Printer calibration and profiling is the process of making the printed image match the image shown on a computer or laptop display. Printer calibration and profiling are critically important for all photographers working in a commercial environment.
It’s also important to note that your monitor screen must be calibrated; otherwise, printer calibration and profiling are pointless. If you want to know more about monitor calibration, please view my article here.
Photographers that print large photographs, detailed graphics, landscapes, portraits, food, products etc., probably need manual calibration regularly, as others can use a printer’s automatic calibration settings.
Calibrating a printer ensures that the inkjet cartridge nozzles and printer paper are aligned correctly. This process ensures that colours stay rich and clear and the finished result is of the highest quality for you and your customers.
Once you have completed the calibration of your printer, you need to create ICC profiles. These profiles are instructions from your image manipulation software to your printer, telling it what ink mixtures and densities to deposit on the paper surface to create a colour-correct replica of the image you see on your calibrated screen. Hence the term printer profiling.
Why is printer calibration necessary?
Photographers who print photographs in a commercial environment must calibrate their printers regularly by following the printer manufactures instructions.
Calibration is best described as the process of bringing a colour device (printer, scanner, monitor) into an optimal, quantifiable, repeatable state.
- Optimal: The best result obtained or obtainable under specific conditions.
- Quantifiable: Capable of being measured, which means it should be repeatable!
Printer calibration enables you to keep track of “device drift” (printer drift). Over time, your printer will suffer from device drift, even with consistent use of the same consumables (ink, toner, paper). We calibrate to make the printer behave consistently and return it to a repeatable state. This enables colour management to remain valid and accurate.
A poorly calibrated printer will harm your reputation. Therefore it’s essential to know how and when to calibrate.
When Should I Calibrate a Printer?
If you’re printing photographs, it’s important to remember that your monitor must be calibrated first before you calibrate your printer. Calibrating one without the other will only lead to frustration, poor results, and waste.
Leading printer manufacturers such as Xerox, HP, Epson, etc., recommend regular printer calibration once or twice a month for commercial photographers; however, you may need to do it daily depending on your usage, paper and ink.
With that said, there are few tell-tale signs that indicate when your printer needs to be calibrated:
- When lines appear slightly unclear and fuzzy in your printed artwork.
- If the printed images in areas with colour start or stop before they should.
- If you suspect ‘device drift’ is occurring between your printer and inks.
How Often Do I need to Re-Profile My Printer?
A profile is a snapshot of your device’s colour behaviour at a certain point in time. To get the best results, your device should be in a stable and repeatable state. In theory, as long as your device never changes, you should never need to re-profile. However, wear and tear on your device and environmental changes will cause colour shifts over time, and re-profiling is the best way to correct this problem.
- You will need a separate profile for each combination of printer, ink, paper and settings. Even two printers of the same make and model can print differently.
- Re-profile if you upgrade your operating system or change printer drivers.
- If you begin to see a change in your printer’s output, double-check your driver settings and test the print heads. If they are all fine, then re-profile.
Laser printers are challenging because their output can fluctuate dramatically based on temperature, humidity, paper type and volume of use. If your laser printer offers a calibration mechanism, use it frequently. You may need to do this every few hours in a high-volume or less environmentally controlled location.
- Because of their variable nature, X-rite recommends profiling, for example, when the toner is filled or replaced.
How Can I Make My Printer Colour Accurate?
- Check your eyesight. Keep in mind that if you have an eye prescription, failing to keep this up to date can affect your colour perception.
- Buy or use a decent monitor. There are some limitations to equipment at the cheaper end of the market that will directly impact your ability to predict print results accurately. Cheap low-end monitors might not reproduce colour accurately across the entire gamut, leading to apparent artefacts and colour-banding in dark areas. Therefore, it’s wise to invest in a decent high-end monitor.
- Calibrate your monitor. You can do this in many ways, but buying yourself one of the best monitor calibrator tools on the market is the easiest. Please read my article here for more information on screen calibration software.
- Optimise your workspace. Avoid unnecessary glare on the monitor, working in dark or overly bright conditions, and even the angle at which the screen is viewed can all affect colour perception, leading to unexpected results when work is printed. Ensure that you’re viewing your screen straight on at eye level too.
- Colour space. If you still have problems with your prints despite calibrating your screen and printer, the likely problem is the wrong colour space. Your computer likely has several different colour spaces. Almost every computer uses sRGB by default; installing any apps from Adobe will introduce the AdobeRGB colour space, and then you’ll have various CMYK colour profiles. You can save a lot of heartache by using the appropriate colour profile for your intended output device.
- Printer driver. A printer driver (or a print processor) is the software that converts the data into how a page should be formatted for printing (or previewing). Without the printer default being set correctly, the operating system cannot translate how the page should be formatted. Therefore you must use the correct printer driver for your printer.
Printer Profiling Tools
I highly recommend the X-Rite i1Publish Pro 3 tool for commercial and hobbyist photographers that print frequently.
Equipped with advanced technology, the i1Pro 3 delivers more accurate and reliable results and is two times faster than its predecessor. For designers, photographers, or prepress professionals who rely on exact colour throughout a digital workflow, the i1Publish Pro 3 is the must-have solution to profile and calibrate cameras, monitors, projectors, scanners, and both RGB and CMYK+ printers.
Printer calibration and profiling are crucial for commercial and hobbyist photographers that print and sell their work—as with any mechanical product with moving parts, calibrating a printer is essential in ensuring consistent accuracy.
In addition, to get accurate colours to print out, your printer needs to be profiled. Printer profiles, sometimes called ICC Profiles, require a combination of printer, paper and ink you use. As most people will only use one printer and the same ink, you need a profile for each type of paper you use.
It’s also important to note that calibrating and profiling are different. Calibrating a printer ensures that the inkjet cartridge nozzles and printer paper are aligned correctly.
Print profiling determines how colours are printed with a specific printer and paper. Combined with print profile software, this transforms the image from the colour space (range of colours) to the colour space for the printer and paper. Profiling your printer allows you to achieve a high degree of certainty that the colours in your printed image will match the colours you see on your monitor.
In my next article I will be talking about printer paper and what paper works best for commercial and hobbyist photographers.