Color management guide by Arnaud Frich

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Updated on March 20, 2018
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How to calibrate your photo printer and why ?

Just like screen calibration, photo printer calibration is mandatory. You will get a much better result than with generic downloaded ICC profiles on internet. Indeed, those profiles are suppose to fit a printer type : just impossible ! And unlike monitors, you have two different possibilities : do it yourself or have it done.

Key points if you are a beginner ...

Here are the key points to remember on printer calibration. The rest of this page will be dedicated to those who want to go into more details.

Just like monitors, your printer print, by default, defects. Yes, I know, it is sad ! You then have to calibrate it.

Printer calibration is even simplier than screen calibration.

Indeed, you are going to calibrate a printer/paper/ink set.

And this will never be done using a reference print : that is why. You would have to perform it for each print, because the driver of the printer does not know how to correct a dominant color on certain luminosity levels only. Now, those defects ARE NEVER LINEAR, you will have for instance, too much magneta in dark areas and missing green in highlights, and correction can only be applied by using only one slider, therefore this adjustment is impossible to achieve.

Only one solution, you will have to perform a calibration of your printer with a very good calibration kit, using a specific colorimeter : a spectrophotometre. First price for such kit starts arround $300 ...

No dispute possible between generic profiles (given by the printer or paper manufacturer) and a specific ICC profile done for certain printer/paper/ink set, specific profiles always win.

By the way, you also have the possibility to have your ICC profile done by someone else (from a distance). It is a lot cheaper and very efficient because the person (French) I recommend is having the best eqipment you can find on the market : i1 Photo Pro 2 from X-Rite.

Next key point : how to calibrate your printer with a kit ? suivre

Printer charaterizationHave you ever cursed against the colors of your prints ? I am so much amazed by the efficiency of my printer calibration, that I still do not understand how I could spend so much time and money in adjustments and test, before!!!

The printer calibration and the color workflow calibration, when understood and demystified, is so efficient that I can give you only one advice : calibrate, calibrate, calibrate ! As printing is the ultimate goal of a photographer, calibrate your printer for your colored and B&W prints. And if you do not wish to invest money in a good quality calibration kit - from $300.00 to $1,500.00 in January 2018- have it done. On the next page you will find a small list of companies that are able to generate high quality ICC profile for you, as created with the best device now available.



Why to calibrate your photo printer ?

A printer is projecting small Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink droplets - CMYK - on a specific sheet of paper. This one has to quickly absorb the ink without diffusing. Depending on the printer, you can choose the printing resolution - space between two droplets - which is also influencing calibration. This calibration will inform us on how the printer behaves with all this.

The only way to know how a printer prints colors is to print a reference file - based on a set of color patches - of which we know in advance the color coordinates (CIE XYZ), in other words the Lab color percieved by a human eye and to have them read by a spectrophotometer, sometimes remplaced by a calibrated scanner. The only step left will be to have the ICC profile software creator to compare the CMYK printed values to the Lab colors to generate the profile for this printer.


Left : with profile / right : without profile

I briefly remind you the interest in calibrating your printer : without calibration, a printer prints colors with its own characteristics, meaning with defects. The quality of the ink, of the paper... will highly influence the way colors will be printed and rendered. Even with the best printer, you have little chance for a neutral CMYK signal - for instance 51, 41, 41, 8 - to get a neutral grey on your print. The generic ICC profiles sold with the printer will not change anything even if since 2011 improvement have to be noticed and deliver better results (but not compare to calibration). Meanwhile, calibration has also made huge steps foreward ! On the top of this, unlike screens, we have thanks to the image displayed on our monitor a comparison element. If your monitor is calibrated, it will be easy to see if the print is correct or not.


Why are generic ICC profiles delivering average results ?

It may be tempting to download the generic ICC profiles that provide printer and/or papers manufacturers, but I would not recommend it because they are only approximate solution and are to be improved. If you happen to use one for a B&W print, you will understand and be convinced ...

In fact, they are made for your printer model but certainly not your serial number and it changes everything. No, the "right" solution is to do it yourself or to have it done by a professional.

The trap to avoid !

Différences entre deux profils ICCOf course, in real life everything is not so simple as all color reproduction devices do not do it in the same way due to their technical limits. In short: a printer may very well be able to reproduce a color your screen can not show and vice versa. In this case, you might think that your calibration did not work: "I do not have the same yellow saturated color on my print and on my screen!" or "My deep blue is not as deep on my print". Who is to blame? Is my calibration wrong in this case? Well, we will see that this is not so simple !


My advice !

When evaluating the color worflow once fully calibrated, you have to read between the lines to understand why certain colors look different between the screen and the printer and not automatically undermine its calibration, color management and equipment. Then you are just at the limit of your equipment and calibration possibilities, even with the most expensive hardware calibration !

However, it should be noted that the printer color space is so uneven that often, a given printer can print some colors out of range even for a large color space like Adobe RGB 98! We will therefore ask the printer to print an image visually close to the sensations felt in front of a scene, with much fewer opportunities than in nature. This is a real tour de force !

Know how to interpret a print compared to its calibrated display

It is very important to correctly "read" the differences between the colors of a print and the colors displayed on the monitor.

The first tip is to look all the colors of a print with many different colors, more or less saturated and be careful if ALL the colors really look different from the colors displayed on the screen or ONLY SOME OF THEM. If one or two colors only seem right but more or less saturated with respect to one displayed on the screen, then you are on the right way and only within the color reproduction limits of your system.


Difference between print and photo


Only the part highlighted in blue is different between the printed photo and the photo displayed on the screen. It is therefore not a calibration problem but a technical limitation. Monitor or printer - whatever the one concerned - can not display or print certain saturated colors.

Second tip : this difference should concern saturated colors, therefore close to the gamut limit.




How to calibrate your printer ?

Calibrating a printer - the whole process that is to say, calibration and characterization - is therefore to print a calibration target provided by the manufacturer of the calibration kit you bought or the one sent by the online provider and to identify each color to create an ICC profile. The process that is called calibration is in fact - we have seen that with the screen calibration - made of two distinct steps:

  • Calibration or gauging;
  • then charaterization .

During the first one the paper, the printer, the printing resolution are selected and the target is printed. It is only during the second phase, called characterization, that the printer characteristics are identified and the ICC profile created for a printer/paper/ink/resolution set. This characterization is ideally done using a specific colorimeter, a spectrophotometer.
A monitor requires only one profile, but here you may need to create more with your printer as many times as one of the parameters listed above will be changed, espacially when changing paper type.


Colorimetre or spectrophotometre ?

A display calibration sensor is called a colorimeter and a printer calibration sensor is called a spectrophotometer. There are two examples of colorimeters that do both but it is less appropriate than two specialized tools.

Spectrocolorimeter Datacolor


Why not calibrating a printer with the use of a print?

For a very simple reason : the color defects of a printer, as indeed any color reproduction device, are never linear. What does that mean ? Simply that if you see a slightly magenta dominant in your grey, this dominant color will not be the same on ALL levels of grey. You can very well see a dark grey magenta dominant in between levels 25 and 50, for example, and rather green in the light grey. But then how to correct non-linear dominant ? Well with the color correction menu of your your printer driver it is impossible because it only offers you a linear correction, as shown in the figure below. If you move the cursor to correct a magenta green cast, you will perform the adjustment equally on all levels.


Le menu du driver d'impression d'une imprimante
Epson printer driver to manually correct colors when not using an ICC profile.


The only possible way would be to edit a custom curve by color layer in Photoshop ! It is hard work and... performed automatically by a calibration kit and its spectrophotometer ! Then why bothering yourself ?


What about B&W prints ?

Basically, calibrating a printer is done once and for all : for colored and B&W prints. The purpose of calibration is to neutralize the dominant colors, all of them. There is therefore no specific calibration to do for B&W printing.

My personnal website

P.S. it is true that some manufacturers of custom ICC profile as Christophe Métairie (French photographer and printer calibration service) offer specific ICC profiles for B&W printing. I note that this is in fact optimized variants more or less neutral, warm or cold of a color profile. This is obviously very interesting because it is difficult to do, when you do not know how to do it on your own. Corrections are then included in the ICC profile and there is nothing more to do but to choose it when printing.
The reputation of Christophe Métairie is no more to be done in terms of quality of custom profiles. For the last 10 years, he has been doing this job and knows all the papers on the market !


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

Epson inks and photo paper.Calibrating a printer with a dedicated calibration kit is now within the reach of everyone, if you agree to pay between $300 and $1,600.

Even without any particular expertise, you will get a good ICC profiles quality, at least much better than generic profiles. That said, we must recognize that generic profiles made also significant progress and for printing your holiday photos and that will clearly be enough.

Now what if you are an amator or a professional photographer and give importance to the quality of your prints ?

We can say that in 2018, there are two approaches. Either create your own ICC profiles or have them created by a skilled provider.

Advantages/drawbacks of the two methods?

1 - Create your own ICC profiles for your printer :

a) Advantages

  • The pleasure of doing it yourself;
  • You can easily create as many ICC profiles you want with as many papers you want, whenever you want;
  • We have a better understanding of what we do and of what is happening : which is great from a teaching point of view;

b) Drawbacks

  • Price !
  • Calibrating a printer is more complex than a screen : this means that with the same calibration kit, calibration expert, who can create his or her own printing target, will provide you much better ICC profiles for your printer/paper set, especially if you print in B&W with your color ink.

2 - Have your printing ICC profile done by an online provider :

Print premium targetsa) Advantages

  • Price ! You have no calibration kit to buy and the price of an ICC profile is on average below €49.95.
  • For that price, you will also get a better profile than if you had created it yourself. Why ? Because some suppliers as Christophe Metairie created their own color target to improve, for example, the B&W calibration.
  • Print with the best existing profile !

b) Drawbacks

  • You will not get the fun of creating your own profile !
  • Calibrating a printer is more complex than a monitor : this means that with the same calibration kit, calibration expert, who can create his or her own printing target, will provide you much better ICC profiles for your printer/paper set, especially if you print in B&W with your color ink.

I suggest you have a look at two of my pages dedicated to printer calibration with a kit or a service provider.

Calibrate your printer : two possibilites

Calibrate with a printer calibration kit Suivre

Custom profiles - service providers Suivre

Remember !

Even more than a monitor, the printer calibration is essential.

But I would definitely recommend you to create your ICC profiles on your own or to have them made for YOUR printer/paper set. Generic profiles are only palliative solution.

It is not absolutely necessary to make ICC profiles for B&W. They can just improve the printer behavior. Christophe Metairie is well known for the quality of its B&W profiles.

No, it is not necessary to buy a calibration kit : for the price of a SpyderPRINT 5 (first price : $299) you will get 10 profiles from an experts like Christophe Metairie.

But the biggest advantage of having its own calibration kit is to be able to create immediately all profiles you want when choosing a paper for example.

Calibrating a printer with a spectrophotometer is even easier to realize that a monitor calibration. No target values ! Just print color patches and have it read by the spectro !

This guide about color management dedicated to printer calibration continues with ...

Calibrate a printer on your own suivre
Calibrate a printer using a distance provider suivre

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Summary > Printer calibration



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