Color Management: Printing Without Pain, Part 1
One of the amazing benefits of the growth of digital photography over the last few years has been the incredible improvements in both quality and affordability of desktop inkjet printers. I can remember when I first started printing at home I was pleased if I could print something that would look as good as the Ilfochromes (Cibachromes) I had been getting made by a lab. These days though, inkjet prints have become the standard of quality and wet darkroom prints have been left in the dust. Indeed, most commercial labs have at least added digital services to their lineup or are in danger of going out of business.
While desktop inkjet printers use cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink (or more extended six- and seven-color versions), it may surprise some that they are in fact RGB devices, not CMYK. This is a good thing as the conversion to the actual inkset colors is handled much better by the dedicated printer driver than could be done without. As mentioned week before last, the range of colors that they are capable of though is much larger than the default sRGB color space used for monitor display from many applications including web browsers. In order to see what you are doing it is therefore important to use a wide-gamut working space in Photoshop such as Adobe RGB. Needless to say, it is also important that your monitor be profiled so you can rely on the colors you see being the actual colors in the image you are trying to print.
It is possible to buy a new printer and get good results right out of the box if you are lucky, but you will need to spend a bit of time setting things up in order to get the best results consistently. Once you've done this setup though, printing will be a breeze. Color Management can let you hit "print" and know that what comes out will look the way you expect it to. Every different printer will yield a somewhat different response to color. Not only that, simply changing to a different kind of paper (or ink) will result in differences in the final print if you don't account for that difference — which brings us to the subject of color management for printers.
You have probably had experience tweaking the various settings in the driver for your printer. The driver for most have far more settings than they really need to have. The good news is that you can ignore most of them. Even though they have an impressive array of settings, nearly all are too limited.
As an example, I'm going to talk about the driver for the Epson 2200, a printer that, at present, pretty much defines the state of the art for desktop quality. Your driver may vary somewhat, but is likely at least similar. I'm also going to address only the Windows driver, but the Mac driver is not that different. In "Basic" mode, it gives you choices such as "text," "photo," or "best photo." There's even a "PhotoEnhance" mode and it does allow you to select the type of paper you are using, but none of this integrates with the Color Management System on your computer. All of this predates the adoption of ICC-compliant color management on the desktop and isn't capable of giving you the best results possible on your printer.
If you go into "Advanced" mode, you now have access to sliders for cyan, magenta and yellow ink as well as brightness, contrast and other settings. Unfortunately, this isn't really what you want either as all of this is merely the advanced version of the driver that doesn't support color management.
To get to the part of the driver you actually want, you not only have to be in Advanced mode, but you also select ICM ("Image Color Management," the Windows flavor of color management). This then replaces the previously mentioned sliders with some new options. Since we will be applying our printer profile within Photoshop, doing it again here would result in doubly correcting your image making it come out wrong even when you have the right profile. Instead, choose the "no color adjustment" setting. Apart from the paper and quality options, this is all you will need to mess with. You can save your choices as a custom setting to be able to select them later.
Up to know, we've mainly looked at what not to do when printing. Next week we'll start to tackle the question of what you should do to get the most consistently accurate color in your prints.
Update 3/01/2005 - I have a lot more familiarity with Epson printers than with either Canon or HP, in large because Epson themselves have more familiarity with Color Management than do the other two. Both companies have recently started making efforts to catch up and they have been selling printers to photographers. Photographers who may well want to print the best output they can and are trying to learn about Color Management. Here are at least the basics of how to set things for each.
For Canon: On the Main tab, select "Manual" under "Color Adjustment" and click on "Set." Then in the "Manual Color Adjustment" window, uncheck "Enable ICM" and set all the Color Balance sliders and the Intensity slider to the center (zero) position. Set the "Print Type" dropdown list to "None." Also check that all the effects are turned off on the "Effects" tab.
For HP: On the "Paper/Quality" tab, set "Print Quality" to "Best" and click on the "hp Digital Photography" button. In the resulting Options window, turn off "Contrast Enhancement" and "Digital Flash". The other settings here don't matter as much. Turn off "Vivid Photo" on the "Effects" tab.
Remember to be sure you have the latest driver from your printer.