Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Print Darkness/Contrast/Tonality

Don't know about you, but for every time I have worried about print colour, I have worried 100 times more often about the brightness of print tones and even more. This was a problem with canned printer profiles, it remains a problem with home made profiles using my Color Munki - and although I don't have the $2000 to test fancier profiling equipment, I fully believe it will be a problem with the big guns too - after all that's what was used to make those profiles supplied by the printer and or paper manufacturers.

My 'standard' paper is Epson Enhanced Matte (Ultra super duper - or whatever they are calling it this week). it is so because it is easily available, not to stiff for stacking up multiple sheets in the feeder, has a good surface and behaves well. It even lets me pin up several prints in a stack on  my examining room walls and I frequently catch my patients checking out the latest images and what's underneath as well - and that's just fine.

Yes, glossy paper can look nicer, especially if there are a lot of dark tones in the image, but with modern inks even matte papers look darn nice and are a heck of a lot easier to look at without dealing with spurious reflections.

Behind glass, 90% of the difference between matte and glossy paper disappears anyway (and I'm not talking frosted glass here).

Today I had to make some prints for sale. Although enhanced matte looks fine, it is thin and tends to warp over time behind the matte and I prefer to use a proper art quality paper when I'm selling a print. I happened to be out of my usual Moab Entrada Bright White and found a box of Hahnemeule Photo Rag. I ran off a profile test on it (version 2 icc profile to keep my mac and snow leopard happy - Color Munki lets you default to version two type profiles in preferences).

I was careful to set color matching to epson from colorsynch and then turn off epson adjustments in printer settings and had no diff. making the profiles.

But wow, the prints were way off - not in colour - that looked spot on, but in contrast and overall darkness - way too much of both. I'd had no trouble with Entrada, no trouble with enhanced matte, and only a little trouble with Harman FBAL gloss but this was unuseable results.

I eventually approximated the right tones through use of a compicated curves layer, customized to each print - but this shouldn't be necessary.

So, how do problems like this happen?

1) the monitor is too bright - this is far and away the biggest problem for many people.

2) double profiling - somehow both photoshop and the printer are adjusting the colours, instead of the correct strategy of letting photoshop doing it - but I'd been careful about that (see above).

3) too bright a viewing light - you can buy proper viewing lights but they are typically at least twice as bright as room light which is just plain wrong, and besides, the light is usually the wrong colour. It isn't standard, or warm fluorescent bulb temp, nor north window. It often is closer to sunlight, which we go out of our way to keep our prints away from. It rather depends on whether you believe it is better to be consistent and always wrong or random and occasionally wrong. I happen to view my prints by fluoresent because the bulbs match my office where I do most of my print viewing anyway. When I used to sell prints at the farmers market, they were being seen by mercury vapour (which oddly didn't seem to hurt the images, but made cream paper look downright yellow).

5) using the wrong paper setting. When in the printer dialog box you go to printer settings and change from glossy to semi gloss to matte to fine art - what you are changing is the amount of ink that is laid down - some surfaces can use more ink than others. Overall, while this does affect the brightness of the print, there should not be a problem if the setting you used for making the profile matches the setting you use when making your real prints. Of coures, if you are using a canned profile, it is absolutely essential that you match your paper setting to the one used in making the profile - and paper manufacturers are not always very clear about what that should be - though it is better now than a few years ago when it didn't seem to occur to them to bother mentioning such a crucial piece of information - and you wondered why people started making their own profiles).

6) you are printing black and white and using the advanced black and white driver for your Epson printer - as this totally overrides your profiles, you might as well have not bothered. There's a good reason they offer light, medium, dark, darker and bloody damn dark - it's because you have no control over the tonality without using these settings.

and more)of course, if you haven't profiled your monitor, all this is moot and you are a lost cause.

Assuming you have not committed and of the above faux pas - then so far, the only practical solutions I have found are the following.

1) pick papers that behave well for you - the Hahnemeule didn't for me - not that it can't make beautiful prints, it can - but was far more work this morning than it needed to be. Your experience is likely to be entirely different - you MUST do your own testing - this could be the perfect paper for you. These are papers that when you run test images after profiling, require the least possible adjustments in brightness to get a good result.

2) take advantage of printer proofing in Photoshop (under the View menu) to see what you are goijng to get - with most papers it has been very helpful in predicting the final result.

3) no matter how good your profiles, how careful your procedures, how expensive your equipment, if you are fussy about your results, you will have to make multiple prints to get an image of the right brightness. The closer your profiling can get things right, the fewer 'test' (read throwaway) prints that you will have to make. I can generally get it right in two or three prints - ie. the third print is what I want - this of course after making hundreds of changes to an apparently good image on screen before I even get to the printing stage. Rarely I get it in one, occasionally it takes half a dozen prints to really get a print that matches what I have on screen - not because my equipment is bad - it isn't, but because I care about the results (read fussy, ok, very fussy).

It is possible to create a curve to make adjustments, but my experience is that no single curve works for all images on a single paper.

Remember that no one will ever care as much about our print quality as we ourselves do, both as an individual and as a group of photographers.

Typical customers can't even see the difference between warm and neutral papers, never mind the difference between ultrachrome and ultrachrome K3 and Ultrachrome Vivid. We sure know though.

I'll be interested in how others have solved the brightness and contrast issues.


chuck kimmerle said...

Despite the fact I cannot custom create a profile, I print all my work (primarily b/w) through Imageprint. Their "canned" profiles are very, very good and I get consistent quality even when switching between papers.

I do all my proofing on Epson Ultra Premium Presentation Paper Matte (Enhanced Matte was a better name) and all of my art prints on Photo Rag, and sometimes Entrada. For the most part they all look the same, although the two art papers have better shadow detail.

Getting away from the doldrums of custom profiles and printing adjustment layers allows me to work faster, without sacrificing one bit of quality.

Jeff Kohn said...

There's no reason you shouldn't be able to get great prints on Photo Rag from Canon/Epson/HP printers with a good profile. I have lots of experience with this paper on both Epson and Canon printers, and dark prints were never a problem.

Since you're no newbie, I'm sure it's not a problem with monitor brightness or inadequate light for print viewing. More likely it has to do with the targets you made the custom profile from. I'm a Windows guy so I don't know all the gory details, but apparently printing a clean profile target without it being molested by the printing pipeline is a non-trivial task on current versions of MacOS, thanks to Apple making things "easier" for users (lots of talk about this on Luminous Landscape).

If you still have access to a Windows PC, you might have better luck creating your profiles from there. One way to verify that it's a profile problem would be to do a test print using the canned profile from Hahnemuhle for your printer. It may not be a perfect color match; but if the result is better than with your custom profile without adjustment curves, you at least know it's a profiling issue.

Larry said...

Good to hear that someone of your experience typically has to print several test prints to get the contrast and tonality the way you like it. I thought I was the only one who couldn't get it right the first time even though I've used good printer profiles and a calibrated monitor.

Tim said...

What are your thoughts on halogen lighting? Apparently it has the highest CRI of any lightsource around. (I quite liked it when I had one on the desk here.)

I share your woes with custom-curves per image, right enough; my chosen paper is good ol' Ilford Classic Pearl, and I have a manufacturer's profile, but still need custom curves in PS to make it look decent.

What I don't understand is why per-image curves should be required; IME there's often the same tweaks required (reduce blue gamma, boost overall, slightly more red), at least as a starting point - so that should be encapsulated in a profile, no?

(Random aside: scan an Ektachrome or similar IT-8 slide; print it with your choice of curves tweaks; lay it on the snow in sunlight and take a photo on a dSLR. Play in ACR or similar setting the white-point off the zone-system grey gamma swatches, off the chart border, off the paper and off the snow. Lurid, it can be!)

cocasana09 said...

I print with an Epson 3800, from PS5, computer is a Mac. I had the same problem with many matte papers. BTW all the matte Hahnemulhes. I've tried as well to profile papers with Color Munki: same results as yours. Than I gave a try to one of Eric Chan's 3800 review suggestions and now my matte print match perfectly what I see o the screen. It sounds rather wired but give it a try, set: in PS's preview "PS manages color", profile: "srgb". In Epson's setting the right paper type and ABW to "neutral". That's it.