In the first installment of this article I discussed some of the advantages that, as a Mac user, you receive from having ColorSync on your machine (see "Improving Your Mac's Colour" in TidBITS-687). The color profiles that come with your printer are often quite good, but are really intended only for use with the manufacturer's own inks and papers. For best results the profile must be matched to each ink/paper/printer combination you use. How do you acquire these custom profiles? You can pay a professional to generate profiles for you, or you can generate your own, as I did recently with a product called PrintFIX. What follows may seem complex, but don't forget that, once created, custom profiles can benefit an iPhoto user just as much as a pro photographer.
Where Do Printer Profiles Come From? The profile for any particular ink/paper combination is specific to an individual printer. If you print out a test image containing many known colours and then measure the results, you can build up a translation table between what you want and what you printed (part of the profile). To build an accurate profile you need lots of coloured patches and a highly accurate means of measuring them. There are specialists who can make profiles for you, such as Pixl.
Accurate hardware for colour measurement is not cheap, and profile building requires skill and expertise. If you are planning to make lots of prints with a particular printer/ink/paper combination, it's worthwhile to look at having a professional profile made. They'll send you a target file (or files) containing lots of coloured test patches. After you print and return the results, they'll build your custom profile and send it back to you for use with your printing setup.
PrintFIX: Do It Yourself Profiles -- As a photographer and teacher, however, I was looking for a cheaper way of profiling that I could also use to demonstrate some of the principles of colour management to my students. A number of solutions are available, but most cost more than I was willing to pay. Instead, I tested out ColorVision's $350 PrintFIX printer profiling system. It is a combination of software and a small USB-based scanner that scans test print patches that you've printed on your target printer with a your chosen ink and paper. It works as a plug-in from within Photoshop or Photoshop Elements (the pair of which I'll refer to as Photoshop for brevity).
ColorVision lists currently supported printers - generally higher end Epson color inkjets - on their Web site (check the Requirements tab in the page linked above). Beware - if your printer is not supported, the PrintFIX solution won't work! Fortunately there is a form on the ColorVision Web site where you can suggest models for them to support.
Using the PrintFIX plug-in, you select and print one of the supplied target images, which contains 729 tiny colour patches. After the print has dried, you run it through the PrintFIX scanner to create a scanned image in Photoshop of how the printer reproduced the 729 different colours. To build your profile, the software compares this image to what it knows should have been produced.
To illustrate this process, consider what happens with one individual colour patch. The original target color (it's what we are aiming for - hence the term "target") in our example is a particular bright red. The printer lays down what it believes are the appropriate inks on the paper you've chosen, creating a reddish patch on the paper. PrintFIX compares the color value from the scan with the values it expects to find from that patch to arrive at one sample of how the printer represents the colours it is given. Replicating this process for each of the 729 color patches provides the information for the software to make a profile.
After the PrintFIX software has done its job, it invites you to name your new profile. You may be producing several prints and profiles to refine the accuracy of the devices, so give the profile a meaningful name. Then, quit and restart Photoshop so it recognizes your new profile. If you like, you can use the ColorSync Utility (detailed in last week's article) to view your new profile. It will probably appear as a somewhat different shape when compared with the manufacturer's profiles, partly due to the fact that it shows the range of colours that your printer/ink/paper combination can actually represent, as opposed to the manufacturer's predictions.
The Results -- PrintFIX includes a convenient test image for you to test your profile. At this stage it's best to use one like this rather than a photo of your own, since a lot of work has gone into making this particular test image extremely accurate. The test image is akin to a complex version of the old TV test card; it has objects and people on it to provide a range of tones and colours that will highlight any deficiencies in your printer. A copy of the royalty-free test image (a 630K download) is available at the link below if you want to see how well your current printer handles it.
Using an Epson Stylus Photo 1290S printer, I compared the same print on Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper using first the Epson PGPP profile and then my custom PrintFIX profile. I also compared two versions of the same print on a generic matte photo paper using the Epson Photo paper profile and another custom PrintFIX profile.
Overall, both PrintFIX profiles were better than the Epson profiles. The saturation of colors was excellent, with yellows in particular being much better than the Epson profiles. The PrintFIX results weren't perfect, though, looking slightly too green in the highlights and a little light, compared to the image on my calibrated monitor and how I thought the picture should look. The deficiencies were minor though, and by going back to my scanned target image I was able to make minor adjustments to the PrintFIX software's profile generation settings to clean up the profile. (For more results, with pictures, visit the page at my Web site linked below.)
PrintFIX Conclusions -- I was happy with most of my custom profiles after a minimal amount of tweaking. To achieve the best print results with third party inks and papers you need a custom profile, and PrintFIX didn't let me down. I tested several generic papers and got noticeably better results than using any of the profiles from the printer manufacturers. I will be using it as part of my photography teaching, where being able to make and use a profile should help explain some aspects of colour management, which is one of the harder concepts for students to grasp when moving to digital photography.
I can see the PrintFIX as a useful resource for photo clubs, enabling people to try out profiling on their own printers. It would also be perfect for testing new printer/ink/paper combinations for short print runs, where the expense of creating a custom professional profile is not justified.
One downside is that black and white printing can be somewhat hit-and-miss. Creating good black and white profiles (neutral greys) requires extremely precise measurement with accurate equipment, which ColorVision freely acknowledges is beyond the capabilities of PrintFIX. You might get a good greyscale, but then again you might not. Since much of my photography is black and white, I have another printer set aside for black and white, using specialized inks.
If accuracy is all-important and you will be producing large numbers of prints on the same printer with the same ink and paper, you can't beat buying a good profile from a reputable profile maker.
Through 30-Sep-03, ColorVision is bundling a copy of its DoctorPRO software with the PrintFIX package. DoctorPRO offers considerably more advanced adjustment of profiles, but requires a much greater level of Photoshop expertise and understanding of colour management. (See the extended PrintFIX coverage on my site for more details about DoctorPRO.)
Getting Your Colour Fix -- Despite the fact that you can pay hundreds of dollars for a custom profile built by a professional, profile building is not an arcane guild secret. Thanks to PrintFIX, it's possible to create very good profiles with a do-it-yourself approach. Certainly, any potential purchaser should have realistic expectations and be aware of the product's limitations, but it is reassuring to see that ColorVision offers a money-back guarantee. So, if you're not happy with the colour of the photos you're printing, I'd encourage you to learn a little more about the world of colour management (try these Web sites below) and see if you can use the PrintFIX to create your own custom profiles.
[Keith Cooper is a photographer and long time Mac consultant. He also teaches photography and digital imaging to adult classes. More photography and Mac information can be found at his Web site.]