Desktop Printer Profiling

Desktop printers come with generic profiles loaded into the operating system along with the print drivers. If you want the maximum quality your printer can provide, you should create a custom profile that describes the color in your particular device.

Do I need a custom printer profile?
Who is managing the color?
Making and using a custom printer profile
Using a RIP
Use of profiles to make CMYK guide prints


Like monitors, printers come with generic profiles that are included in the print driver. Each resolution/quality/paper combination must include a profile that controls how the printer interprets the color information it is being fed. When you install your printer driver software, profiles are installed in your system for the various combinations of paper, quality and resolution. These are generic profiles that are optimized for the printer model, but not for your specific printer. If you want to have more exact control over the output of your printer, you can consider creating custom profiles for your machine.

Do I need a custom printer profile?

If the results you get from your printer are a good match for your profiled monitor, you may not need a custom profile. Our research shows that newer photo-optimized printers are shipping with very good profiles, and there does not seem to be much variation between specific devices. Of course, it's impossible to know how much better your results might be until you see for yourself on your machine. In addition to just providing a good match to your monitor, a custom profile may offer a slightly larger color gamut to work in, since the generic profile is choked back a bit to account for manufacturing variations. If your images tend to have bright and saturated colors, you might see a real difference between generic and custom profiles. If you want to use a paper not made by the manufacturer, you may be able to download a generic profile made by the paper manufacturer for your specific printer. These profiles can vary in quality. If you are not happy with the results, creating or buying a custom profile may be your solution.

Who is managing the color?

There are two approaches you can use when printing images from an application like Photoshop. You can chose to have the program manage the color, and you can choose to have the printer manage the color. When the printer – or, more accurately, the printer driver software – manages the color, your options are generally pretty limited. You can't use custom profiles, and you also generally can't select the rendering intent that determines how the color transformation is done.

Letting the application manage the color

You get much more control over color when Photoshop manages color than when it's done by the printer driver software. Not only can you choose which profile you want to use (including custom ones) but you can also choose rendering intent, black point compensation and more. Of course, this also means that it's generally more complicated and harder to understand than the printer software. Once again, your decision about how to approach this subject should be guided by your satisfaction with your current methods and your willingness to spend time improving the system.

Making and using a custom desktop printer profile

  • Purchase a profiling system such as the X-Rite ColorMunki or the X-rite i1 family of products.
  • Print a target file.
  • Measure color values with spectophotometer.
  • Some programs, such as the ColorMunki, require a second round of print and measure.
  • Profile is created.
  • Install the profile in the appropriate place for your operating system and application.
Figure 1 This video shows how to profile a printer.

Purchasing a custom profile

In addition to the do-it-yourself method, you can download and print a target and send it off for profiling by a service. A custom profile is emailed to you, which can then be installed on your computer in the appropriate place. A partial list of profiling service providers is available here.

How do I use a custom profile?

A custom profile is applied to the image in the print dialog, as shown in Figure 2.

Print dialog with custom profile

Figure 2 Here we see the print dialog with custom profile selected.

Note: It can take some trial and error to get your program set up to print properly when it is managed by the application. You need to make sure management by the printer driver software is turned off. Here's a link to a site that walks you through the whole setup process.

Using a RIP

There's one more way to control print color, and that is to use a specialized piece of software to control the entire process – a Raster Image Processor, or RIP. Typically, a RIP is a comparatively expensive piece of software that can control color and possibly some other aspects of printing such as size and placement of images on the page.

Due to the increased quality of the standard color drivers for modern printers, RIPs are most appropriate for production environments such as photo labs and by commercial printers and prepress service bureaus. RIP software usually ships with a good selection of printer/paper profile combinations. Since RIP software is also used to calibrate a printer through a process known as linearization, these shipping profiles are even more accurate than manufacturer's profiles for the standard printer driver. Even so, these profiles can be improved upon when you make custom profiles after the linearization step. As with the standard driver, a custom profile will be needed for new or unusual papers not supported by the RIP software.

Use of profiles to make CMYK guide prints

There is one instance where we highly recommend creating and using custom printer profiles, and that is for making CMYK guide prints. CMYK guide prints can be made by photographers to help communicate their color intent when files are delivered to a commercial printer. We cover this topic in more detail in the section on commercial printing.
Read more in Commercial Printing

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Last Updated September 22, 2015