. After years of frustration, I bought an old computer (for £50) which is connected to my printer, and is never connected to the internet and never updated. I use it just for printing, and never change the workflow or the settings. I do all my retouching on a newer, faster, regularly updated computer. I have had no profile problems for two years now. My prints come out of the printer looking just like the images displayed on my calibrated screen on my main work computer. When it comes to colour management, sometimes old but stable technology is a hundred times better than new and constantly changing technology."