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How to use printer profiles for color fidelity

Lesa Snider, | May 23, 2011
Lesa Snider gives us the lowdown on printer profiles and how to use them for accurate color printing.

Getting your prints to match what you see on your monitor is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when dealing with digital art or photography. This article explains how you can use printer- and paper-specific instructions—called profiles—to achieve more accurate results.

The first step, however, is to understand the different ways in which color is produced by monitors and printers. Once you understand that, the whole “color-matching” problem starts to make a lot more sense.


How monitors and printers work

A monitor’s surface is made from glass (or other transparent material) and, depending on the type, produces colors with phosphors, LCD elements, or other light-emitting technology. Printers, on the other hand, use a combination of opaque paper, reflected light, and CMYK ink (short for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Newer printers designed for fine art prints can also use additional colors like light cyan, light magenta, several varieties of black, and so on.

Epson Stylus Photo R3000

Given these two completely different approaches for creating color, it’s a miracle that any images on your monitor look like the ones you print. And because there are a slew of monitors and printers on the market—each using different printing technologies—your art will look different simply because of the monitor or printer you’re using at that moment. Even changing the paper in your printer makes a big difference in how designs, artwork, or photos will print.

Therefore, the only way to achieve consistent printing results is to know which printer your art is headed for, which color mode that printer wants your art to be in, what range of colors that printer can reproduce on paper, and which paper you’re using. Whew!

Once you get that information, you can communicate it to the program you’re printing with. This article describes how you can make that happen in programs such as iPhoto, GraphicConverter, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and Photoshop CS5.


Understanding color gamuts and profiles

In most cases, your painting or image starts life in RGB color mode (short for red, green, and blue) and eventually ends up being converted to some version of CMYK when it’s printed (by the printer itself or manually by you in a program like GraphicConverter, Photoshop Elements, or Photoshop). How do those two color modes differ? By the range of colors they can reproduce, called a color gamut.

For example, an RGB monitor can reproduce one range of colors and a CMYK printer can reproduce another (and no printer on the planet can produce a color range as wide as your eyes can see). While the color ranges of monitors and printers usually overlap, they’re rarely identical. Your printer’s color gamut depends on the specific combination of printing technologies you’re using, including the following:


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