Monday, January 12, 2009

Soft Proofing

Anyone who has printed on matte photo papers has probably experienced disappointment in the quality of the print compared to the image appearing on the monitor. It is made worse when the monitor itself has not been properly calibrated. Calibrating your monitor is critical to any sensible printing workflow. Otherwise, you will end up making multiple prints in order to achieve the intended result, i.e., a print that matches the characteristics of the monitor image.

The purpose of soft proofing is to convert the monitor image into an image that most closely matches the print image by taking into account the specific characteristics of the paper being used for the print. This installment of my blog sets forth a step-by-step process for achieving this result. I believe the following steps work regardless of operating system platform or make of printer, but just in case be aware that I use Windows XP and either an Epson 3800 or Epson 7880 printer in creating my printed images. Also be aware that this explanation is based upon using Adobe Photoshop CS3. While I believe it also works on previous versions of Photoshop, beginning with Photoshop 6, I want you to know that these steps are based upon that version of Photoshop and may require modifications to work in earlier versions or in CS4.

Step One: Make all adjustments that you intend to make to your image in Photoshop, including any output sharpening for the print media you intend to use.

Step Two: With no other images open except the one you intend to print, select Image>Duplicate Image. When the duplicate image comes up, select Window>Arrange>Tile Horizontally (or Tile Vertically, depending on orientation of image). Then make sure that you have selected the original image rather than the copy for performing the following steps. You will know if you have if the bar at the top of the image is highlighted rather than dimmed.

Step Three: Next, select View > Proof Setup > Custom. The Customize Proof Condition dialog will be displayed, allowing you to select the options for how the proof should be created. First, select the profile for the paper you’ll be using from the Device to Simulate drop-down box. If you have previously loaded the paper profiles into your version of Photoshop, they will all show up. Do not check the box for Preserve RGB Numbers. Next, select the Rendering Intent from the drop-down box. Normally, it will be Perceptual, but you should check with the paper manufacturer to first determine what is recommended. You are free to select one of the other rendering intents if you believe it provides more pleasing color. Just make sure you also change it in the print settings when you actually go to print the image. There are three remaining boxes in this dialogue box. They are Black Point Compensation, Simulate Paper Color and Simulate Black Ink. I recommend checking the Black Point Compensation box and the Simulate Paper Color (which automatically checks the Simulate Black Ink box). If you are using a matte paper stock, you will notice an immediate “dulling” of the original image. This is because the image is now simulating what the final printed image will look like. Click the Save button and assign a name to this proof condition that you have just created. I recommend a name that identifies the printer, the paper stock and the rendering intent, e.g., Epson 3800 Hahnemuhle Museum Etching Perceptual. That will make it easy to identify when you later want to soft proof another image with that same paper and rendering intent on that printer. Next time you use this soft proof combination, you can go straight to View>Proof Setup>Epson 3800 Hahnemuhle Museum Etching Perceptual because it will now be on the list of available soft proof setups.

Step Four: Now you need to make adjustments to your original image as necessary to have it match the look of the copy that should be right next to it on the screen. Generally, two adjustments at most are necessary to achieve this. First, select Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves, change the Mode to Luminosity, since you only want to affect the luminance and not the color of the image at this stage. When that dialogue opens, place a point at the very center of the starting curve so as to anchor the mid point of the curve. Then pull down on the curve near its lower end, but within the area of the histogram shown in the background of the curve area. Finally pull up the curve near its upper end, also within the area of the histogram. Basically, you are creating a traditional “S” curve that increases contrast. You will need to experiment to get the adjustment just right, including possibly moving the middle anchor point up or down, but you should be aided by having the copy of the image next to the original so that you see in real time what your changes to the curve layer are doing to the original. If, after completing this, the colors appear somewhat flat, select Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation and leave in the Normal Edit Mode since you do intend to affect color at this stage. In this dialogue box, select OK and then pull the Saturation slider to the right until the colors match. Do this in the Master Edit setting, rather than in individual color channels. With these two adjustments, you should be able to match the original image to the copy.

Step Five: Close the copy of the image without saving it.

Step Six: Select View>Proof Setup>Working CMYK. This is the default setting when you are done with soft proofing. You will notice that your original image is now much darker than before and may even appear unappealing. That is to be expected. Go ahead and print it without making any other adjustments. After you have printed the image, remove the two layers that you created to achieve the soft proofing or else give them names that identify them as soft proofing layers so that you don’t forget to remove them before you decide to print the image in the future on a different paper or with a different profile or a different printer.

That’s all there is to soft proofing. You should notice a significant improvement in the images that you print on matte papers and very little to no improvement when printing on glossy papers, primarily because the ink absorption in glossy papers is so much less than in matte papers.

Happy printing!

Next week: Gladding, McBean Terra Cotta Clay Factory-A Photographer's Dream

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