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Calibration of a photo printer with a spectrophotometer


Calibration of a printer : why and how?

Published on April 15, 2015   |  Updated on October 31, 2019


As with the calibration of your monitor, the calibration of your printer is essential. You will get a much better result than with ICC profiles downloaded from the Internet or installed by default by the manufacturer. Indeed, these are supposed to correspond to a model/paper pair : impossible ! And contrarily to the screens, you have two possibilities: to do it yourself or to have it done by a professional for, and that's the good news, really not very expensive... or even free !


Have you ever complained about the colours of your inkjet prints? I am so amazed at the efficiency of the calibration of my printer that I still don't understand how I could have spent so much money and time on adjustment tests before!!!!

Calibrating the printer and graphic chain when color management is understood and demystified is so effective that I only have one piece of advice to give you : calibrate, calibrate, calibrate ! Since a print is the photographer's ultimate goal, move on to calibrating your printer for your color prints such as black and white. And if you don't want to invest in a quality calibration kit, so it's quite expensive today - count between $370 and $1700 at the middle of 2019 - think about getting it done. You will find a small list of companies that create ICC profiles for your printer of very high quality since made with the best tools of the moment on the next page. And note that the Permajet brand offers calibration of your printer for any user of its papers.

1 - Why calibrate your printer ?

2 - How to calibrate your printer ?




1 - Why calibrate your photo printer ?

A printer projects very fine droplets of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink - CMYK - onto a sheet of paper with very specific characteristics. It must absorb the ink quickly but without diffusing it so as not to give the impression of drooling. Some printers allow you to choose the print resolution - spacing between droplets - which also influences calibration. Its calibration will teach us how it works.

The only way to know how the printer prints the colors is to ask it to print a reference file - a set of colored patches - whose colorimetric coordinates (CIE XYZ) and therefore the L*a*b* color perceived by a standard eye are known in advance and to read them with a spectrophotometer, sometimes replaced by a flatbed scanner, itself calibrated. The ICC profile builder software will only have to compare the printed CMYK values / L*a*b* colors to create the profile of this printer.

I would therefore like to briefly remind you of the importance of calibrating a printer: without calibration, a printer prints the colours with its own characteristics and therefore with defects. The quality of inks, paper etc. will greatly influence the way colours are printed. Even with the best printer, there is very little chance that a neutral CMYK signal - for example 51, 41, 41, 8 - will produce a neutral grey on the printout. The generic ICC profile(s) sold with it will not change much, even if it has been an illusion since 2011, as there has also been significant progress in this area. But during this time, the calibration has also made the same progress ! Moreover, unlike screens, thanks to the image displayed on the screen, a comparison element is available. If the monitor is calibrated, it is easy to see if the print is correct or not.

Comparaison entre un vrai tirage et la photo d'origine après calibrage de l'imprimante
  Original file on the left - A print with ICC profile would have given a print very close to the original (neutral print as on the original) and with a dominant color without profile on the right.

Why are generic ICC profiles of medium quality ?

It can be tempting to download the generic ICC profiles provided by printer and/or paper manufacturers : don't expect a miracle as they are only approaching the solution and remain highly perfectible. Sometimes it is enough to use it by making a black and white print to convince yourself...


Profils ICC génériques pour imprimantes photo


Indeed, they are made for your printer model but not your serial number and that changes everything. The " right " solution is to do it yourself or have an ICC profile done for YOUR printer/paper pair. Seriously !


The trap to avoid ! 

Différences entre deux profils ICCObviously, in real life it is not all that simple because not all colour reproduction devices do it in the same way because of their technical limitations. In short : a printer may very well be able to reproduce a color that the display cannot show and vice-versa. In this case, you might think that your calibration did not work : "I don't have the same saturated yellow on my print as on my screen" or "My intense blue is not as dense on my print". Who to incriminate? Is my calibration really bad in these cases ? Well, we'll see that it's not that simple !

Important note!  When you evaluate your graphic chain once it has been fully calibrated, you must be able to read between the lines to understand why certain colors seem different between the screen and the printer and not automatically question its calibration, color management and hardware. You are then just at the limits of your equipment and the possibilities of calibration, even with the most expensive calibration equipment, especially because of the different gamut between your monitor and your paper !

However, it should be noted that the colorimetric space - the gamut - of the printers is so irregular that it often happens that towards a color, a given printer can print some out-of-range colors even for a large space like Adobe RGB ! We will therefore ask a printer to print an image close to the visual sensations we have experienced in front of a scene with infinitely fewer possibilities than in nature. It's quite a feat !

Be able to interpret any differences between a print run and its calibrated monitor

It is therefore very important to be able to correctly "read" the differences between the colors of a print and the colors displayed on the screen (even on a graphic chain calibrated around a wide gamut monitor).

The first tip is to take a good look at all the colors in a print with many different colors, more or less saturated and to be careful if ALL the colors seem really different from the colors displayed on the screen or ONLY CERTAIN. If only one or two colors seem correct but more or less saturated compared to the screen then you are on the right track and only within the color reproduction limits of your printer/paper system (due to a gamut difference).


Only the part highlighted in blue on the picture above) is different between the printed picture and the picture displayed on the screen. It is therefore not a calibration problem but rather technical limitations. The monitor or printer - whatever - does not know how to display or print some saturated colors.

Second tip: this difference must relate to saturated colours, meaning at the gamut limit.




How to calibrate a photo printer ?

The calibration of a printer - the entire process that is calibration and characterization - therefore consists of printing a calibration chart provided by the manufacturer of the calibration kit you purchased or the chart sent to you by the online provider and measuring its colors to create an ICC profile. The process called calibration is actually done - as we have seen with the monitors - in two very distinct parts :

  • Calibration itself;
  • and then characterization

During the first one we choose the paper, the printer, the printing fineness and we print the test pattern and it is only during the second phase, the characterization, that we record the characteristics of the printer and that we will create its ICC profile for a paper/ink/resolution pair. This characterization is ideally done using a special tool, a spectrophotometer, which is sometimes replaced by a cheaper and therefore a little less accurate version, a spectrophotometer.
As much as a monitor only requires one profile, as many times as you may have to create several profiles with your printer, as many times as one of the parameters mentioned above will be changed, I am thinking in particular of paper.

  A new paper = a new profile.

Vocabulary : spectrocolorimeter or spectrophotometer ?

A monitor calibration tool is called a colorimeter or to calibrate a printer you must use another instrument. There are two types of calibration devices for calibrating a printer: a spectrophotometer or a spectrocolorimeter. If a colorimeter cannot be used to calibrate only a printer, a spectrophotometer can be used for both, even if it is less suitable for calibrating monitors because it cannot usually measure very deep blacks. Finally, a spectrocolorimeter is less accurate at calibrating a printer than a spectrophotometer because it does not use the same technology.


Why can't we - and shouldn't we ! - calibrate a printer from a print run ?

For a very simple and important reason : the colorimetric defects of a printer, like any other color reproduction device, are never linear. What does that mean ? Quite simply that if you observe a slightly magenta dominant in your grays, this dominant will not be equal on ALL grayscales. You can very well observe a dominant magenta in the dark greys between levels 25 and 50 for example and rather green towards the very light greys. But then how can we correct these non-linear dominants? Well, with the color correction menu of your printer driver it is impossible because it only offers a precisely linear correction as shown in the figure below. If you move the magenta cursor to correct a green dominant, you will do so equally on all colors, all levels, of your photo.


Epson print driver for manual color correction when no ICC profile is used.


The only possible way would then be to edit a custom curve per color layer in Photoshop ! Laborious work if any and... automatically realized by a calibration kit and its spectrophotometer !!!!! Why bother then ?


What about the black and white printing ?

Basically, the calibration of a printer is done once and for all : for color and black and white. The purpose of calibration is to neutralize the dominant colors, all of them. There is therefore no specific calibration to be done for black and white printing.

Three important remarks :

It is true that some manufacturers of custom ICC profiles such as offer you specific ICC profiles for black and white printing. I note that these are in fact optimized variants of a color profile that are more or less neutral, cold or hot. It is obviously very interesting because it is complicated to do when you don't know how to do it yourself. The corrections are therefore integrated into the ICC profile and there is nothing more to do than to choose it at the time of printing.

It is worth noting that Christophe's reputation for quality custom profiles is well established. He's been doing this for over ten years and knows all the papers on the market !

 Calibration problems may persist if your printer does not have enough ink cartridges. For beautiful blacks and whites, you need at least 8 cartridges.
 The brand new i1Studio calibration kit (released at the end of 2017), based on the excellent Colormunki Photo spectrophotometer and i1Profiler software, has a black and white optimization function. In short, it's a great Colormunki Photo !


There are two ways to calibrate your printer today...

Choix du papier et des encres d'impressionCalibrating a printer with a dedicated kit is now within everyone's reach if they agree to pay the price: between $300 and $2,000. I personally use a lot the new i1Studio kit $439 to calibrate my Epson 7800 printer.

Note ! The new $439 i1Studio kit is based on the same spectrophotometer as the famous Colormunki Photo. So it's a "super" Colormunki Photo just a little more expensive.

Even without any particular know-how, you will obtain quality ICC profiles, much better than generic manufacturer profiles. That said, it must be admitted that generic profiles have also made great progress and that to print souvenir photos this will be clearly sufficient.

Now what if you are an amateur, professional photographer who values the quality of your prints ?

It can be said that in 2019, there are two approaches :

  • Either create your own ICC profiles,
  • or have them done remotely by a qualified service provider (paid or free).

Here are the advantages / disadvantages of both methods...

1 - Make your own ICC printing profiles :

a) Advantages 

  • The pleasure of doing it yourself;
  • You can easily create as many ICC profiles as you want, so with as many papers as you want,
  • Whenever you want, even on Sundays!;
  • We have a better understanding of what we are doing and what is happening : excellent from a pedagogical point of view;

b) Disadvantages

  • The price : minimum $370/$600 and it can go up to $1,900 !
  • Calibrating a printer is very simple but an expert can go even further with his own tools : this means that with the same calibration kit, a calibration expert who can create his own print patterns himself, will provide you with even better ICC profiles for your printer/paper pair, especially if you print in black and white, with your color inks.

2 - Have your ICC profiles printed remotely :

a) Advantages

  • The price! you have no calibration kit to buy and the price of ICC profiles is on average under $50 (between $20 and $50). It is sometimes even offered by the brand of paper you use - Permajet papers -.
  • For this price, you will also have a better profile - slightly - than if you had created it yourself; Why ? because some service providers like Christophe Métairie create their own charts to improve, for example, black and white calibration.
  • Print with the best profile available !

b) Disadvantages 

  • You don't have the pleasure of doing it yourself !
  • You have to be patient and not want to calibrate your new paper on a Saturday night ! (Allow three working days as the printed test targets must be sent by mail. This does not happen by SMS!)



To be remembered...

 Even more than for the display, the calibration of the printer is essential.

 But I strongly advise you to make or have made YOUR ICC profiles for YOUR printer and YOUR papers. Generic profiles are only a correct second best, no more.

 It is not necessary to create Black and White ICC profiles. They can only improve the printer's performance if you only print in Black and White. Christophe Métairie is also well known for his remotely customized black and white profiles.

 No, it is not necessary to buy a calibration kit : for the price of the SpyderPRINT 5 ($327 at first price) you will have 10 Expert profiles at Christophe Métairie ( or

 But the huge advantage of having your own calibration kit is that you can immediately create all the profiles you want, when choosing a paper for example.

 Calibrating a printer with a spectrophotometer is even easier than calibrating a display. No target values ! Just print the test chart and read it in the spectro !

  Follow my advice to calibrate or get your photo printer calibrated or calibrate it yourself with the great i1 Studio kit
Through these tips pages I will help you to properly calibrate your photo printer to get the "right" colors...
- Calibrating a photo printer ?
  - Why calibrate your photo printer ?
- How to calibrate your photo printer ?
- To be remembered...
- Self-calibrate your photo printer
- Get your printer calibrated

- How to calibrate your monitor?
- Best colorimeters buying guide
- Best monitors buying guide


Calibrate your monitor with the best
colorimeter: X-Rite i1Display Pro !

Read my full review...


Calibrate your photo printer with the
best value for money: X-Rite i1 Studio !

Read my full review...  










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