Will your prints match the next time you print them? Can you take the same file and obtain the same results using a different printer, ink, and paper? I can, and so can you.
For twenty years, I’ve been printing client photos, and my own, over and over again with a very exact match, using different printers including LightJet, Chromira, multiple generations of Epson printers, Canon Printers, and even Metal...and on dozens of different papers. It is still a little mind-blowing for me to realize that this is even possible; That I’ve been printmaking for that long, and with so many different processes.
Accuracy, control, and repeatability are what first made digital printing interesting to film photographers, long before there were viable DSLRs. For a photographer who sells prints, having the print they deliver match the one the client saw on the wall, regardless of size, was (and still is) a huge deal. With darkroom printing using an enlarger, this kind of matching was virtually impossible and caused many frustrations. My earliest clients were mostly photographers with galleries who needed to be able to deliver prints that matched on demand, at any time, and at any size. They moved to digital to make that a reality.
That requirement, to match the original print at any point in the future, makes how I set up my printer the most important step in my workflow. I absolutely need to print the file as accurately as possible so it will match the previous print. My pro clients can see the smallest differences in color, density, and contrast. They know their subjects, and their photos, inside and out. They immediately see if something is off. Some of them can even explain the scientific process that produces a certain shade of color in an animal’s feathers; or a geologic feature; or the ocean in a certain part of the world. Achieving this exacting level of color matching is one of the reasons they keep working with me, and drives every step of my process.
The key to this is color management; using ICC profiles to characterize a paper/printer/ink combination. With an accurate ICC profile, if you do all of the printing steps the same, you will enjoy the same result, time after time, even if you change printers or papers.
That’s why I take profiling very seriously. Every profile I use has been carefully tested by printing a test image, and comparing it to my library of previous test prints to see if they match. These test prints let me evaluate accuracy, but they also let me evaluate differences between printers, inks, and papers. Obviously, not all printers, papers, and inks can produce the same aesthetic feel, and the definition of “match” needs to include these factors. It also lets me see improvements to the printing process. When a manufacturer makes a blacker black ink, you can see it in the test prints, and see how it affects the image.
Matching also means that what I see on my printer looks like what I see on my $1,000 reference-grade monitor. Being able to make a very good screen-to-print match on the first print not only makes me efficient when working on client files, but it also lets me work more intuitively on my own photos, which I believe lets me bring more out of the process. It allows me to be more expressive because I’m not fighting the file, but can work with it fluently and easily.
How accurate do you need to be?
That’s something only you can answer. While very high accuracy is a vital part of my personal expression, and of my business printing for other photographers, a photographer printing for themselves has more leeway to say “good enough.” The public-at-large viewing your photographs are not trained to see the small differences in color and density that a photographer is. They don’t know what you saw in your mind’s eye when you clicked the shutter. They only know what they see on the print, and whether they like it or not.
Even if you don’t have the world’s best profile, you can make prints that “match” themselves as long as you use the exact same file, printer, paper, and settings. Of course, if you change any of those factors, then your prints will no longer match. When (not if) that happens, your only solution is to decide that the difference between how it printed before, and how it prints now, is acceptable...or go back and make new adjustments to make a better match.
My personal expectations, and those of my clients, don’t give me this kind of leeway. But when you are the one doing the printing, you set the expectation for how well your prints will match the next time you print them. Your bar is going to be set by your needs, expectations, and how well your eye is trained. When getting the prints you want becomes frustrating; when you’ve spend hours working on a photo in image processing software to make it look exactly the way you want it, only to have it print differently; then it’s time to learn to become more accurate.
But I encourage you to seek that high bar of accuracy even before you need it. The ability to see, and control, small differences in color and density will help you make better decisions when processing your photos, and make you a better photographer. (Plus, your prints will look the same 20 years from now!)
There is a big difference between good color and accurate color. Good color can be simply color that you like. If you like the prints coming off your printer, you can deem them “good” using just your opinion. There are definitely some circumstances where that is enough for a photographer...but the problem comes when you want to print the same file on a different paper, or a different printer. If you want prints to look the same when changing printers and papers, you need to have accurate color.
I define accurate color as being able to reproduce colors to a known standard. Accurate color requires testing; comparing prints from the device and/or paper you want to use, to a known, quality reference print.
My known reference prints are a pair of test sheets with several of my photographs on them that I know extremely well, from printing over many years on many devices and papers. The test sheets also include some color and gray charts, which are used as diagnostic tools, and for comparing one profile to another.
When I want to print on a new paper, I print my test sheets so I can visually compare them to known and approved reference prints I’ve made in the past. With an accurate ICC profile, it is possible to produce prints that are extremely accurate, and for all intents and purposes, the same as prints made on other devices and papers.
This precision in color is what I require before I approve a profile for production. The value of using this approval process has been proven to me, again and again over the years in my work as fine art printmaker. I’ve applied this process to approving dozens and dozens of profiles for different papers on fine art printing devices including inkjet printers, Chromiras, Lightjets, and even metal prints.
Creating my reference chart the first time was the hardest part. It required knowing what the photos should look like to a very high degree of precision, as well as being able to print it on several different papers and devices to validate that the master reference print was indeed accurate.
Time and time again in my teaching and workshops, I run into photographers who haven’t measured their prints against a known reference print, and don’t even have a known reference print. The easiest way for me to solve that is to offer approved and validated prints of my test sheet, and allowing photographers to print the same file on their printers, with their profiles, so they can compare their prints against my known and approved reference print.
I use two reference prints, one for color, and one for black-and-white. I’m offering copies of my reference prints for $30 for one, or $50 for both the color and black-and-white when ordered as a package. Each print has been printed on my Canon PRO-1000 printer, has been carefully checked against my master reference print, and signed by me as a mark that I’ve approved the color accuracy.
These prints are a valuable tool that will help you save time and frustration, as well as valuable paper and ink. They will help you gain confidence in your printing process, while showing you areas that need a little more work. And the prints themselves are pretty nice to look at, too!
This blog is for sharing my photography. Find my photo tips and tutorials at CraftingPhotographs.com.