ICC printer profiles: how does that work, exactly?

Many photographers know how to calibrate their displays so colors are reasonably accurate on-screen. Then, when we order prints from a place like BayPhoto or WHCC, they pretty much look like we expect. But recently I bought a printer so I could do some of my own, and this led me to “printer profiles”, which I then had to figure out.

To make your display accurate, you buy a calibration gizmo like a Datacolor Spyder and just follow the directions. The calibration software creates an ICC profile for your display and lets Windows know about it. Then you make sure your applications – like Photoshop Elements – are set to use “color management”, and it all just works. And you’re done, because you’re not doing the printing yourself.

But maybe at some point you get your own printer and some high quality paper, and want to print a photo, which you’ve put in a standard color space like sRGB. If you’re using paper that your printer’s driver knows all about – because it came from the same company that made the printer – you don’t have to do much. A Canon printer, on Canon photo paper, will do the best it can all on its own – you just select that paper in the driver options. The driver basically has the ICC profiles for those papers built in.

But I’d bought some super heavy matte paper from another supplier, so that paper will interact with Canon inks in ways Canon doesn’t know about, possibly causing color shifts. To fix that, the paper maker (Red River in this case) supplies ICC profiles for many combinations of their papers and popular printers. I download the one for “Polar Matte” and “Canon TS9120 Series”.

And then… I blanked. What exactly do I do with this file?

I have the file but I don’t know how to use it…

Fortunately, the Red River Paper web site had a good explanation. But here’s the elevator pitch:

A printer color profile is a recipe for cooking an image’s color information to get optimum results on a specific printer and paper. But who’s the chef and where’s the kitchen? The answer is that it can be done in two ways: either by the application that’s doing the printing (i.e. Photoshop) or by the printer driver itself. You can tell either one to use that printer profile and do the color adjustment. BUT, you only want one cook in the kitchen, so if you tell your application to do the color management for the print, you have to be sure the printer driver isn’t trying to do the same thing. Or vice versa.

To me it seemed much simpler, and clearer, to do it “upstairs” in the application from which I’m printing (Photoshop Elements in my case ). I didn’t see any advantage to doing it “downstairs” in the printer driver, which will be different for every printer.

The Red River site has all the details of exactly how to do this – for various applications and printer drivers . In a nutshell, you install the profile (in Windows, by right-clicking the file and selecting “install profile”). Then, in the application, you check some boxes and make dropdown selections in a couple of Options dialogs to tell it to use that profile . And finally, you go to the printer driver interface and tell it to not do any color management at all.

There is now exactly one chef in the color kitchen, working from the right recipe. Your prints should be as accurate as your printer can deliver on that paper. Be proud!

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