Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Basic Color Management For Photographers - Part III

PART III - Printer Profiling

In Part II we discussed monitor profiling and noted that it was the most important part of a color managed workflow. Today, I would like to discuss another type of profiling…….printer profiling.

Remember how, when profiling a monitor, the calibration and profiling device put together a ‘correction table’ so that colors were ‘tweaked’ before being displayed on the monitor to ensure that they appear correctly? Well, printer profiling is very similar. However, the monitor output only ends up in one one spot that counts, and that is going into our eyes and then on to our visual cortex. But, when printing, the printer output can end up on many different substrates. That is to say that we might want to print on several different types of paper, and each paper type handles and ‘displays’ the printer ink differently. The same ink will look a bit different on each type of paper it is applied to. What this means is that we actually need a different profile (or correction table) for every different paper or canvas that we want to print on. Yeah:

Image by Robin Higgins

Image by Robin Higgins

But fret not, because while I am going to tell you how it’s all done, I am also going to tell you that for basic color management you need not worry too much about it. Why? Because you can easily get these profiles made for you at no cost. I’ll tell you how in just a bit.

So how are printers ‘profiled’ if each different paper needs its own profile? Here’s how:

First, color management in the printer is completely disabled in the printer driver (more on this later, but we have to start somewhere) and a standardized set of color patches are printed out on the specific paper you would like to use. The number of patches to print can be adjusted in the profiling device software, depending on how accurate you want the profile to be, and can range from many hundreds to many thousands of small patches. Despite printing without color management in the printer driver, you still need to pick a media type in the driver in order for the printer to print. One can experiment with what to choose in order to get the best amount of ink put down (for example, matte papers take more ink than glossy papers) and the best color differentiations (like I said, don’t worry too much about this). The patch printout looks something like this:

Color Calibration Patches

Color Calibration Patches

Now, once the patches are completely dry, you take your hardware profiling device and ‘read’ the colors by scanning each patch. Yes, it’s tedious work, though there are expensive devices that can automate it for you. So, the device software now ‘knows’ what actual color the printer outputted onto the paper, and it also knows what each color patch should have been outputted as. Just like with monitor calibration, these color patches are not random….they are very specific colors and the software knows how they ‘should’ look. Just like with monitor calibration, the software can then generate an icc profile that contains look up correction tables. The profile says ‘oh yes when color x is printed on this specific paper it makes it look a bit too yellow, so when the user tries to print that color I am going to give instructions to the printer to put down less yellow in just the right amount so that the color looks right’. And it does the same for the colors of all those patches while also extrapolating the corrections for the colors that are ‘between’ the patches.

Now I have to drop something on you here….the device used to measure the color patches on paper is not the same $200 one that is used for monitor calibration. No indeed. This device is one that costs well over $1000!!

Image by Robin Higgins

Image by Robin Higgins

Remember, up above, I told you not to worry about all this? The reason you don’t have to worry about it is that paper manufacturers do this profiling for you for free. Well, maybe not for you personally, but for consumers as a whole. Why??? Because they want you to make great prints with their papers……so that you buy more paper. For almost every paper manufacturer you can go to their website and download, for free, a printer (also called paper) profile for your specific brand and model of printer to use with their specific papers.

For example, here is a screen shot of various printer/paper profiles I could download for my brand printer if I wanted to print on one of the smooth matte papers made by Hahnemuhle.


These manufacturer generated profiles also come with instructions on how to install them into the correct operating system folders so that the printer knows where to look for them (but you already know the folder location if you read Part II of this series) and, importantly, they also tell you what media setting to use in the printer driver to get optimal results (the printer driver only has media settings for its own brand of paper, so the third party paper company has already figured out what setting works best for their paper and used it to make the test color patches). Now you need to replicate what the paper manufacturer did by printing your photos on their paper with the same media settings they used to make the profile.

These profiles made by the paper manufacturers are really quite excellent, after all they want you to get great results. However, while they are generated from the same brand and model printer that you have (you chose it when you ordered up the profile download), they weren’t made from color patches printed by YOUR exact printer. Yes, you can get in as deep as you’d like. I am going to say that for the vast majority of people reading this, the paper manufacturer’s profiles are really darn close enough and the whole color management thing, while really good, is never perfect anyway. BUT, if you want a profile made for your specific printer, the one sitting in your office, you can either buy the over $1000 device or, alternatively, print out the test swatches on your printer and snail mail them to someone who makes custom profiles. They will do the profiling steps described in the beginning of this post. These custom profiles can be had, at varying quality, for anywhere from $30-$75 for each paper you want to print on.

So now you know what goes on behind the scenes in making printer/paper profiles and you know how to get and install them without having to spend the time and money to make them yourself. Aren’t you glad you read all the way through : )

So how does one use those profiles now that you have them installed? That will be the subject of the next post, which will be the final one in this series.

Comments or questions? Just click on comments link below and I will do my best to answer them.