Understanding and Using ICC Profiles for Color Management in Photographic Inkjet Printing

ICC List
Some of the ICC profiles in my own ColorSync library.

Puzzled on why the print color of that snow-covered field photograph isn’t what you expected?

Addled about which ICC profile to choose when printing your favorite image?

You’re not alone.

International Color Consortium profiles, the mathematical parameters used to match the color space of a digital device to an output device, such as an inkjet printer, can be very confusing for the novice photo printer. What’s more, they can be downright frustrating for the best of us.

But if you take the time to learn how to use ICC profiles in conjunction with your chosen printing paper, I’d be willing to wager that your images will be more vivid, more balanced, and more satisfying.


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Introduction

Color management, the umbrella of tasks that includes ICC profiles, is a very complex subject, and since this is an introductory article, it’s one I won’t explore fully (though that will be the topic for a forthcoming article in the next few months). After all, this is an article to help newcomers become acquainted with this area. Thus, my goal is to help you understand the basic reasons for using profiles, and how those choices can affect the resulting printed image.

My process for the article is as follows. First, I’ll explain the basics of what ICC profiles are, and how they work; second, I’ll discuss my preferred method of testing profile output. Finally, I’ll show you some results of one image printed on the same paper using four different profiles. As always, if you have questions or comments, please be respectful, and post them at the end of the article so that we might all learn from each other.

That said, let’s get started.

About Color Management and ICC Profiles

Color management is a very complex and diverse process, as both file handling, software, color gamuts, and printing hardware vary immensely. As I’ve written in some previous articles, ICC stands for International Color Consortium, a group including Microsoft, Kodak and Apple that met years ago to determine the methods for handling digital color handling.

Profiles are intended for the “output space,” or the final viewing realm for the image; that includes monitors and prints. Most people are familiar with profiles like sRGB (originally intended for CRT screens); fewer are acquainted with profiles like Adobe 1998 (intended for a wide range of RGB displays) or ProPhoto (also called ROMM RGB, it’s intended for a “perceptual intent reference medium reflection print” according to the ICC White Paper #17).

This should help:

Rendering Space (real life scene) > File Space (digital file, monitor output space) > Output Space (inkjet print, physical output space)

All of the above stages employ profiles that help translate colors to a capture device (“space”);  this means each time a profile is used to “map” the file and device’s set of available colors and dynamic range—called “gamut”—to the gamut of the output device.

Figure 01. The Adobe 1998 specification graph. Source: Creative Commons.
Figure 01. The Adobe 1998 specification graph. Source: Creative Commons.

Here’s an example. When we capture an image of our aunt’s 90th birthday, our digital camera’s sensor and the capture file format have a limited number of colors available to them, so the camera’s processor translates any out-of-gamut colors to ones that are in-gamut with a profile like sRGB or Adobe RGB (see Figure 01 for the Adobe RGB 1998 gamut map). This avoids “clipping,” or creating blocks of dark or light areas that have no detail. Then, when we open the file in Photoshop on our computer at home, the monitor’s available colors may be different than the file’s profile, so another translation occurs. And finally, when we output to our inkjet printer, we need another translation of the much wider monitor gamut to the lower dynamic range of the physical output space.

Yikes. Confusing and complicated, right?

Translation: ICC profiles are the answer to providing an expedient way of ensuring a pleasing rendering of colors from a digital file to a print.

Paper manufacturers develop these ICC profiles for each paper they produce, and usually provide these for download free of charge. Those profiles aid in that mapping of the digital color space of the user’s digital negative and the file handling software to the color space of the output device and selected media, such as an inkjet printer using matte paper. There’s a lot of other things that also play into making sure the output is accurate, such as rendering intent, but I’ll stick to ICC profiles for this article.

Basically (and I’m really simplifying here), the ICC defines a profile as a series of “look-up tables, matrices, and/or parametric curves” designed to define and translate the expected color values in any device. As I noted before, a good example of this is sRGB, the standard color space for the Web. By specifying the color space for a file, such as a JPEG image, we can reasonably predict what that image will look like on other displays (and with a calibrated monitor, even more accurately).

Don’t confuse “accurate” with “correct,” however. As the ICC notes, very little of what we see in our images are truly correct color renderings of the scene we saw, and in fact, there is considerable variation in rendering between camera brands. That’s more than we’ll discuss here, though, since right now we’re interested in printing.

Inkjet printing isn’t well-suited to sRGB in many cases, since it has a narrower color gamut than, say, Adobe RGB. In fact, on most digital cameras, you can specify Adobe RGB as the target color space, and as a result you’ll get better color depth. Get the picture? Selecting the right color space and color profile means you get a more satisfying image; while the entire color space workflow is too much to cover here, it should still give you a clear idea on why ICC profiles are so important.

Figure 01. ICC Profile Details.
Figure 01. ICC Profile Details.

Figure 01 shows a snippet of an ICC profile that has rendering intent highlighted. Note there’s a lot of variables in the profile; the great part about profiles is for most photographers, all they have to do is install them in their computer’s ColorSync library to reap the benefits.

 

 

 

Figure 02. The Mac OS X ColorSync folder with the enclosed Profiles folder expanded.
Figure 02. The Mac OS X ColorSync folder with the enclosed Profiles folder expanded.

Figure 02 shows a ColorSync folder with the enclosed Profiles folder expanded. Note the different sets of profiles, such as Hahnemühle and Moab. Each of the profiles aids in ensuring the file’s color space is mapped as best as possible to the characteristics of the output device (the printer) and the medium (the type of paper and ink).

Using ICC profiles is easy:

  1. Download the appropriate profile from the paper manufacturer.
  2. Drag the file with the .icc extension to your machine’s ColorSync folder.
  3. Select the profile when you print from Photoshop (see below).

What we do when printing in a program like Photoshop is to select which of those output spaces we’ll be using: our inkjet printer (that’s the importance of your printer driver) and a specific paper (the mate to the ICC profile we installed). In Figure 03, you can see a detail of the Photoshop printing dialog, showing the printer profile pull-down set to Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching paper (my preferred paper for the print I show in this article).

Figure 03. The Color Management section of Photoshop's Print Dialog.
Figure 03. The Color Management section of Photoshop’s Print Dialog.

By following this procedure, we increase the likelihood that we’ll get a satisfactory print. But it’s not a sure thing, since even the highly regimented profiles are still subject to that most fickle of judges at the end of the process: our own eyes. Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no mathematical system can truly predict how happy you’ll be with the print, and that can mean only one thing: We’ll need to “hard proof,” or make sample images of our photo using several different ICC profiles. That’s coming up.

So now that you’ve learned the basics of what ICC profiles do for color management, let’s look at the differences different profiles make in a single print.

 

 

Hard Proofing with ICC Profiles

My friend Bob Korn prints all my large images (over 24″ x 16″) for me. Considering he’s printed for people like Jay Maisel, Gregory Heisler and Richard Avedon, as well as for institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Whitney, the Metropolitan and others, I have great faith that he knows his stuff. He and I have a good deal of mutual admiration, some of which stems from just how picky we are when it comes to print quality. In that vein, we both follow one unbending rule: hard proof everything.

Hard proofing (actually printing the image on samples of varying media with different settings and profiles) is really the only way to know what you’re getting in the end, and it’s much easier to sacrifice a bit of ink and a 4″ x 6″ than a bucket of ink and a $7.00 sheet of 22″ x 17″ Hahnemühle Photo Rag. Plus, subtleties of printing, such as shadow detail, color balance, brightness, saturation and the like are easier to gauge when using proper proofing light, a loupe, and…our eyes.

So for this article, I printed my image “Tribute to Andrew Wyeth” as a 4″ x 6″ using my Epson Stylus Pro 3880, Red River’s Aurora Art White 250gsm as proofing paper, and Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching 350gsm to show how I prefer the finished print. All prints were shot on a copy stand with a Sony A7R, Canon FD 100mm macro lens, and white balanced to 4800 Kelvin. No other manipulations were employed to ensure proper comparison.

Here’s the process I used. I printed the same print on the same proofing paper, but used four different methods of color management:

  • Print 1: Proofed on Red River’s Aurora Art White 250gsm, with the Epson’s AccuPhoto HD2 controlling the color management (selecting Printer Manages Colors in Photoshop’s Color Management dialog)
  • Print 2: Proofed on Red River’s Aurora Art White 250gsm, with the recommended Red River ICC profile for the proofing paper
  • Print 3: Proofed on Red River’s Aurora Art White 250gsm, with the Epson UltraSmooth Matte ICC profile
  • Print 4: Proofed on Red River’s Aurora Art White 250gsm, with the Hahnemühle Museum Etching ICC profile
  • Print 5: Printed on  Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching 350gsm, with the Hahnemühle Museum Etching ICC profile

 

Let’s discuss the prints.

Print 1 lets the printer control the color management; while the colors pop and there is considerable contrast, the shadows lose considerable detail due to the dark printing. That can be adjusted in the Print Settings > Printer Settings > Advanced Color Settings Dialog (though for this article, I did not use any adjustments in order to provide proper comparison). Nonetheless, this print shows us that considerable tweaking (yep, that’s a technical term) would be needed to coax the proper quality out of the print color management.

Print 2 lets Photoshop control the color management by using the Red River Aurora Art White 250gsm ICC profile. Note the differences in contrast and shadows: we’ve found much more detail and lightness. The problem is that the highlights are now blown out, and even clipped in some areas. This, too, is not an ideal print.

Print 3 lets Photoshop control the color management by using the Epson Ultrasmooth Matte ICC profile. This result is similar to Print 1, only worse in the dark areas—frankly, it’s unusable—and tells us that the Ultrasmooth profile just doesn’t work for this instance (though with a different print, it might; never rule out a color management solution based on results from different reference prints).

Print 4 lets Photoshop control the color management by using Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching 350gsm ICC profile. This is by far the best of the four prints, with good subtlety in the shadows and highlights, as well as strong, vibrant colors. The lesson with this is that you should never be afraid to try different profiles intended for the same type of media (e.g., matte paper or fine art paper).

Print 5, the final reference print (from previous experience) lets Photoshop control the color management by using Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching 350gsm ICC profile, but it’s printed on the matching paper. Note the same nuances we see with Print 4, but here, they’re enhanced even more. Keep in mind that this file is mastered with Hahnemühle’s Museum Etching 350gsm and ICC profile in mind, since it’s the paper I prefer to use for museum prints of the image.

So what can we learn from this exercise? Keep reading.

Conclusions

It’s easy to see how much difference is made in a print by using different color management methods. The lesson here is to test, test, and test again, and to remember that the inkjet printing process is not aerospace engineering. It’s an art, enabled by technology.

Second, while the Epson AccuPhoto HD2 management method is tolerable, it needs adjustment. Moreover, in the ICC realm, only the Hahnemühle ICC profile provided acceptable proof results—on either type of paper. That just shows how inaccurate this process can be, despite all the color control tools available to us.

Also important is that you understand how variable this process can be as you work toward a master print. Don’t settle for the first print out of the gate, but rather examine the results from  several hard proofs. The nature of the image, the type of paper, the brand and model of printer, and even age of ink can play into the quality of results. But by testing and proofing, you’ll be able to get the print of which you’ve dreamt.

But most important is this: ICC profiles give you at least a greater level of control in this very nebulous process. And now, you’ve got more knowledge for ratcheting up the quality of your prints—and making better art.

And as always, I’ll leave you with this thought: I hope your next print, is your best print.

 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Please leave them below, and please, be respectful.

5 thoughts

    1. You’re welcome! I do try and test on 4″ x 6″ paper whenever I can, but there are some fine art papers I can’t run through my Epson’s sheet feeder. In those cases, I use Photoshop to position a 4″ x 6″ on a 9″ x 13″ paper in sequential positions (top left, top right, lower left, lower bottom), and then run the paper through separate times for each position. That allows me to test different settings on the same paper and compare them directly. I hope that helps!

      Best,

      B

  1. Hello. May be a dumb question, but here it goes: I can’t find any recommended .icc profile to use with the paper included in the Hahnemühle certificates of authenticity. Which one could you recommend for me? Thanks!

    1. Aldo,

      That’s a great question. Because the paper isn’t intended to be a superphoto-grade print surface, unlike, say, Museum Etching, I have found .ICC profiles aren’t really necessary for the certificates themselves. Thus, I turn off ColorSync and let my printer do the color calibration, and have had very satisfactory results.

      I hope that helps!

      Brett

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