Photographer’s Corner: How to Achieve Consistency with Prints

December 9th, 2013

When it comes to printing, we all want the best. We want our images to come out sharp, snazzy, with great color or tonal range, and just as we saw them on our monitor, right? However, as some of us have realized, there is always the potential for images to not come out in printed form as we expected (sad trombone). So, why does this happen, and what can we do to get printed products that more closely match the images on our monitor?

Continuing our dialogue on the importance of color management and monitor calibration, I would like to introduce another topic that is incredibly important for achieving consistent results: soft proofing.

Soft proofing allows you the opportunity to view your image through the filter of the profile that was created for a specific product’s surface. A profile is a mathematically defined map of color (color space) that can be reproduced through any particular device. Because it is not yet possible to reproduce all the colors that can be seen on your monitor, especially if you photograph in larger color spaces such as ProPhoto, soft proofing allows you to actually see what colors can be printed on that product.

This means that you will be able to have a more realistic expectation for how your image will appear on a given product and make important adjustments to your file before it is even uploaded to the lab. Sound like a miracle? We think so, and miracles happen all the time in the world of color management.  

Soft proofing is only one piece in the large world of color management. In order to have accurate results with this step, it would be best to consider the following three points:

1) First, in case you had your headphones on and missed the announcement, it’s really important to calibrate your monitor. To keep extremely consistent results, I recommend calibrating your monitor on a regular basis. On older monitors, colors are more likely to drift quickly (meaning they will morph into a different color) and you may want to consider calibrating your monitor at least once a week.

2) Second, it is important to be aware of your work space and prepare an environment that works well for accurate color viewing and correction. For example, a consistent light source is best so that you do not have to recalibrate every time the light changes. If you have the luxury of working in a room without windows, consider lighting your space with daylight temperature bulbs. I recommend SoLux bulbs, which were created precisely for this purpose. (My former boss and I swoon when hearing the word SoLux).

When preparing your lighting configuration in your workspace, be sure to avoid shining any light directly on your monitor. When testing the luminosity of the space, if you find that your light sources are still emitting too much light during calibration, you can purchase grids to diffuse the light and also purchase a monitor hood to keep light from shining directly on the monitor.  

3) Third, it is best to be mindful about the colors found in your environment. For example, that beautiful print of a sunset probably should not be hung right behind you where you are working. Why? Because the reflections of these colors in the monitor can affect how you perceive the colors in your images. You might also consider wearing neutral colors while sitting in front of your monitor for the very same reason.

In order to soft proof your files, you will need two things — and I am not talking about a bottle opener and a case of Sam Adams. First, you will need the profile (defined map of printable color) that was created specifically for the product you are going to have your images printed on. These are called ICC profiles. ICC stands for International Color Consortium. This council was formed in 1993 to help standardize how we view and print color consistently across many different devices.

Zenfolio works with several labs that have custom profiles created for specific products, including: the ICC profile for metal prints with Ivoke; a fotoflot profile; and print profiles for One Vision Imaging, Mpix, MpixPro and Nulab. You can download these from their partner pages or from our Help guide.

Second, you will need software that enables you to install ICC profiles for proofing. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop Creative Suite or Lightroom will allow you to do this. Unfortunately, this feature is not available in Photoshop Elements. However, Windows users can download a plugin called Elements+ that allows you some ability to soft proof in Elements. (Download this here)

After you download a profile to your computer, you will need to install it and then load it into your editing software. Step-by-step directions that explain how to install your profile onto a PC or Mac, and then load it into Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop CS, can be found here. Directions on how to load your profile with the Elements+ plugin can be found here.

After you have loaded your profile, you might see quite a shift in color when you soft proof your image. This is because the profile itself was created to show the colors that can be reproduced in printed form for that product. Colors that are not represented in the profile fall out of range, or out of gamut, and it is the rendering intent that determines how those new reproducible colors will be found in the software.

There are no rules to follow for what changes should be made. Sometimes edits are not necessary and the color looks great, but other times there are decisions that have to be made. Ultimately, this is a subjective process, and only you know how you would like your images to look.  

If you find that you need more help learning how to make specific changes to your images, there are many Photoshop and Lightroom gurus out there who teach exactly this. For example, Julieanne Kost is a Lightroom guru, and you can check out a video tutorial she made about soft proofing here.

You can also check out’s blog. It posts a lot of interesting topics regarding color management and hosts seminars in different areas around the U.S. It also has great deals on calibration devices.

Rendering intents are important because they determine what to do with renegade colors. Instead of going on strike or having a meltdown, the printer can happily continue with its printing duties because the software is able to communicate to the printer what colors should be printed.

There are two primary rendering intents used for photographic images: perceptual and relative colorimetric. Most often, the rendering intent is determined when the profile is created, and this is why it’s important to use the suggested rendering intent (if provided by the lab) when soft proofing.

If the perceptual rendering intent sees a color that is out of gamut, it will compress the entire gamut of the profile in the image to fit inside the printer profile’s gamut. This means that other colors that are not out of gamut may also shift in the process.

Relative colorimetric, on the other hand, does not shift any colors that can be reproduced in gamut; however, colors that are outside of gamut will be pulled to the nearest point on the edge of the profile and this color will be printed instead. Please note, if you are using relative colorimetric, it is necessary to have black point compensation turned on.

It is always exciting to receive the package with your final order, and you may wonder how to tell if the changes you made while soft proofing were effective.

Please remember that the comparison between the file for soft proofing and the final product are not going to be exactly the same because they are being viewed with different light sources. The printed object is going to reflect light and the colors in the print, while your monitor is going to be emitting light through the image. This can create two different perceptions of color; however, you can still get a pretty good idea of whether they are close.   

When you are viewing your printed product, also keep in mind that the color of light you are viewing it under is going to affect how you perceive the color. If you view your print under a SoLux bulb or outside in direct sunlight (the most neutral color of light possible) and then look at the image on your monitor, you can experience a more accurate perception of color. When you compare the two, you should be able to tell whether the colors are similar in hue and value and if it is close enough for you to feel like your soft-proofing endeavor was an initial success.

Sometimes they do not look the same, and this is good information for you to have. For example, if you notice anything consistent about how the profile treats a specific aspect of the print (i.e., the overall value shifts slightly darker), you may want to double-check the brightness level of your calibrated monitor, and if this is correct, consider making a slight shift with your files to brighten them up for future prints. Knowing this information can help you prepare for the success of future orders.

Simply put, all devices have different ranges of possible color representation. Because it is not always possible to reproduce the exact colors you see on your monitor, with soft proofing you will be able to better anticipate what you will see on your printed product and make controlled decisions ahead of time with your files so that you can achieve your desired results. In the end, even if your customers don’t notice these details, you can, and you’ll feel more confident about the images you are sending out into the world.  

X-rite color management equipment and tutorials:

Color management equipment, tutorials, and blogs:

SoLux lighting resources:

Laura Hall not only helps Zenfolio users with their websites, she is also a product specialist and photographer with a strong color management and digital photography background. Before migrating to California to join the Zenfolio team, she helped to implement color management systems for digital photography programs, wrote educational and technical materials and provided consultation services on color management and printing. To see some of her current photography projects in the works, please visit: